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Innisfail, QLD

Historic sugar cane town known for its impressive Art Deco buildings

Innisfail, located at the junction of the Johnstone and South Johnstone Rivers, is basically a sugar cane and banana town. Its economy is largely dependent on the sugar and banana plantations which surround the town and the mills and bulk loading facilities which support the sugar industry. It is one of the few substantial towns in north Queensland to remain relatively untouched by the tourist boom. Arguably it has the finest collection of Art Deco buildings anywhere in Australia.


Innisfail is located 1,595 km north of Brisbane via the Bruce Highway and 88 km south of Cairns.


Origin of Name

Innisfail was the name given by Irish entrepreneur Thomas Henry Fitzgerald to his property in the district. The town was named Geraldton in 1882 to honour Fitzgerald but an amusing mistake - a Russian ship bound for Geraldton in Western Australia ended up at Innisfail when it was named Geraldton - led to the town being renamed Innisfail. Inis Fail is a romantic name for Ireland.


Things to See and Do

Innisfail Town Walk
Due to a catastrophic cyclone which destroyed much of the town in 1918, Innisfail has (as a result of rebuilding) a hugely impressive collection of Art Deco buildings. It is worth taking time exploring the town. There is an Innisfail Town Walk (it starts at the carpark on Fitzgerald Esplanade) which can be downloaded at http://www.cassowarycoast.com.au/PDF/Town-Walk-Map.pdf.
Of particular interest are:

1. The River Reflections
Along the riverfront wall are a series of handcrafted tiles which tell the story of the town.  It is a wonderful way to experience the peacefulness of the river and learn about the history of the town - as the signage explains: "The words 'River Reflections" are inscribed by local people in many of the 48 languages recorded in the Johnstone Shire in the 1996 census. The 8 sculptures are finished with mosaics of clay tiles, terrazzo, inlaid glass, brass and bronze. The core motif is the Johnstone River, in sections overlaid with dozens of stories of migration to reflect the rich cultural diversity of the Johnstone Shire. Images of native flora are represented in hundreds of tiles in the 8 themes. Original Ma:mu inhabitants; early European migration; destruction; commerce; individual stories; recreation; food; future hope. Panels were designed and executed in 1996 by Griffith University Design Lecturer Sam Di Mauro (born and educated in Innisfail of Italian parents), in conjunction with locals Lorraine Viegel, Lily Hart, Rebecca Sweeney, Mate Buljubasich and Rob Hart. All stories were collected by Di Mauro from research and interviews with local community in 1998."

2. Pioneers Monument - The Canecutter Statue
Located at the southern end of the Esplanade is the Pioneers Monument a handsome statue designed by Renato Beretta and built in 1959 which is made from Carrara marble. It depicts a cane cutter with his knife at the ready. Donated to the town by members of the local Italian community it is a reminder of the importance of Italian cane cutters to the success of the district. The Queensland Heritage Register notes: "Below the statue, two opposing faces of the plinth feature bas reliefs depicting cane cutters at work. At the front of the monument it carries the Latin motto "UBI BENI IBI PATRIA", which loosely translates to 'Where one is content, there is one's homeland'. On the other two faces are inscriptions, one in English and one in Italian. The English version reads: TO THE PIONEERS OF THE SUGAR INDUSTRY DONATED BY THE ITALIAN COMMUNITY OF INNISFAIL DISTRICT ON THE FIRST CENTENARY OF THE STATE OF QUEENSLAND 1859-1959.
Below these panels are cast metal water spouts in the form of water bags over metal bowls." For more detailed information check out https://environment.ehp.qld.gov.au/heritage-register/detail/?id=602041.

