Fall and rise of Dou­glas

Port Douglas & Mossman Gazette - - HISTORY -

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

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