A Tasmania Fire Service crew conducts back burns and create fire breaks in preparation for the unfavourable weather conditions in Miena. Picture: HEATH HOLDEN/Getty Images
A Tasmania Fire Service crew conducts back burns and create fire breaks in preparation for the unfavourable weather conditions in Miena. Picture: HEATH HOLDEN/Getty Images

Looking back at FNQ’s calamitous weather

THE year 1911 was a tough one before it even started, with a grasshopper plague so monumental that trains struggled to grip tracks through a blanket of crushed insect carcasses.

Ernest Cummings wrote: "When the train used all the supply of sand, the firemen had to walk and shovel dirt on the rails from the Mulgrave River bridge to Gordonvale station."

It was February 11 when the first cyclone hit.

The second one - and it was a stonker - arrived about six weeks later, causing significant damage to the town.

The Cairns Post reported on March 17, 1911: "One cottage in Lumley St was lifted clean off the stumps and deposited intact and in a perfectly upright position a few yards away."

Even worse was the destruction in Port Douglas, which was entirely flattened but for about seven partly-standing homes, the Queensland National Bank, the Customs House, the Post Office and McLean's Hotel.

A report from the Brisbane Courier on March 22, 1911 states about 40 people took refuge in the town's Government Bond building on account of its apparent structural integrity.

"The faith placed in the stability of the building, however, was not justified, for the occupants (numbering 40) had just taken timely warning from its nerve-shaking tremors and emerged from the doorway to reach the fence round the Customs building, when the bond store collapsed," it continued.

Cairns Historian Dr Timothy Bottoms.
Cairns Historian Dr Timothy Bottoms.

That was just one of the myriad calamitous acts of God described by historian Dr Timothy Button, whose book Cairns: City of the South Pacifi c charts the region's tumultuous history from 1770 onwards.

With saturated catchments and a consecutive run of volatile weather systems battering Queensland's northeastern coast in recent weeks, it sometimes feels like history is doomed to be repeated.

Statistically, it is only a matter of time before the region faces another test at the hands of the heavens.

But Dr Bottoms said history had proven time and time again that the people of the Far North had the gumption it takes to overcome, rebuild and flourish.

"It's patently obvious that despite all the cyclones, floods and all the rest of it, that Far North Queenslanders have really managed to get on top of it all and keep on going," he said.

"We are still here despite all of those setbacks.

"Even though one can look from an indigenous perspective and say there are things definitively wrong in how we portray our history, there have still been magnificent achievements."

As the timeline below reveals, the 1911 cyclones and floods have plenty of company.

In 1879, Old Smithfield was abandoned and later rebuilt further up the hill after an town-shattering murder-suicide and earth-shattering floods.

 

Flooding caused severe damage to cars, camper vans and accommodation units in Redlynch in 2018. PICTURE: JUSTIN BRIERTY
Flooding caused severe damage to cars, camper vans and accommodation units in Redlynch in 2018. PICTURE: JUSTIN BRIERTY

 

As Clem Lack (1900-1972) says in The Town That Was Drowned: Some North Queensland Memories and Anecdotes, the settlement - a rival to Cairns - had only been built in 1876.

"Our Wild West and Wilder North were as colourful as anything that the annals of the American West can show, but neither Craig nor Smith were gunslingers, and Craig was unarmed when he walked across the street to Smith's hotel, expecting that Smith was about to pay him a longstanding debt," he writes.

Several revolver shots followed, and both men ended up dead at Smith's hand.

It was a favourite scandal and, naturally, "extravagantly embroidered" tales of Smith riding a steed shod with golden horseshoes soon emerged.

When the settlement then got battered by consecutive floods, it was time to move on.

"If you got to where it was now, you can see why - that area would all be flooded right now," Dr Bottoms said.

Cairns: City of the South Pacific can be bought here.

 

 

The aftermath of cyclone Yasi as it crossed the Far North Queensland coast in 2011. Dozens of luxury boats were smashed together at the Port Hinchinbrook marina in Cardwell.
The aftermath of cyclone Yasi as it crossed the Far North Queensland coast in 2011. Dozens of luxury boats were smashed together at the Port Hinchinbrook marina in Cardwell.

 

 

FNQ - a history of natural calamities

1876

Cairns officially established

1878

Cyclone almost completely destroys Cairns and Smithfield

1896

Earthquake on February 27 felt in Cairns, Kuranda, Mareeba, Herberton and Port Douglas

1900

Drought across North Queensland

Plague (lasting until 1908) hits North Queensland with 102 patients, of which half died

1903

Bubonic plague scare

1904

Malay Town burns as a health measure after a Sinhalese cook dies of the plague

Severe cyclones in January and March with wind speeds up to 166km/h

1906

Cyclone on January 27 damages Geraldton (Innisfail), Yarrabah, Cairns and Cooktown

1908

Severe storm on January 7 damages Cairns and coastal area

Epidemic among Yirrganydji people on the Coastal Barron area

1911

Cyclones in February and March - two within five weeks - with winds up to 216km kills two people in Port Douglas, knocks down lighthouse and demolished all but two buildings

Heavy rains cause large landslides on the Cairns Range Railway

1913

Cyclone causes SS Innamincka to jump Alexander Reef and rest in the mouth of the Mowbray River, major flooding of Barron and Mulgrave Rivers and inundates Innisfail

Malaria epidemic in Cairns

1914

Cyanide found in Cairns water supply

World War I begins

1918

Disastrous cyclone hits Innisfail, Babinda, Aloomba and Gordonvale

World War I ends

1919

Influenza epidemic kills 10 white Cairns residents and devastates Aboriginal groups

1920

Cyclone in February washes away the Aquatic Club house (formerly Walsh & Co's rice mill)

1923

Cairns proclaimed a city

1927

Cyclone Willis hits Cairns and northwards in February, cuts the city's water supply for three days

1934

Aviator Tom McDonald flies the first air search in North Queensland after a bad cyclone crosses the coast at Cape Tribulation in March

1939

Severe storm causes the mouth of the Barron River to change from between Casuarina and Ellie Points and break through north to its current alignment, just south of Machans Beach

World War II begins

1942

Severe malaria epidemic prompts a joint Australian and US armies and council mosquito eradication program

1945

Landslides on the Cairns-Kuranda Range railway

World War II ends

1956

Cyclone Agnes in March causes £1.25 million damage

1967

Big flood in Cairns and the Tablelands with 1270mm falling over four days

1972

Major flooding exacerbated by high tide in the CBD - the section now known as the Shields St Heart goes a metre underwater

1979

Highest Australian rainfall record set on January 4 at Bellenden Ker with 1140mm in one day

1990

Cyclone Joy clips Cairns and Port Douglas and destroys parts of Mackay in December

1997

Major flooding from Cyclone Justin in March

1999

Cyclone Rona crosses the coast just north of Cow Bay near the mouth of the Daintree river in February

Heavy rainfall results in flooding from Cairns to Townsville

2000

Cyclone Steve strikes Cairns and district, including Mareeba in February

2006

Cyclone Larry reaches peak wind speed of 290km/h in March, causing massive destruction

2011

Cyclone Yasi brings 290km/h winds and makes landfall between Innisfail and Cardwell, with significant damage to Innisfail, Tully and the surrounding districts including 150 homes destroyed

2018

Big 4 Crystal Cascades caravan park evacuated as massive flood surge tears through Redlynch Valley

SOURCE: Cairns: City of the South Pacific, Dr Timothy Bottoms.