Share on Google+    

John Atherton - The Founder of Mareeba

(G.P.) Cummins and Campbell's Monthly Magazine, July 1956

This year is the eightieth anniversary of the arrival of John Atherton on the Barron River where it receives Emerald Creek, and his decision to take up the surrounding country for cattle raising. Most historians have accepted the idea that it was the middle of the following year, 1877, when he returned with his family, with wagons and stock, and occupied the country, which he had taken up in 1876.

The descendants of John Atherton have now decided to commemorate this great pioneering event - great because of its repercussions on the development of the Cairns hinterland - by erecting a granite obelisk with appropriately worded plaque, at Mareeba.

The suggested site is at the north end of Byrnes Street, on the bank of Granite Creek, close to where John Atherton erected the first building in what was to become the town of Mareeba - a coach change and wayside hotel on the road from Port Douglas to Herberton. This was in 1880.

John Atherton was not only the founder of Mareeba; he discovered tin at Tinaroo, cut a track to Redbank on the Cairns inlet, and packed tin ore by this route down the range to make it one of Cairns first exports. It was he who told John Newell and William Jack of the existence of tin at the Wild River which led to the founding of Herberton. The Atherton Tableland, discovered by J. V. Mulligan in 1875, bears his name, as does the town of Atherton and Atherton Street, Mareeba.

* * *

He was born in Lancashire, England, about 1837, and emigrated with his parents when still a child to New South Wales in the year 1884 [sic: 1844]. That was before the great gold discoveries of the 'fifties, and the south-east of Australia, was entirely devoted to cattle, sheep and agriculture. Much of the inland and north was entirely unknown, for the era of the greatest explorers was only then dawning. In 1844, Ludwig Leichhardt set out from Brisbane on his epic journey to Port Essington. He was the first explorer to penetrate into what is now North Queensland. Kennedy made his tragic journey from Rockingham Bay to Cape York, through the hinterland of Cairns, in 1848.

John Atherton's father, Edmund Atherton, took up grazing pursuits in the Armidale district. His six sons and three daughters had the true pioneering spirit, and like the young colonials of those far-off days, were soon experts with horses.

In 1860, the family began their slow northward pilgrimage. With drays and stock they journeyed north to Rockhampton, then only a few years old. The colony of Queensland had just been formed. At Mt. Medlow Station, which they established, the father passed away.

John Atherton was anxious to push further North out into the unknown lands on the tracks of the gold prospectors, and explorers like the Jardine Bros. and William Hann.

In 1873 when the Palmer rush broke out, he started off with a mob of cattle to sell to the diggers and to explore some of the country for himself. His interests were in land and stock, and gold mining had no appeal to him.

His brothers settled in the Bowen district, but John took a fancy to the Upper Burdekin country. He had married and now had a family.

In January, 1875, he again rode north with 1500 cattle and two bullock drays. Mrs. Atherton and the children joined him in Townsville.

The pioneers were a month crossing the jungle-covered range behind Cardwell, and floods delayed them on the Herbert. John Atherton then took up Basalt Downs near Cashmere, on the old telegraph line from Cardwell to the Gulf.

* * *

But the lure of strange - and perhaps better - country still further north was awakened in Atherton when J. V. Mulligan made known his discoveries of mid-1875 - Hodgkinson River, the Barron, the great un-named Tableland at its head, the Wild River, and all the unoccupied country through which these new rivers flowed.

When the Hodgkinson gold rush broke out in March, 1876, Atherton could contain his restlessness no longer. A young pioneer, John Fraser, had already brought a thousand head of cattle over the coastal ranges and ridden north to the Mitchell River headwaters and taken up a vast area of cattle land, deep in the wilderness.

On an exploring journey, Atherton took up all the country between Fraser's run south to the scrub country, east to the coastal scrub, and west to beyond the Barron River. He then sold Basalt Downs to McDowell of Kangaroo Hills, loaded the family possessions on two bullock wagons and a buggy, and with a small mob of cattle set out on the northern track.

Wild blacks barred the way, and spears were thrown, but Atherton and his two young sons aged thirteen and eleven years of age, defended the wagons and stock, and pressed onward. Mrs. Atherton, riding in the buggy possessed ass the qualities of a pioneer wife and mother.

Up the rough and rocky Wild River, past the later site of Herberton, and down the steep, trackless range, following in the footsteps of Mulligan and Fraser, they came to the impenetrable wall of jungle, later called the Atherton Scrub.

They found a way around it at the foot of the Walsh Bluff Range, and turning eastward in rocky forest country they crossed a creek later called Atherton Creek. In rough basalt country, covered in long sweet grass, they came to the swiftly flowing Barron River. When Mulligan had first seen it, he thought it was the Mitchell. Smith, Doyle and the Mounted Police, trying to find a route to the coast from the Hodgkinson, soon found it to be a new river altogether. It was named after a clerk in the office of the Police Commissioner in Brisbane.

The Athertons crossed the river with difficulty and pitched their camp on the eastern bank, just above where a scrub-born creek with banks of Emerald green joined the river.

* * *

This was Emerald Creek, and the pioneers' new home was called Emerald End - of the EE2 brand so well known to old timers.

Cairns had only just been founded, and probably Port Douglas had not yet appeared on the map - it was established in July, 1877.

