Queensland. Cairns Mulgrave Tramway.



Dave Elsmore


The Cairns Mulgrave Tramway was an ordinary railway. They were deemed to be tramways under the legislation that allowed divisional boards [the predecessors of shire councils] to borrow money and levy rates for the construction of tramways, thereby relieving the State of the necessity to provide such railways.

Unlike most local authorities which simply paid Queensland Railways to operate trains, the Council operated its own trains with its own locomotives, and had its own tramway headquarters in Cairns. The line was built cheaply with low level bridges and a minimum of earthworks. Although the whole section from Townsville to Cairns had numerous places subject to flooding, the Cairns to Babinda section was particularly so, owing to its cheap construction.

The 31 miles of line was constructed by the Cairns Divisional Board in 1896-98. The tramway was taken over by Queensland Railways at the beginning of, 1911 as a result of the North Coast Railway Act. The railway from Cairns to Babinda opening first to Nelson [later Gordonvale] on the 10th  April 1897, and extended in stages to Babinda, opening in February 1910. The second stage, opened to Aloomba in August 1898, and included a low level crossing of the Mulgrave River.

The tramway had 24 stations, and for the enthusiast I will list them here with the miles from Cairns after the station name: Cairns, Pryn’s 3, Robson’s 5½, Fretwell’s 6½, Hambledon Junction 7½, Collinson’s 9, Russell Road 10, Mackey’s 12, Emery’s 12½, Mulgrave 14, Munro’s 15, Swan’s 15½, Bowen’s 16, Aloomba 17¾, Walker’s 19½, Hobson’s 20½, Spencer’s 21½, Behan’s 22, Gorden’s 22½, Fishery Creek 24, Fig-Tree Creek 26, Munro’s Creek 27, Sorrensen’s 28½ and Harvey Creek 31.

With the train only stopping by signal to take on passengers or parcels, with the passengers wishing to alight giving notice to the guard at the preceding station.

The PB15 and B15 class locomotive pulled 8 composite cars built by James Frost, known as the "C-828 Mulgrave Cars". With a later edition a similar Baldwin B13 was acquired by the Cairns Mulgrave Tramway.

The Cairns Shire Council maintained a boat at the Mulgrave River because of regular flooding. In January 1907 the river was 20 feet over the bridge. On that occasion, the engine was rushed through fast rising floodwaters when the water was already over the bridge and high enough that it nearly put the fire out.

A new bridge at a higher level was built over the Mulgrave River and completed in mid 1935. It was built to 12 ton axle load as part of the program to strengthen the line. Its completion enabled C16 and C17 class locomotives to operate between Cairns and Babinda instead of only PB15 and B15 class and lighter engines. Expenditure on the bridge and deviation in 1934-35 amounted to £13,720. Although higher than the first bridge, the second bridge was still subject to frequent flooding. This curved wooden bridge was one of the last major river crossings on the North Coast Line, and has now been replaced by a third high level pre stressed concrete structure.


Fig 1 

1897 first issue 2d sheet layout

  The Cairns Shire Council has the distinction of being the earliest to use adhesive parcel stamps for their Shire Tramway service. A set of 4 values is recorded and issued in late 1897. Lithograph printed and issued ungummed by the Queensland Government Printer in sheet sizes as follows: 2d Red 3x4, 3d Brown & 6d Green 4x5, 1/- 2x10. All roulette 7. One 6d is recorded on a Cairns Shire Tramway Envelope and is believed unique. All stamps recorded have black audit numbers overprinted on them. The 1/- is known in a blk with a miss aligned roulette leaving one stamp imperf on 3 sides.


Fig 2 

1911 Second Issue

A second larger issue is recorded perf 12 or roulette 7, issued early 1911 or late 1910 [studies continue] again Lithographed by the Queensland Government Printer and issued on ungummed plain paper with the paper makers watermark central to the sheet found in the roulette issue only. Both in sheet sizes as follows: 1d Blue 5x5, 3d Yellow/Brown & 6d Deep Green 4x5. This information can be found in my monograph “Queensland Railway Parcel Stamps” 1987©.

One 1d is recorded on a Cairns Shire Tramway Envelope and is believed unique. All stamps recorded have black audit numbers overprinted on them except the 3d value is known, without this overprint (3 recorded). Hornadge records a date of 1902 for this second issue, this is wrong. I have examined this stamp which is now in my collection and when upside down it reads 11/1/02 with a signature above, but when reversed to an upright position the date reads 20/1/11 with a signature below. The below 1906 tariff rates confirm my 1987 studies. The tramway is still operational today in a tourist capacity only.


Fig 3

10 bar railway obliterator (station 4) with two varieties of the envelope flap.


I have done exhaustive research in Queensland and can only find these 1906 rates. The below tariff rates were passed by council on 8th June 1906.

(A) Stamped parcels (prepaid) will be carried over the tramway at the rates provided in the schedule of rates.

(B) Adhesive parcel stamps will be issued to all stations where officials are in charge.

(C) When a package containing articles such as fish, butter, eggs, milk, cream, etc. will not allow a stamp to properly adhere, a label must be secured to the package on which the stamp can be properly affixed.

(D) All stamped parcels must be booked by consignment note. All parcels must, to admit of their being booked, be at stations fifteen minutes before the advertised time of departure of the train, by which they are required to be forwarded.


Fig 4

Consignment Note

Bicycles and prams were charged as follows and must be prepaid:

14 miles and under          6d

14 - -18 miles                9d

18 – 31 miles                 1/-

Parcel Rates:

All at owners risk

14 miles and under:

Parcels not exceeding 7lb.                        3d.

Parcels over 7lb to 28lb                            6d

Parcels over 28lb but under 56lb.               9d          

Parcels over 56lb to ordinary rates             1/-

From 14 – 31 miles:

Parcels not exceeding 7lb.                        6d

Parcels over 7lb to 28lb                            9d

Parcels over 28lb but under 56lb.               1/-          

Parcels over 56lb to ordinary rates             1/6

Exceptions to parcel rates:

Bread and beef on half parcel rates:


14 miles and over                                    3d

14 – 31 miles                                          6d


7 miles and under 50lbs in weight               6d

7 – 14 miles                                           9d

14 – 31 miles                                          1/-

Genuine used copies of these parcel stamps are rare, with only a handful recorded. A few mint remainders of the rouletted stamps have survived. All are scarce.


© copyright 1997 on

All Graphics. Dave Elsmore

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