During the 1882 wet season, desperate tin miners on the Wild River were unable to obtain supplies and were on the verge of famine. The boggy road leading to Port Douglas was proving impassable, meaning no tin went to port and no supplies came back to Herberton.
As a result, miners were raising angry voices and began agitating for a railway to the coast.
Upcoming general elections and the cold weather in the south meant that many leading politicians headed north, all promising a railway, so in March 1882, the Minister for Works and Mines Macrossan announced the search for a route from the Atherton Tablelands to the coast.
Christie Palmerston had been commissioned to find a suitable route for a railway to the coast and during 1882 marked several routes to Port Douglas, Cairns, Mourilyan and Cardwell.
In November 1882 Palmerston took 9 days to trek to Mourilyan and this seemed to be the chosen route and surveyor Monk submitted reports to the government in March 1884.
The Barron Valley route was finally chosen and this would shape the future of North Queensland, along with surveyor Amos’ plans which were drawn up and submitted to the government in February 1885. These plans were subsequently approved by cabinet on the 19th September 1885.
Construction commenced on 10th May 1886, with then Premier Samuel Griffiths turning the first sod. The line was now headed towards Herberton but there were many twists and turns on the way, contracts were terminated as this engineering feat took its toll on the contractors, until 1887 when a contractor by the name of John Robb took control and with his crew with only picks, shovels, dynamite and strength started to make progress. The rail line from Cairns to Kuranda was now completed and officially opened on 15th June 1891.
Work immediately started on the Kuranda to Mareeba section with this section being officially opened in 1883, just a short deviation from the intended Herberton line. Again, work finally proceeded towards Herberton with the easy work for the construction crew until the got to the bottom of the Herberton Range where hard rock and deep fill areas were required. Many drains had to be constructed along the way but making rock cuttings using only hand tools slowed progress to a crawl. With all work completed, a grand opening was held at the Herberton Station on 20th October 1910 with the workers travelling to Wondecla for a picnic and the official party walking up to the Herberton Town Hall for a more fancy gathering.
With the steady decline in tin prices and general freight, it was easy to see that the government railway had arrived a little too late to take full advantage of the freight volumes of previous years. After spending large amounts of money in track upgrading, station painting and general maintenance, much to the surprise of all Tablelanders the announcement came that on the 1st January 1989 that all passenger rail services on the Tablelands would cease. Freight would be delivered by road to existing unmanned stations, The transport Minister blamed the situation on excessive running costs and said the railway could not continue to run at a serious financial loss.
The final seal of the railways fate was the announcement that on the 9th September 1990 the line would be officially closed.
A group of energetic volunteers arrived on the scene with the vision of creating a tourist rail journey between Atherton and Ravenshoe. After a lot of planning, their hopes were dashed when the rail bridge at Wondecla was removed to allow larger coaches to travel between Herberton and Ravenshoe. If the bridge had been raised 500mm the coaches would have been able to pass under the bridge allowing the rail plans to continue but this was not the governments decision. With the railway line divided in two, the tourist railway group started to become divided.
The group at Atherton with the support of the local business community restored steam locomotive C17 No812.
Along with necessary track upgrades they had a big job in front of them but finally got up and running - a great achievement.
Unfortunately in year 2000, the group abandoned all the work they had done mainly due to internal pressures and the line lay dormant once again.
Then in 2003 what we now know as Atherton-Herberton Historic Railway Inc. was formed. This organisation took on the challenge of once again establishing a tourist railway experience between Atherton & Herberton.
The present group have been granted Rail Transport Operators Accreditation and have a business plan that should see this goal achieved over the next 10 years.