Fall and rise of Douglas
DEVELOPMENT in Port Douglas came to an abrupt halt when in 1885 the Government announced a railway track to be built from the mining towns to Cairns over Port Douglas, which meant the only way to get to Port Douglas was down the Bump Track or by sea and it was not until December 18, 1933, the Cook Highway between Cairns and Port Douglas was opened and traffic over the Bump road became restricted.
Meanwhile back in Mossman, settlers were still growing cane and trying to establish the industry and it was after repeated approaches the Government finally approved a loan to build a sugar mill on the Mossman river, a loan secured by a mortgage of farms to the Government.
Machinery for the mill was ordered from Scotland and shipped on the Westfield from Glasgow. The ship arrived off the Mossman River in 1896 but was unable to cross the bar, so had to anchor under the shelter of Low Wood island and tranship the tram rails and machinery to barges.
The mill was ready top operate by the middle of 1897 and started receiving the crushing cane on August 23, 1897.
The establishment of the sugar mill was most timely as 1896 was the year in which tick fever or redwater appeared in the cattle herds of the district.
Mortality was very high among the diary herds, so that this source of income to the farmers was practically wiped out.
Since grain and fodder sales teamsters had declined with the restriction of traffic over the Bump road, it was indeed fortunate that a market for the cane crops was now available.
In the early years of sugar milling the sugar was railed twice to a place called Thooler on the south bank of the Mossman River and transported by lighter to Port Douglas for transfer to the coastal shipping service.
In July 1899 the sugar milling company began running a rail passenger and freight service from Mossman to South Mossman. Subsequently the Douglas Divisional Board built a tramline from the mill terminus to Port Douglas.
This line was opened for passenger and freight service on August 1, 1900.
Sugar was transported from the mill to the port over this line until March 26, 1985. The last ship to load this sugar at Port Douglas was the sugar lighter Konanda, which sailed on April 1, 1958.
Daintree was outside the area that benefited from the sugar industry and settlers in this part of the territory had to fall back on other rural pursuits.
During the 1890s and 1900s a wide field of tropical crops was under experimentation at Kamerunga State Nursery.
Several crops that appeared to offer promise in these trials were coconut plantings undertaken on the coast near Mossman Heads and beyond Rocky Point.
Coffee was tried by several Daintree settlers and also Dr Val MacDowall had a rubber plantation right on the bank of the lower Daintree River.
Very early in the settling of the Daintree J.Shewan also set up the first sawmill.
Later accelerated clearing of land along the valley provided the opportunity for Messrs. Kilpatrick and Hughes to set up their sawmill on the river bank close to the head of navigable water.
And as the cleared land was grassed and stocked with cattle they set up a small butter factory adjoining the sawmill, utilising the one steam power plant for both operations.
Daintree township was developed around these commercial enterprises until it was closed after a shortage of labour and supplies during World War II.
Cattle fattening and stud farming have superseded this activity. Louis Fischer, a son of one of the original settlers Harry Fischer, pioneered the breeding of tropical cattle on the Daintree river by introduction a bull of Indian breed to produce cross-bred cattle more resistant to tick than the British breeds.
The blood line he produced has been introduced to many commercial cattle herds throughout the North with a resultant improvement in tick resistance.
The earliest transportation from the Daintree river was by sailing boat under Captain Billy Waterston to Port Douglas or Cairns.
This was superseded by Osborne Brothers motor boat service.
Round about 1930 road access was opened between Mossman and Daintree.
Rough and unreliable in early years it is not part of the Cook Highway.
One other area of the Douglas Shire was developed early.
This was the isolated northernmost coastal area beyond Cape Kimberley.
John Moffat of Irvinebank selected a large tract of approximately 4000 acres at Bailey’s Creek in the 1880s with the intention of developing tropical agriculture and probably sugar cane as his main objective.
The very isolated location mitigated against such development and he did little more than experiment with various tropical crops.
However records of the Irvinebank Company indicate that he did produce quite appreciable tonnages of maize that appears to have been used as horse feed for that company’s draught animals.
