Building the Kuranda railway : history in pictures

One of the noblest characteristics of true greatness is modesty, but the people of Cairns are not altogether prepared to admire it when connected too intimately with so important an event as the opening of the second section of the Cairns-Herberton railway. The line was opened on Thursday last without any flourish of trumpets whatever, and the people may be excused if after waiting for years for the consummation of this important work they are disappointed that some little fuss was not made over it. It was hoped that a public holiday and excursion fares would [have] marked the event, which cannot fail to be regarded as an important epoch in the history of Cairns-if not of Queensland. Cairns Post 27 June 1891

Opened without fanfare, the section of railway line now known as the Kuranda Scenic Railway, was completed 125 years ago. This supremely difficult feat of engineering had been accomplished at considerable cost to the Queensland Government treasury (more than £1 million) and in the lives of workers. The railway climbing the rugged terrain of the Barron Gorge required construction of 15 tunnels, 55 bridges and more than 150 cuttings.  Hundreds of tons of rock and earth were excavated by men with shovels and wheelbarrows, aided by explosives. Some 32 men were killed in accidents during construction. That the line was completed at all is largely credited to the contractor John Robb, who together with the government engineers found a way to construct the railway despite the rugged and unstable terrain and the harsh tropical climate.

Men working on the construction of a tunnel on the Cairns railway, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland Neg: 67224

Men working on the construction of a tunnel on the Cairns railway

Mule team on the Cairns Railway, ca. 1891, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland Neg: 70179

Mule team on the Cairns Railway, ca. 1891

Nearly completed Stony Creek Falls Bridge Cairns District, 1890, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland Neg: 69624

Nearly completed Stony Creek Falls Bridge Cairns District

Railway workers standing at the entrance to railway tunnel Cairns, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland Neg: 69623

Railway workers standing at the entrance to railway tunnel Cairns

Construction of the Cairns - Kuranda railway line, ca. 1890, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland Neg: 201035

Construction of the Cairns – Kuranda railway line, ca. 1890

Construction of the Cairns Railway Cairns, 1890, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland Neg: 69626

Construction of the Stony Creek Bridge, 1890

Construction of the Middle Crossing railway bridge Kuranda, ca. 1890s, Cairns Libraries, Image number: cai00168

Construction of the Middle Crossing railway bridge Kuranda, ca. 1890s

Construction of tunnel 12 and adjacent bridge, Cairns Railway, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland Neg: 22621

Construction of tunnel 12 and adjacent bridge, Cairns Railway

Construction train crossing Bridge No. 11 on the Cairns Railway, Queensland, ca. 1891, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland Neg: 150511

Construction train crossing Bridge No. 11 on the Cairns Railway, Queensland, ca. 1891

Workers laying sleepers and lines during the construction of the Cairns Railway, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland Neg: 22620

Workers laying sleepers and lines during the construction of the Cairns Railway

Workers on the Cairns Railway, ca. 1890, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland Neg: 70272

Workers on the Cairns Railway, ca. 1890

Workers on the Cairns Railway stop to admire the view of the gorge and ranges, ca. 1890, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland Neg: 205175

Workers on the Cairns Railway stop to admire the view of the gorge and ranges, ca. 1890

Train and wagons going across a manmade embankment Cairns district, ca. 1895, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland Image number: APO-007-01-0018

Train and wagons going across a manmade embankment Cairns district, ca. 1895

Workers camp on the Cairns Railway during its construction, ca. 1887, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland Neg: 27405

Workers camp on the Cairns Railway during its construction, ca. 1887

The story of the construction of the railway can be read in Tracks of triumph : a tribute to the pioneers who built the famous Kuranda Scenic Railway by Alan Hudson

Simon Miller – Library Technician, State Library of Queensland