Mourilyan, a rural town of about 420 people, is 10 km south of Innisfail and 90 km south-east of Cairns. It was named by Captain John Moresby in 1872 after one of his officers, Lieutenant Mourilyan. Moresby charted Mourilyan Harbour, 9 km east of the town, when journeying in HMS Basilisk on a coastal patrol.
In the following year George Elphinstone Dalrymple was commissioned to explore the bays and rivers of north Queensland. He reported favourably on the fertility of the coast around Mourilyan Harbour, naming Esmerelda Hill to the south, apparently inspired by the greenness of the landscape.
In the early 1880s the Mourilyan Sugar Company was formed, taking up 5000 acres and building a tramway (1883) to the harbour and a crushing mill. A harbour town was formed, with a notorious Blackbirders Retreat hotel. It was around the mill, however, that the permanent Mourilyan township was formed. Mourilyan was described in the Australian Handbook in 1896:
The post office directory (1908) recorded numerous selector sugar planters at Mourilyan, along with a sawmill and the Esmerelda India Rubber and Coffee Plantation. A school was opened in the same year. In 1914 the tramway, together with another from Innisfail to South Johnstone, were taken over by the Queensland Government. The two were linked, and the Government ran mixed freight and passenger services to Mourilyan Harbour. The sugar mill was taken over, with Howard Smith & Co having a controlling interest. By the late 1920s the post office directory recorded the Castor and Mourilyan Hotels, a school of arts, numerous sugar planters with Italian surnames and the Italian Progressive Club. Twenty years later over half the cane farmers were Italian.
Mourilyan's population grew by 50% to 650 during the 1920s and 1930s, and the North Coast railway connection was completed to Cairns (1921) and Brisbane (1924). The population peaked at 950 in 1961.
In 1960 a bulk sugar loading facility was opened at the harbour. The railway continued until 1997, when road transport displaced it: sugar is transported in boxes holding 6-12 tonnes of sugar, like shipping containers, and the sugar is dumped and taken by conveyor belt to the bulk storage. There is also a bulk molasses facility. The seaward end of the railway was abandoned, but the rest kept to transport cane as farms expanded coastward. Bundaberg Sugar operates the mill. In 2005 a live-cattle export facility opened at the port.
The Australian Sugar Industry Museum (1977) is Mourilyan's main tourist attraction, with a visitor information centre and changing displays. Mourilyan's two hotels continue, but the proximity of Innisfail has detracted from Mourilyan's shopping facilities.
Cyclones Larry and Yasi (2006, 2011) crossed the Queensland coast 10 km north and 60 km south of Mourilyan respectively. Larry damaged several houses, the primary school and the sugar mill. The mill worked intermittently until closed by Bundaberg Sugar in 2006.
Cyclone Yasi, although of greater intensity than Larry, crossed the coast on 3 February 2011 at a greater distance from Mourilyan. Like neighbouring Innisfail, it experienced building damage and crop losses.
Mourilyan's census populations have been:
John Armstrong et al, The Innisfail tramway: the history and development of the Geraldton 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 Council, Bicentennial Community Committee, 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, Cairns, G.K. Bolton Printers, 1973