Tully, a sugar town of 2500 people, is 110 km south of Cairns. It was named after the Tully River, which was named by a colonial surveyor after Queensland's Surveyor-General, William Tully, in about 1872. The area was also known as Banyan, after a tributary of the Tully River.
The Tully River Valley was acknowledged as a good place for sugar cane when the investor-pastoralist, James Tyson, and Isaac Henry, established a plantation and a mill in the early 1880s. The venture was not persisted with, but Henry stayed on, diversifying into timber and dairying. The uneven returns from sugar, season to season, dissuaded many others from trying and the banana industry emerged as a potentially more lucrative crop. Chinese growers, having abandoned the gold fields, built up banana-growing, reaching peak production in 1905-08. Various other settlers grew citrus, cotton, rice, potatoes and other crops.
In 1911 the Queensland government established a Royal Commission into the sugar industry with the chief objective of establishing central mills for crushing cane. The Commission reported that large areas of scrub land near Tully would be well suited to cane growing, and the forest plain country had potential. There was ample water at three mill sites. Settlers were eking out an existence exporting bananas and citrus, but there was a lack of market facilities. Tully River came sixth in a list of twelve proposed locations. Two of the mills (Babinda and Innisfail) were built. In 1916 the Ryan labour government appointed a board of inquiry into the sugar industry. The board reported favourably on Tully River, concluding that the settlers deserved assistance. The board brought Tully to the top of its list for the construction of a new central mill, but World War I stopped progress. In 1922 the government was under the premiership of Edward Theodore, a North Queenslander who was thought to be well disposed to Tully. Next year a newly-appointed commission unhesitatingly affirmed that Tully was the most suitable location for a central mill. The site of the mill and the adjoining town were surveyed and construction started at the end of 1923. It became Australia's largest sugar mill.
Crown lands and freehold farms were subdivided throughout 1924-25. The Banyan school was opened in 1924 and renamed Tully in 1925. Pugh's Queensland directory (1927) estimated Tully's population to be 1000, and recorded numerous stores, two garages, three booksellers, a bank, eight refreshment rooms and a hotel. Many of the new cane farmers were Italian, as American restrictions on southern European migration had diverted many of them to Australia. With previous Italian settlement around Ingham, new settlers were drawn to places near their own countrymen. The first church to be built in Tully was Catholic (1927), and a convent was opened in 1934. Tully's upstart growth completely overshadowed Cardwell, and a new Cardwell Shire hall was opened in Tully in 1930. Medical needs were met by private clinics until a hospital was opened in 1934.
The Tully sugar mill was Government-run until 1931 at which time local canegrowers took it over as a co-operative concern. In 1933, with Government approval, they formed their own canegrowers' association, freeing them to decide on their own production quotas.The sugar mill continues to impose its presence on the landscape of Tully. Spread over 50 ha, it drew cane from as far afield as El Arish and Cardwell, with around-the-clock operation. From 55 km of cane trams, it had about 240 km by 2000. Molasses and cane-waste by-products are sources of additional income. Annual rainfall is over 4000 millimetres, ideal for sugar cane, which took up 30% of the shire's cultivated land. (67% of the former Cardwell Shire was national park).
Tully reached a population of nearly 2700 in 1933. There have never been more that 2900 residents and in 2006 there were 2500. Its growth plateaued, and after 1933 most building activity consisted of replacing hastily run-up structures. Bowling and golf facilities, swimming pool and a nursing home came with prosperity. The Tully and District Show Society (1934) improved its showground. In the hills behind Tully the river falls had been identified as a source of hydro electricity by Theodore in 1925. In 1950 work began and electric power was switched on in 1957. A temporary population of 458 at the works site was recorded in the 1954 census. At the mouth of the river is Tully Heads, a community of about 400 people.
In addition to the facilities already mentioned, Tully has a State high school (1964), State and Catholic primary (1928) schools, the Tully Times, and a nursing home. Tully's second State primary school, a finely-detailed two-story brick building (1936), is listed on the Queensland heritage register.
Sugar remains important, but the former shire's economy has diversified. All forms of agriculture were badly damaged by Cyclone Larry in March 2006. Up to 90% of Australia's banana crops were lost, and over 95% of Australia's banana plantations were in north Queensland by then. Damage to buildings was also severe.
On 3 February 2011 the Category 5 Cyclone Yasi crossed the Queensland coast, virtually centred on Tully. Wind gusts of 290 km/hour were recorded. An estimated three quarters of banana crops and half of the sugar were lost. One in three houses were damaged or destroyed: high-set Queenslander houses were particularly vulnerable. Residents evacuated to the 1950s senior citizens’ centre were luckily persuaded to move to the hospital: the former was destroyed and the hospital survived. Some houses were washed away, and the streets were littered with storm debris.
Tully Heads suffered both cyclone damage and a storm surge, almost being destroyed.
Tully's census populations have been:
In 1933 Tully had 61% of Cardwell Shire's population, and in 2001 it had 24%.
Alan Hudson, By the Banyan: Tully sugar, the first 75 years, Brisbane, Christopher Beck Books, 2000
Dorothy Jones, Cardwell Shire story, Brisbane, Jacaranda Press, 1961