Innisfail, a rural township, is 70 km south of Cairns. It is at the junction of the North and South Johnstone Rivers, about four kilometres from the ocean, in the Johnstone Shire. Innisfail has long been dependent on migrant and indentured labour, from South Sea Islanders (then known as Kanakas) in the late nineteenth century to Italians in the twentieth century. With an economy based primarily on sugar and bananas, it has often suffered massive cyclone damage, especially in 1918 and 2006. It owes its art deco buildings to the rebuilding after the 1918 cyclone.
Following the wreck of a brig on Bramble Reef, the party searching for survivors found Mourilyan Harbour, about 15 km south of the future town of Innisfail. In 1873 the Queensland Government commissioned George Dalrymple to explore the coast. Dalrymple reported favourably on the region's potential for tropical agriculture and named the Johnstone River after Robert Johnstone, a sub-inspector of native police and former manager of a sugar plantation near Cardwell.
In 1879 the Queensland sugar industry was set for a boom, after several years in the doldrums. Lured by Dalrymple's report, Thomas Henry Fitzgerald, former sugar-plantation proprietor and parliamentarian formed Fitzgerald and Co in 1880 which started the 'Innisfail' plantation at Johnstone River. Subscribers to the company included the Sisters of Mercy in Brisbane, who were backed by the influential Catholic Bishop James Quinn. The church and Irish immigrants were equally influential in the early growth of Innisfail. A rudimentary town, at first known as The Junction (of the rivers) or Nind's Camp (after Ninds Creek), grew around Innisfail estate. In 1882 the town was officially named Geraldton, after Thomas Fitzgerald, but confusion with Geraldton in Western Australia led to renaming of the town as Innisfail in 1910, although in the intervening period the name Johnstone River was used.
In 1881 the Colonial Sugar Refining Company entered the Queensland sugar industry, establishing mills at Mackay, the Herbert River and Johnstone River, where it built its Goondi Mill (1885). The Goondi Mill's opening coincided with a fall in sugar prices. Fitzgerald and Co failed, but CSR's financial strength allowed it to survive the downturn.
The Johnstone local government division was formed by severance from the sprawling Hinchinbrook division in 1881. Its administrative centre was the infant Geraldton which, in a few short years, gained a hotel and was designated a police and court centre. In 1887 'Geraldton' was proclaimed, and a customs house and primary school opened. By that time the town had a strong Chinese community, most of whom were miners displaced from the Palmer River gold fields and tin mines elsewhere. They introduced banana plantations and set up local businesses, and in the 1880s built the first of two Joss Houses, pre-dating even the Catholic church, which was not erected until 1892. Imported South Sea Islander indentured labour provided the initial workforce for the sugar industry. When the South Sea Islanders were repatriated from the 1890s, cane planters looked to the warmer parts of Europe for immigrant labour, beginning a pattern of Italian settlement in the town. In later years, particularly after each world war, substantial Italian, Greek and Maltese communities migrated to Innisfail, maintaining the strength of the local Catholic church.
The Australian Handbook of 1903 described a town still dominated by the Irish Catholic culture of its founders, reporting as follows:
Innisfail became a major sugar-producing area. In addition to the Fitzgerald and CSR mills, in 1892 the Mourilyan Sugar Company Mill opened on the South Johnstone River, 11 km from Mourilyan harbour. The South Johnstone co-operative mill was opened in 1915 after a Government inquiry into the desirability of more central mills for Queensland's industry, and it remained in Government control until 1927. After World War I over 70 sugar-farm blocks were allocated to soldier settlers, their produce destined for the South Johnstone mill. (The settlers' district became El Arish, named after the headquarters of the Australian First Light Horse in the Sinai.) That same year, the Cairns railway was extended from Babinda to Innisfail, ultimately connecting with Cardwell and Townsville to the south. When the railway crossed the Johnstone River so too did the roadway, via the Jubilee Bridge, in 1923.
A cyclone in 1918 destroyed much of the town. Rebuilding was greatly influenced by prevailing art deco trends. Innisfail today promotes itself as Australia's 'art deco' capital. Paronella Park, a commercial pleasure garden opened by Catalonia immigrant José Paronella in 1935, is 12 km south-west of Innisfail. Despite flood, cyclone and fire damages, many of its concrete structures have been preserved and it remains open to the public. During the 1920s and 1930s, farms were cleared inland of Innisfail for dairy and beef production, and dairy/milk factories were established at Innisfail and nearby Silkwood. Primary industry diversified further after World War II, with the development of large fishing and prawning fleets (1950s-60s), exotic tropical fruit (1970s) and Australia's only major tea supplier, Nerada, when the first tea factory opened in 1971. Sugar, however, remained pre-eminent, assisted by an improved railway connection to a revamped Mourilyan Harbour with bulk-loading facilities (1960).
Cyclones and fires have destroyed several of Innisfail's buildings. The shire hall had to be rebuilt in 1936, in an impressive art deco design. It is the foremost example of several art deco buildings, including the hospital, masonic centre, water tower and the Queens Hotel.
On the Johnstone Shire's south coast the Mission Beach resort grew during the 1980s and 1990s. Closer to Innisfail there are tourist and retirement towns at Bingil Bay, Kurrimine and Flying Fish Point. Hinterland tourism received a boost in 2004 with the opening of the 1.4 km Ma Mu rainforest canopy walk.
Innisfail has Catholic primary and secondary schools (1902, 1941) and State primary and high schools (1887, 1955), a TAFE (in the Innisfail Estate), 11 churches including Greek Orthodox, a hospital, the north Queensland Conservatorium of Music and a cultural complex near the visitor information centre. At Goondi Bend, an adjoining northern suburb, there are a State primary school (1898), the showgrounds, racecourse and golf course. There is a third primary school across the South Johnstone River at East Innisfail.
On 20 March 2006 Cyclone Larry seriously damaged much of Innisfail and destroyed many of the surrounding banana plantations, leaving only the rootstock. The town was rebuilt in the wake of Larry's devastation, although Innisfail's art deco structures - mostly built in double brick - resisted the cyclone fairly well, including the magnificent Johnstone Shire Hall. Pre World War I structures, such as the Masonic Hall and a number of hotels suffered substantial roof damage and consequently internal rain damage, owing to torrential rains for some weeks after the cyclone first struck.
On 3 February 2011, the Category 5 Cyclone Yasi passed over the Queensland coast, centred about 70 km south of Innisfail. Banana and sugar crops were extensively damaged, but fewer homes were damaged. Yasi was less destructive than Larry, and houses had been rebuilt to stronger standards. Winds gusted at up to 200 km/hour, compared with 290 km/hour at Cardwell.
The (former) Johnstone Shire Hall (1938), the court house (1939), a canecutter's memorial (1950s) and the striking A-frame Presbyterian church (1961) are on the Queensland heritage register.
Innisfail's census populations have been:
John Armstrong, The Innisfail tramway: the history and development of the Geralton Shire tramway and the Mourilyan Harbour tramway, Surrey Hills, Vic, Light Railway Research Society of Australia, 2000
Delia Birchley, God's own country: the Johnstone Shire story, Brisbane Boolarong for Johnstone Shire, 1986
Alan Hudson, Sweet success: a story of South Johnstone mill, Brisbane, Christopher Beck Books, 1995
Dorothy Jones, Hurricane lamps and blue umbrellas: a history of the shire of Johnstone to 1973, Brisbane, G.K. Bolton Printers, 1973
W.J. McRobbie, Innisfail tropical north Queensland, Innisfail, Innisfail Celebrations Committee, 1973
Innisfail suburbs entry