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Atherton, QLD

Largest service centre on the Atherton Tablelands.

Atherton, at the heart of the Atherton Tablelands, is a substantial and attractive service town. Today, apart from the very unusual Crystal Cave and the Art Deco Barron Valley Hotel, most of the attractions are at the edges or beyond the town. The unusual Tolga Bat Hospital, the Hou Wang Temple and the many parks, lakes and unusual volcanic formations which are such an integral part of the Atherton Tablelands experience and beyond the town's centre and the intense rich, red volcanic soils of the area, which have been estimated to be over 30 metres deep, have been used to produce tobacco, maize, potatoes, peanuts, macadamia nuts and avocados.


Atherton is located 1713 km north of Brisbane and 81 km south-west of Cairns. The major town on the Atherton tablelands it is 753 m above sea-level.


Origin of Name

Both Atherton, the town, and the Atherton Tablelands were named after John Atherton, a remarkable early settler who, in 1857 when he was only twenty, overlanded sheep from the New England area of NSW to Rockhampton. He moved to the area in the late 1870s.


Things to See and Do

Halloran's Hill Environmental Park
The Halloran's Hill Environmental Park is a reminder of the Atherton Tablelands' volcanic past. The park contains a crater from an extinct volcano. There is a 1.4 km path which starts in Louise Street and leads through endangered mabi forest to the crater's edge and reaches the top of the hill where there are panoramic views across the surrounding countryside. It was once possible to go down into the crater, which is now densely vegetated with rainforest. For more information check out http://www.npsr.qld.gov.au/parks/hallorans-hill/about.html. It is particularly useful regarding the fauna in the park, noting that "Nocturnal animals like the Lumholtz's tree-kangaroo Lumholtz's tree-kangaroo and green ringtail possum are found on Hallorans Hill. Spotlight for them at night or search the canopy for their sleeping forms during the day. Red-legged pademelons are often seen and heard while walking along the track. Look for the grey-headed robin hopping along the forest floor in search of insects, spiders, grubs and snails. Listen for the wailing, baby-like or cat-like cry of the spotted catbird. Pairs of this distinctly green bird feed together within their territory, flitting and hopping through the rainforest in search of fruit. Watch the twisting, turning feeding flight of the grey fantail. Although found over much of Australia, grey fantails found on the Atherton Tableland are characteristically darker, occasionally mistaken for the willy wagtail. The scurry and rustle in the leaf litter as you walk along the track is probably a retreating rainbow skink Carlia rubrigularis. Walk quietly and look for them sunning on rocks and logs. Along creeks and near drains, look for eastern water dragons."

Barron Valley Hotel
Located at 53 Main Street, and designed in an Art Deco style, the Barron Valley Hotel was built in World War II between 1939-1941. It is listed in the Queensland Heritage Register for its historical association "as a base for allied training and rehabilitation during World War II, being requisitioned for about two and a half years during 1942-1944 as the Australian Army's officers' club, mess hall and accommodation, and providing briefly a home to General Sir Thomas Blamey, Commander-in-Chief of the Australian Military Forces." It was built by the Nasser family (a Lebanese family who still own the building) and is notable for "the integrity of its layout and the intactness and quality of its interior, which employs a variety of decorative applied design elements and materials popular at the time of its construction. The main entrance foyer and staircase, which display a lavish use of North Queensland timbers in streamlined decorative finishes, fixtures and early furniture, are particularly fine. The place is important in demonstrating the principal characteristics of a substantial 'Art Deco' hotel of the late 1930s/early 1940s in a regional centre." For more detailed information check out https://environment.ehp.qld.gov.au/heritage-register/detail/?id=602587.

Old Atherton Post Office Gallery
The town's post office was moved to 86 Herberton Street at the southern end of town and is now used as a museum and as a gallery which contains a range of work by local artists and potters. It is open from 9.00 am - 5.00 pm (May - September), 9.00 am - 1.00 pm (October - April) Tuesday to Saturday, tel: (07) 4091 5261. For more information check out http://www.tablelandgallery.trc.qld.gov.au/old-post-office-gallery.