His selection of land in this area induced other settlement and much of the land in the valleys of Bailey and Hutchinson Creeks was taken up.
But most of it was left underveloped after John Moffat abandoned his selection.
In later years, when settlement again developed in the area wit the opening of Almason banana plantations in 1929, Moffat’s old selection was again brought under crop, together with some of the adjoining selections.
The plantations were blow away by the cyclone of 1934, and several of the settlers, notably the Mason brothers, moved on to Cape Tribulation.
The redevelopment of Baileys Creek land in 1929 brought to light the survival of some of John Moffat’s experimental rice plants.
Seeds from these were collected and grown successfully to produce rice for their own culinary use.
Subsequent to the last world war W.W Mason and his brother made field-scale plantings of the rive on the old Bailey’s Creek flats. An excellent crop was produced but its harvesting was impossible because protracted wet weather late in the season prevented harvesting machinery from operating on the land.
Port Douglas was still the principal town and headquarters of the Shire at the turn of the 20th century.
Residents of this part of the Shire had requested the Mossman Sugar Milling Company to extend its tramline beyond South Mossman to Port Douglas.
But the mill was not then in a position to spend money on rail extensions not needed for cane transport. Port Douglas people therefore approached the Douglas Shire to build the rail connection.
It petitioned the Government for a loan for the purposed and was granted $44,000 to build the line.
One August 1, 1900 the first passenger was taken on the newly completed line, the Mossman sugar mill providing its rolling stock and locomotive for the purpose.
The line joined on to the Mill’s line at South Mossman, and the Port end ran to a small wharf provided by the council.
During 1900 a single return service each day carried 23,062 passengers and the tram travelled 5807 miles.
In July 1901 the Shire Council provided a locomotive and two passenger cars for the service, which was then increased to two return services each day.
A depot and workshop was built at Port Douglas near the council office to house and provide maintenance for the rolling stock.
As time went by branch tramway services were installed to Mowbray and Cassowary, necessitating the acquisition of additional locomotives and rolling stock and so requiring an increase in the workshop facilities.
In 1904 the council obtained a loan from the Government to build a new wooden wharf at a more convenient site in the harbour for berthing of ships.
At the 1901 census the population of Port Douglas was given as 331, while the district population was 6000.
Although now no longer the port for the mining fields and tableland areas generally, Port Douglas was still the port for the Douglas Shire, and particularly for the sugar industry which was yearly increasing in volume and importance.
The Shire headquarters and the tramline workshops helped to maintain the work force in the town and this in turn supported the wide range of commercial enterprises.
But on February 10, 1911, a cyclone struck the town and inflicted some damage. A month later, on March 16, 1911, a severe cyclone came in from the north.
It completely destroyed many buildings and damaged most of the remainder.
With the wind came heavy rain of over 16 inches in 24 hours, which occasioned extensive loss of stocks, food and furnishings in the wind damaged buildings.
Two townspeople lost their lives in this cyclone.
Several business people who had suffered severely in the cyclone did not rebuild their premises, apparently believing the expenditure was unwarranted in a town that did not appear to have a secure future.
However the town did not collapse suddenly.
Government, local government and other institutions restored and maintained their facilities at Port Douglas after the disaster, but some others began to drift away.
By the 1920s the business centre of the region was definitely moving away from the waterfront port to the vicinity of the Mossman Sugar Mill.
The Port Douglas Post Office building was moved across and set up as part of the Mossman Post Office located in Mill St and the shire council offices moved to new premises at the top of Mill St in Mossman and the old wooden building near the Port Douglas waterfront was abandoned.
The court house and banks followed the general exodus to the new administrative centre at Mossman, and so the larger businesses.
The growth of Mossman town was paralleled by the growth of the sugar industry and the expansion of the sugar mill.
Extracts from The Douglas Shire in Retrospect, by Stephen Ernest Stephens (1901-1988), the inaugural president of the Cairns Historical Society, and donated by Mossman’s Elaine Patterson.
STEAMING IN: The Kuranda docked at the Port Douglas Sugar Wharf in 1917