Atherton History

North Queensland Australia

A view of Main Street Atherton around 1934

Main Street, Atherton c.1934.

The town of Atherton began as a cedar getters camp (Prior's Pocket) in the 1870's. The town was named after John Atherton in 1900.

Between the dense wet rainforests of the eastern coastal mountain ranges, and the dry, boulder-strewn ranges to the west, lay a strip of more open forest country with good water and grazing.

As people settled in the ranges south and west of the settlement, Atherton grew. It was a stopping place on the rough and treacherous track between the port of Cairns and the mining fields to the south and west, and a staging post for the Cobb & Co. The farms and market gardens around Atherton provided a source of fresh food for the miners, who toiled in the infertile, well-leached granite soils of the tin, silver and lead - bearing country around Herberton, Watsonville and Irvinebank.

Hou Wang Mao Temple in Atherton North Queensland

Hou Wang Temple: frontier architecture, Chinese style. Photographed in 1998.

Chinese people, who had arrived in the earlier gold rushes at the Hodgkinson and Palmer River goldfields turned their hands to market gardening. Soon Atherton had a chinatown, with a population of over 1000, its own temple, stores and other businesses.

As well as Chinese, the early settlers included large numbers of people from the British Isles, northern Italy, Germany and the middle east, as well as people from Afghanistan, India and Malaysia.

During the last century the pioneer settlers were joined by Greek, Albanian, Sicilian, Swiss, French, Canadian and American people. This cultural milieu has created a rich and unique local culture.

The Main Street Atherton and the Atherton courthouse

Notable people who have links to Atherton include Australian film and television composer Ron Grainger, perhaps best known for his creation of the Dr. Who theme music. Grainger was born in Atherton in 1922 and grew up at Mt Mulligan.

It may be a surprise to know that Atherton was also the birthplace of Nobel Prize winning Russian physicist Alexander Prokhorov, a pioneer in the development of lasers. Born in 1916, his Russian revolutionary parents had emigrated to north Queensland to escape political persecution, and returned to Russia in 1923.

Former Queensland Premier Peter Beattie grew up in Atherton and attended Atherton State High School.