Cardwell Shire, an area of 3062 sq km, generally 100 km south of Cairns was amalgamated in 2008 with Johnstone Shire to form Cassowary Coast Regional Council. Its coastal boundary extended southwards from Mission Beach nearly to Lucinda Point (but included islands such as Dunk and Hinchinbrook) and its inland boundary ran roughly along the Cardwell Range. The name came from the town which was named after Edward Cardwell, Secretary of State for Colonies.

The town of Cardwell (see separate entry) struggled for decades, but as the sole place of settlement it was the obvious name for the local-government division proclaimed in 1879, extending from Innisfail to Ingham and inland beyond today's Kennedy Highway. In 1884 the Innisfail area was severed, forming what became Johnstone Shire. The region behind the Cardwell Range later became the Herberton Shire.

The Cardwell divison's early history is mostly bound up with the town of Cardwell's failure to grow. The sheltered waters behind Hinchinbrook Island seemed an ideal port, but Cardwll had extensive offshore shallows. The pier never got to deep enough water. Droving stock over the range from inland pastoral stations was difficult and, combined with the port's incapacity, pastoralists instead turned to the port of Townsville. The range's foothills were undeniably fertile, but jungle-clad, and the Tully River Valley had similar qualities. Banana growing was carried out by Chinese ex-miners, and European settlers also tried citrus and dairying. Cattle were plagued by ticks. Cardwell Shire had 440 people in the 1911 census and 70 fewer in 1921.

In 1911 the Queensland Government established a Royal Commission to report on centralised sugar mills. Settlers at Tully River/Banyan Creek persisted with the proposition for a mill at Tully. Aided by north Queensland's Edward Theodore, Labour premier, Tully was approved as a central-mill site in 1923. The Tully township doubled the shire's population in a few years; by the 1933 census the shire's population had grown by about 1200% since 1921. The North Coast railway was extended through the shire, joining Townsville and Cairns, in 1924.

In the late 1930s the Kirrama Forestry Road was opened, giving mills access to high-quality furniture timber in the Cardwell Range. It was also a step towards harnessing the waters in the Tully River for hydro electricity, a project which was completed in 1957. Some years before then, in 1949, Cardwell Shire was described in the Australian Blue Book:

Cardwell was some distance away from the northern tourist venues, but Dunk Island was well known from the writings of E.J. Banfield, the island's resident until his death. In 1936 a tourist resort with an airstrip was opened, continuing until 1942 when the island was resumed for radar purposes. The resort facilities were revived after the war, ultimately coming into the hands of TAA and P&O. Hinchinbrook, a larger island, became a national park in 1932.

Both these islands signified important elements of the future Cardwell Shire. Mission Beach, just beyond the Shire's northern boundary, became a major resort and township. (South Mission Beach is in the former Cardwell Shire: both were named after the Hull River Aboriginal mission, 1914-18, purportedly established to protect the inhabitants from Chinese opium and to regulate their employment by labour-hungry settlers.) The national-parks trend quickened in the 1970s, until 67% of the shire was either a national park or a world heritage site by 2000. The Tully sugar town's population steadied at about 2700 during 1933-2000 and Cardwell, so long the minor relation, tripled to more than 1400 during 1960-2000.

In 1993 Cardwell Shire had 37,000 beef cattle, crushed over 1 million tonnes of sugar carne and grew nearly 77,000 tonnes of bananas. Over 30% of the shire's workforce was employed in agriculture and forestry (2001), more than twice the proportion in nearby Atherton Shire. Nearly a quarter of the workforce was in accommodation, hospitality and retail, an indication of growing coastal tourism. The shire's census populations were:

Census Date Population
1911 440
1921 370
1933 4416
1961 5183
1981 7853
1991 9882
2001 10,348
2006 9529
Further Reading: 

Dorothy Jones, Cardwell Shire story, Cardwell Shire Council, 1961

Cardwell, South Mission Beach, Tully, Wet Tropics and Wongaling Beach entries