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The pioneering spirit of north Queensland

The pioneering spirit of north Queensland

Looking back at the tight curve at Stoney Creek Bridge

In a small park in the hotel district of Cairns sits a weathered, but still impressive, memorial. The inscription is hard to read, particularly at 8.00pm with only dim street lighting available, but a careful examination reveals that it was erected in 1901 by the citizens of Cairns and surrounding districts, to the memory of Dr Koch. No further information is provided.

As a tourist visiting the Cairns district, a variety of holiday activities is available to help you pass the time: reef trips, open top double-decker bus tours, indigenous cultural exhibitions and, of course, the Skyrail cable car and Kuranda Scenic Railway experiences. We recently had the chance to do the latter, which takes you over and through a world-class rainforest. Apart from the sense of wonder and majesty evoked by some of the world’s most spectacular waterfalls and natural beauty, you will marvel at the tenacity, toughness and ingenuity of those pioneers who had a vision to build a railway from Cairns to the tableland goldfields.

The demand for a railway came primarily from miners in Herberton who needed not only an outlet for the tin that they were mining but also supplies to guarantee their continued survival. A number of routes were considered, the most difficult being from Cairns, over the vast Atherton tablelands, across the Barron River (and waterfall), through Kuranda to Herberton. This route – although difficult, it was the shortest – was chosen and construction commenced in 1886 with then Queensland Premier, Sir Samuel Griffith, ceremoniously digging the first spadeful – with a silver spade, no less!

Railway logo on the carriage

Seat made out of old rails — Kuranda

The first section – from Cairns to Redlynch – was the easiest of the three to be built; however, it was no simple task. The line had to be laid across swamps and rivers, with the workers battling little-understood tropical diseases such as dysentery and malaria. The initial contractor in fact, went broke and the work was handed over to a second company. They also found the task too much and the Queensland Government eventually completed the first section.

After reaching the small settlement, later to be known as Redlynch (named the after the red-headed Mr Lynch, the foreman), the challenges became even greater. From Redlynch the line had to find a way up an extreme incline – rising some 327 metres over a 15 km distance. The only way to achieve this was to build the railway, which had 98 curves in this short distance, 55 bridges and 15 tunnels through sheer rock. Up to 1500 men at a time worked on this extraordinary project, using only picks, shovels and dynamite to carve their way through the mountain range. In all, almost 3 million cubic metres of earth and rock were removed by hand – a considerable feat, even if it were being built today with bulldozers, pneumatic drills and other heavy earthmoving machinery. As noted in the Cairns Post on June 21, 2011, in an article celebrating the 120th anniversary of the railway: “Impassable swamps, mysterious diseases, deadly creatures, deep ravines, raging waterfalls and sheer cliffs were to prove no obstacle.” These men really were tough!

The train is ready to leave Kuranda Station

This second section is arguably one of our nation’s greatest engineering accomplishments and is recognised today as a National Engineering Landmark. It was 1891 by the time these first two stages were complete and the cost totalled something like 1 million pounds – a lot of money in today’s terms!

One of the feats of ingenuity involved the construction of the tightest curve on the Kuranda Range. With a radius of only 80 metres, travellers are blessed with an ‘up close and personal’ view of Stoney Creek Falls. John Robb, the contractor for this section, was honoured with a visit by Sir Henry Norman (Governor of Queensland at the time) and ‘engineered’ a full banquet dinner atop the bridge – he had men create a deck for the banqueting table, pull up rails and construct a canopy to keep the dignitaries dry; it’s a bit wet that close to the falls! Apparently a good time was had by all, especially since all speeches were cancelled – no one could be heard over the roar of the falls!

Stoney Creek Falls — the train passes so close you can almost reach out and touch the water

The steepest and largest cutting along the line was the most difficult for the men – suspended by ropes the workers had to dig well into the rock to establish a firm foundation. The resultant jagged red rock face has become quite a landmark.

Another pioneering venture was the construction of a hydroelectric power station at Barron Falls – further up the rail line towards Kuranda – which was officially opened in 1935. The steep sides of Barron Gorge, along with the torrential rain and turbulent floods of the wet season, made getting equipment to the site a delicate process. While the rail line was in place by this time, it was on the wrong side of the gorge! Aussies are ever inventive, however, and a flying fox was the solution to delivering both equipment and men across the 265 metre deep gorge. Imagine commuting to work in a contraption suspended over such a drop – even if the views were spectacular!

Imagine flying over a 327 m gorge in this – just to get to work!

Cable car gondola — much safer

So, there we were, enjoying an historical railway adventure. Imagine our surprise when, in the midst of the rail journey commentary, specific reference was made to Dr Edward Koch – whose memorial we had stumbled across the previous day. What could a medical doctor have to do with such an extraordinary engineering feat?

Dr Koch was in charge of the Cairns Base Hospital from 1882 – 1899. A pioneer in the development of treatment for tropical diseases, in particular malaria … very early he realised the role played by mosquitoes in transmitting this deadly disease … he developed a specific ‘fever remedy’ which, together with other preventative measures, helped to control malarial outbreaks in North Queensland in the late 19th century. A mixture of quinine dissolved in diluted sulphuric acid, his ‘fever mixture’ was exceedingly effective and Dr Koch is specifically credited with saving the lives of many of the men working on the Kuranda Railway project.

Dr Koch monument, Cairns — Photo credit Dianne Watson

A steep gorge sighted on the return journey

Barron Falls — in the dry season

He also worked to have local swamplands cleared and filled to stop mossies breeding and was often seen in the late afternoon visiting workers, exhorting them to roll down their shirtsleeves to avoid being bitten. Considered an independent thinker, researcher and hands-on medico, this family physician was well known for his charitable work and on his death in 1901 the citizens of Cairns raised money to build the memorial. Built out of marble (imported from Italy) and local granite, the memorial bearing his likeness was completed in 1903 and while it has been moved from its original location to a redeveloped park, it’s still an imposing edifice.

The end of a magical journey as the sun sets over the cane fields

Our mystery having been solved, we wandered past the memorial on our return from the Scenic Railway, glad to have learned a little more about Queensland’s hardy colonists in general, and about one in particular. The incredible achievement by dogged engineers in constructing this railway under difficult circumstances is extraordinary – no less extraordinary is the contribution to public health by the esteemed Dr Koch! 

Photos: © Harry and Meryl McCay

About The Author

Meryl McCay

Meryl is a seasoned Information Professional with over 25 years’ experience. Currently based in Canberra, her day job involves working on large government websites, using content management systems such as Drupal and Squiz Matrix, and administering SharePoint-based intranets. Possessing a wide range of ICT skills, including certification as a Microsoft Office Master, she also develops websites for small business and the not-for-profit sector on the WordPress platform.

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