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 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. Negative number: 67224

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


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Just amazing the hard yakka the railway workers put in for the construction of this line. Hard times with hard work. The people of Cairns will always be grateful to those who risked there lives building a brighter future for a little city.

My great Grandfather was a Stone Mason from Ireland & he worked on the Construction. He & his family lived in a tent close by & that is where My Granddad was born. Thomas Cross is featured in the book.

My grandfather was also a Stonemason from Ireland he and my nanna lived in a tent closeby as well. She gave birth to two babies at the camp during construction.


Does anyone have the book relating to the building of the railroad that they would like to sell?