The Chinese moved into the area in the 1880s and became successful farmers until after World War I when much of the land they were using was taken for soldier settlers. The Queensland Heritage Register has a very detailed history of the Chinese in the area and is worth reading to understand their importance and the importance of the Chinese Temple and village. The Heritage Register notes: "By 1897, there were over 180 Chinese living on the site which developed as a short main street lined with small timber and iron shops and houses. At the height of its development, around 1909, commercial premises located here included corn merchants, food and general goods stores, a herbalist, two gambling dens and a place of entertainment which employed musicians. There was also a Tong society meeting hall and a temple. At the time, this was the social and commercial centre for over a thousand Chinese people who were living in the Atherton district ... The site is approximately 4.5 hectares in area and is located on the gently sloping area to the south of Piebald Creek and to the east of the Herberton Road." For more information check out https://environment.ehp.qld.gov.au/heritage-register/detail/?id=600011.

The Chinese Temple to the Emperor Hou Wang Miau
Located at 86 Herberton Road south of Atherton is the Hou Wang Miau temple which was built in 1903 by the community of Atherton's Chinatown using local materials (local cedar, black bean timber and corrugated iron) and furnishings ordered especially from China. It provided a social and spiritual focus for over a thousand people in the township and the surrounding area. The prominent local Fong On family renovated the temple and its adjacent kitchen annexe and community hall. The building is open Wednesday to Sundays from 11.00 am - 4.00 pm with the last guided tour starting at 3.30 pm. The Museum recalls the history of the Chinese in the Atherton district with displays which record the history of early goldmining, the Cedar Creek settlement when Chinese miners moved to timber cutting and the subsequent gardening which saw peanuts and lychees grown on the tablelands. The website explains that Hou Wang "is not a name, but a title. It can be translated as ‘Prince Marquis’- a reference to Yang Liang Chieh, the bodyguard commander of the last Song Emperor (1127-1280 AD), the eight year old Ti Ping. When the Emperor fled from Guandong ahead of the Mongols in 1280AD, Hou Wang was left in charge of the rearguard. Yang Liang Chieh was posthumously honoured for his loyalty by being raised to the rank of Hou Wang and in 1731 the first temple was dedicated to him in Kowloon. Atherton Chinatown's Temple is believed to be the only remaining temple dedicated to Hou Wang outside China." The site was completed in 2003 at a cost of $1.3 million and won a National Trust of Queensland award that year. For more details check out the website: http://www.houwang.org.au.


The Crystal Cave
Located at 69 Main Street this is a triumph of hard-earned publicity and promotion. Boasting 600 individual pieces of crystal, and such eccentricities as a 4000 kg fountain made from rose quartz, it promotes itself as a "gallery, rock shop and jeweller." It has a wide range of excellent stones and valuable rocks and a basement area which has been constructed like a cave with a variety of crystals (quartz, amethyst and topaz amongst others) on display. It is open seven days, tel: (07) 4091 2365.


Other Attractions in the Area

Hasties Swamp (Nyleta Wetlands)
Located south of Atherton on Koci Road, the Hasties Swamp National Park supports more than 300 species of birds on a wetland refuge characterised by dry woodlands, wet and dry sclerophyll forest, upland rainforests and wetlands. It is a location designed for birdlovers with a two-storey birdhide.For birdlovers the Department of National Parks website notes: "Look in the swamp area for magpie geese, grey teals, Australasian grebes, Pacific black ducks, plumed whistling-ducks , wandering whistling-ducks, hardheads, green pygmy-geese, pink-eared ducks and various egret and ibis species.
In the woodland are white-breasted woodswallows, bar-shouldered doves, rainbow lorikeets, laughing kookaburras, yellow-bellied sunbirds, figbirds, black-faced cuckoo-shrikes, yellow-faced honeyeaters, Lewin's honeyeaters and scarlet honeyeaters and many others.
"In the skies over the swamp, look for raptors like the white-bellied sea-eagle, wedge-tailed eagle, Pacific baza, black-shouldered kite, brahminy kite, whistling kite and black kite. These predatory birds use trees for roosting and breeding—building large stick nests in the branches.
"Local birds, following seasonal changes and food sources, make regular movements to and from Hasties Swamp. Sacred kingfishers, forest kingfishers, comb-crested jacanas, sarus cranes, rufous whistlers, black-winged stilts, spangled drongoes, silvereyes, swamp harriers, spotted harriers, Horsefield's bronze-cuckoos, little bronze-cuckoos and black-eared cuckoos can all be seen at different times of the year.
"International visitors to Hasties Swamp include common sandpipers and Latham's snipes, which stop over around August and September on their way from Japan to southern Australia to escape the northern hemisphere winter. They return again in March through to April to rest and feed on their way back to Japan. The sharp-tailed sandpiper also arrives at Hasties Swamp around August and September—escaping the severe winter in arctic Siberia. During this time they are common in wetlands throughout Australia, returning to Siberia in March. From New Guinea, summer migrants like rainbow bee-eaters, common koels and channel-billed cuckoos visit the swamp." There is an excellent, detailed website. Check it out at https://www.npsr.qld.gov.au/parks/hasties-swamp/about.html.

