Mareeba Shire, an area of 53,645 sq km, extended west from Cairns to two-thirds the way across Cape York. It was named after the town of Mareeba, the shire's administrative centre, and it is thought that the name was derived from an Aboriginal word referring to the meeting of waters. The town is at the junction of Granite Creek and the Barron River. Originally named Woothakata Shire, Mareeba Shire continued until 2008 when it was amalgamated with three other shires to form Tablelands Regional Council.
In March 2013 more than 60% of voters in Mareeba opted to leave the Tablelands Regional Council in a de-amalgamation vote. From April 2013 transition committees and interim CEOs would be in place in the Mareeba Shire leading to elections in late 2013 and a separate Mareeba Shire council from 1 January 2014.
The shire's eastern area adjoined the Atherton Tableland, a fertile upland originally covered in forest. The dividing range extends westwards to Irvinebank, a prosperous tin mining town of the 1900s, and then across hilly ranges that incorporate the Chillagoe and Mungana copper/silver/lead mineral fields. To the north are Mount Mulligan (coal), Mount Molloy (copper) and Mount Carbine (wolfram).
Cairns, declared a port in 1876, was chosen as the outlet for minerals from the Herberton mining area (1880), 60 km to the south. A railway was needed, involving a route over the precipitous ranges that were laced with gorges. The surveyed route circuitously passed through Kuranda and Mareeba in 1893, and another 17 years passed before it reached Herberton.
Mareeba had been settled by William Atherton with an eye to raising beef cattle for inland mining settlements. Early mining towns were Thornborough and Kingsborough, approximately 40 km west of Mareeba, but they were surpassed by the Chillagoe and Irvinebank mineral fields discovered in 1882-83. Despite the richness of the mineral fields, remoteness from fuel for smelting and the costs of transport of ore or finished metal resulted in Chillagoe having periods of inactivity. Volatile world metal prices were a further complication. Judging a likely period of good prices, the Chillagoe smelting company financed a private railway from Mareeba to Chillagoe and Mungana (1900-01). Denial of electrolytic processing at the Barron Falls meant coal had to be brought in. Shortages of ore around the Chillagoe smelters led to private branch lines being opened to Mount Garnet (1902), Mount Molloy (1908) and to the Einesleigh/Etheridge field, 200 km to the south (1909). A government branch line (1915) brought coal from Mount Mulligan. Separate from these enterprises, a private tramway branched from the Chillagoe line down to the Stannery Hills and Irvinebank tin mining and smelting areas (1902, 1909).
The Queensland Government acquired the Irvinebank smelting interest and the Chillagoe smelters after World War I, both as State enterprises that brought little profit. The Treasurer and the Premier, former union organisers at Chillagoe, became embroiled in allegations over dealings at Mungana. The Chillagoe smelters closed in 1943. Around Mareeba itself agriculture was developing: tobacco, first grown at Mareeba in 1930, had growers' cooperatives at Dimbulah (1935) and Mareeba (1937). The railway network brought livestock to the Mareeba saleyards, and beef, vegetable and fruit production increased during World War II for armed services personnel stationed there. Despite the decline in mining, the shire's population increased steadily after the 1930s.
Until 1947 the shire was named Woothakata (an Aboriginal word thought to refer to the shape of Mount Mulligan). Shire offices at Thornborough were closed and new ones opened at Mareeba in 1919. When Mareeba Shire was described in 1949 in the Australian Blue Book it had a diverse agricultural economy:
Tobacco growing interests lobbied for irrigation, and in 1958 the Tinaroo Dam on the Atherton Tableland was completed. It supplies farm and domestic water to Mareeba and Dimbulah, for growing fruit and vegetables. Tobacco growing at Mareeba ended in 2004. In 1993, 4000 ha were under field crops and a small amount of sugar was grown. The shire also had 131,000 head of beef cattle.
The shire's largest employment sector in 2001 was agriculture (18.5% of total). Wholesale and retail employment was 18.2%, followed by health and community services (9.3%), education (7.4%) and manufacturing (6.4%). Mining was 1%.
Woothakata and Mareeba Shires' census populations were:
Between the census years 1911 and 1921 Barron Shire (Kuranda) was added to Woothakata and between 1921 and 1933 Chillagoe Shire and Walsh Shire (Irvinebank) were added.
Ruth S. Kerr, John Moffat of Irvinebank: a biography of a regional entrepreneur, St Lucia, J.D. & R.S. Kerr, 2000
N.T. Currie, Mareeba Shire handbook: an inventory of the agricultural resources and production of Mareeba Shire, Queensland, Brisbane, Queensland Department of Primary Industries, 1978
Glenville Pike, Pioneer pageant 1877-1952: history and progress of the Mareeba Shire, Gardenvale, Vic, Hartshorne-Waller Publicity for the Mareeba Local Commonwealth Jubilee Celebration Committee, 1953
Chillagoe, Dimbulah, Herberton Minerals Area, Hodgkinson Minerals Area, Irvinebank, Kuranda, Mareeba, Mungana and Wolfram entries