The country surrounding the Atherton homestead, with its slab walls and ant-bed chimney, was open box and bloodwood forest heavily grassed in wild oats and speargrass to the edge of the jungles twenty miles to the east and south; it was a little-known domain, and the aborigines were hostile.

Scores of Atherton's cattle were speared, and seeking them far and wide over the Barron and Clohesy valleys, he carried his life in his hands. A tomahawk thrown from ambush once almost put finish to Atherton's career; he carried the terrible scar to the day of his death. A hill northwest of Tolga, called Bones Knob, is a grim reminder of the revenge the early pioneers took on the dusky owners of the land - for those were grim and dangerous days.

The old homestead - still standing and occupied - withstood a terrrific cyclone in 1878 which devastated Cairns and Smithfield. That year a telegraph line was erected along the Smithfield track, and at the crossing of the Barron (Biboohra) was situated the Atherton's first neighbours - Waldrons, Rosins and McCords. A few miles to the north-west, on the extreme headwaters of the Mitchell, was Baan Bero, the Native Mounted Police Camp. It was then in charge of Sub-Inspector Douglas. From this fortified hilltop, the troopers frequently sallied forth to "disperse" the Stone Age tribes who were fighting a losing battle against the white invasion.

John Atherton, the expert bushman, noted landmarks with an explorer's eye, and his namings have endured - Shanty Creek, Granite Creek, Mt. Twiddler, Kate's Sugarloaf, Tichum Creek, Cobra (Cobbera) Creek, Tinaroo, etc.

Tinaroo is reputed to have got its name when Atherton excitedly called out to his mate, Jim Robson, "Tin-huroo", when he found the metal in his prospecting dish.

A minor rush set in, and the ways began to change. Atherton found a pack track down the range to Cairns. To this tinfield in the scrub came John Newell and William Jack, carrying their swags from the Hodgkinson. Atherton told them of having seen tin bearing ore on the Wild River, and investigating late in 1879 and again in April, 1880, Newell and Jack found the Great Northern Mine. A great rush began, and the town of Herberton sprang up.

Overnight, civilisation came to Emerald End. It would be lonely no longer. Turning off the Port Douglas to Hodgkinson road which veered away to the west around the Granite Range some miles north of Atherton homestead. They followed in the wake of Christy Palmerston, Mullins and McLean, who blazed the way to Herberton.

From Emerald End, John Atherton saw the dust of their passing. By the eddying pools and lush flats off Granite Creek, the carriers and packers who followed the rush lingered awhile, the din of their horse and bullock bells and the flickering gleam of a score of campfires cleaving the solitude of the bush. This spot, half way between Port Douglas and Herberton, was a convenient camping place.

Quickly, in the manner of the times, came passenger-laden mail coaches - first run by Murphy and Macdonald, then by Cobb and Co.

Although only a rough bush track, the Herberton road soon became as busy as a highway. For the convenience of the coach travellers and the hundreds who streamed along that dusty boulder-strewn track twisting between the bloodwood trees, in the early months of the year 1880, John Atherton built a little steep-gabled wide-verandahed shanty and rest-house on the high south bank of Granite Creek, right at the crossing.

Eccles and Lloyd conducted this business, and so these families became the first citizens of the town of Mareeba. But so far it was only known as the Granite Creek coach change on the long and dusty road to Herberton. All around was a waste of grey-green bush and heaps of basalt boulders among the tall speargrass.

In 1886 and for the next seven years, a railway was climbing the coastal range from Cairns towards Granite Creek. In anticipation of its coming, surveyor Alfred Starcks laid out a few township blocks on the north bank of Granite Creek, in 1887.

With the arrival of the railway from Cairns in 1893, it became the town of Mareeba. John Atherton watched it grow rapidly. He played a prominent part in the early life of the township, as well as contributing to its development.

His son, William, when he formed Chillagoe Station in the 'nineties, had noted the existence of copper there, and was partly responsible for the founding of that town also. The building of the Chillagoe Railway placed Mareeba on a sound footing, and it has never looked back.

In the early days of Mareeba, old John Atherton, red-shirted and bearded, was a familiar figure, riding up the street on a small jack donkey. During his lifetime he saw the town of Atherton carved from the virgin jungle, and the railway constructed to it and extended beyond it to Herberton in 1910.

The old pioneer died in 1913, after some 34 years residence at Emerald End. He was buried there beside his wife, who had died in 1902.

John Atherton, the founder of Mareeba, played a valuable part in the development of North Queensland. He is worthy of a fine monument in the town he helped to establish so long ago.

Only one son is still living. Another son, E. A. Atherton, known as "Paddy" Atherton, died a couple of years ago, and was laid to rest in the family graveyard at historic Emerald End. He did his share of pioneering, and was a keen Northerner and cattleman. For years he represented the Tablelands in the State Parliament, and was Minister for Mines at one time.

This article was published in Cummins and Campbell's Monthly Magazine July 1956 under the byline of 'G.P.', which I must assume was Glenville Pike. The same article had appeared in the North Australia Monthly in September, 1954 with no author attribution, and under the title 'John Atherton of Emerald End'. Glenville Pike was a prolific author and historian of North Queensland. He was not an academic historian, but one that grew up among, and personally knew and interviewed the actual people who experienced life in frontier northern Australia, especially in Far North Queensland. He wrote from their point of view, and brings their world to us as seen through their eyes. Glenville Pike passed away in Mareeba, North Queensland in 2011, and hoped his articles would continue to be published for as long as possible.
  Share on Google+