Tolga Bat Hospital
Located at 134 Carrington Road (off the road to Herberton) this unique "hospital" is operated by volunteers committed to "conservation of bats and their habitat". It is open daily for guided tours from 3.00 pm - 6.00 pm but bookings are essential, tel: (07) 4091 2683. There is an outstanding, and hugely informative, website - check out https://www.tolgabathospital.org/about_visitor.htm.  It is a hugely enjoyable, and unforgettable experience - even if you don't like bats. The signage goes a long way to explaining the appeal: "Bats are the only mammals that can fly and they spend much of their lives upside down. There are over 1100 species, so bats make up nearly a quarter of the world's mammal species. This incredible diversity allows them to live in every continent except Antarctica, and eat a wider range of foods than all over mammals put together." The tours involve the feeding of the bats and provide a lot of information about how the bats end up in a hospital needing care and rehabilitation.



* Prior to the arrival of Europeans the area was occupied by the Yidinji Aboriginal people.

* In 1873 John Atherton and his brother James drove some cattle from his property near Mackay to the booming goldfields on the Palmer River.

* He followed this in 1875 with another overlanding expedition to the new goldfields on the Hodgkinson River.

* In 1876 Atherton finally settled at Emerald End on the Upper Burdekin River and remained there for 37 years.

* The town was first settled by Europeans in the early 1880s as a camp for cedar-cutters.

* It was first called Prior's Pocket after a family of timber getters who settled near the present site of the town.

* In 1882 Herberton was surveyed.

* In 1885 it was surveyed and renamed Atherton.

* Town lots were sold in 1886.

* In the 1880s substantial Chinese population lived around the town working the rich soils of the area producing vegetables for the miners.

* A state primary school was opened in 1891.

* Atherton became a stopover point from the coast to the Herberton tin fields.

* A school of arts opened in 1902.

* The railway reached the town in 1903. A post office was opened that year.

* Atherton had its first agricultural show in 1904.

* The Chinese began to leave the area after 1907 and much of their land was taken over by soldier settlers after World War I.

* A butter factory was opened in 1909.

* A large dairy co-operative was established in 1914.

* By 1917 330 dairy farmers were supplying the co-operative with milk.

* By the mid-1920s the population of the town had reached 1500.

* Reticulated water was connected to the town in 1929.

* By 1942 Atheron was an important training base for both the Australian and US forces.


Visitor Information

Atherton Tablelands Visitor Information Centre, Silo Road & Main Road, tel: (07) 4091 4222 and 1300 366 361.


Useful Websites

There is a useful official website. Check out http://www.athertontablelands.com.au.

Got something to add?

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2 suggestions
  • 1907 is before WW1. You mention the Chinese moving out due to soldier settlers. My great uncles went from Herberton. You could give that a plug too

    Cameron Fleming, -Barratt, Stenhouse, Carr,Adaire
  • Emerald End is on the Barron River just east of the Town of Mareeba and the family cemetery is still there and during the war a large airstrip was built 5 miles south of the town with one strip encroaching on the town boundary This strip also was the base of the Australian parachute battalions and where the Cubs hut is now I believe it was where Blamey lived with his headquarters 50 yards from his quarters.

    Guy Gowan