4. Memorial School of Arts
Built in 1930 and located in Edith Street, the Memorial School of Arts now houses the town's Historical Museum which occupies two rooms and contains photos and memorabilia relating to the Johnstone Shire. It is open Monday to Friday from 10.00 am - noon and 1.00 pm - 3.00 pm. Tel: (07) 4061 1432. The building was constructed to commemorate those who had served in World War I. It cost £8,000 which involved a £6,500 loan which the organisation had great difficulty paying off. There was a threat of foreclosure in 1939 and in 1940 the School of Arts committee had to borrow £130 from the local council to repay an overdue instalment. It was still owing £5,041 in 1944.

5a. Court House
Located at 10 Edith Street, the Innisfail Court House is the town's third Court House and was built in 1939 and opened in 1940. It was "Designed and constructed as part of a Government initiated Works scheme created to generate employment throughout Queensland during the 1930s, the Innisfail Court House is also a fine example of the work completed under this scheme" and is a typical example of an inter-war Classical style two storey brick building "with a corrugated-iron roof and rendered details to the gables and verandahs. A curved portico forms the entrance to the building and addresses the corner through two columns with Ionic capitals. A double-height verandah runs down each street facade. The gables are embellished with broken pediments and Venetian windows." For more detailed information check out the Queensland Heritage Register at https://environment.ehp.qld.gov.au/heritage-register/detail/?id=601578.

8. Shire Hall
Located at 70 Rankin Street, the Shire Hall stands like a beacon towering above all the other buildings in the town. It was built between 1935 - 1938 after the previous three Shire Halls had been burnt down - the first in 1891, the second in 1913 and the third in 1932. Financed in part by the shire's commitment to provide relief employment during the depression, it was built of reinforced cement to withstand the summer cyclones which regularly hit the town. The hall upstairs, which was state of the art when it was built, is a massive place still used for civic occasions. It has huge roll-a-doors on the windows so that on hot nights the hall can be opened to catch the slightest breeze. It cost the council £54,725 to construct - at a time when they couldn't afford such a large outlay. The Queensland Heritage Register describes the building as: "The main facade has a stepped parapet with four banded pilasters defining bays featuring moulded decorative panels representing sugar cane. There is a cantilevered awning over the street with a balcony above, access to the balcony is via French doors. The balcony has a wrought-iron balustrade. The main entrance has three arched doorways through which is the ceramic tiled entrance foyer. The upper storey features a panelled foyer and auditorium, with a stage and fly tower."  For more detailed information check out https://environment.ehp.qld.gov.au/heritage-register/detail/?id=601579.

9. Mother of Good Counsel Catholic Church
Located at 90 Rankin Street, this huge church is a powerful demonstration of the community's deep Catholicism through its Irish, Italian and Maltese communities. It is the third Catholic church built in Innisfail and was blessed and opened in 1928. It cost more than £20,000. "The Church, of reinforced concrete throughout, is 120ft x 63ft (36.5m x 19m approx).  The inside measurements are 116ft x 58 ft (35.3m x 17.8m).  The nave is 28ft (8.5m) between round columns and the aisles are 12.5 ft (3.8m) wide.  A row of columns with Gothic arches extends the length of the church on each side of the nave. The domed ceiling of the sanctuary was plaster and the floor, terracotta tiles. To the right of the sanctuary is a shrine to Mary, Mother of Good Counsel.  Inlaid in the floor in front of Mary’s shrine is a wooden cross indicating the tomb of Father Michael Martin Clancy, parish priest of Innisfail from 1898 until his death in 1931." for more information check out http://www.gcparish.org.au/Pages/History.html

St Andrew's Presbyterian Memorial Church
This striking A-frame building at 114 Rankin Street was designed by Eddie H Oribin and built in 1961. It is an unusual church and, as noted by the Queensland Heritage Register, is "an outstanding and distinctive example of the use of local timbers and craftsmanship in a design reflecting the world-wide influence of the work of American architect Frank Lloyd Wright's ideas on organic architecture. As a tall, A-frame building located on the crest of a ridge overlooking the Johnstone River, St Andrew's Presbyterian Church is a landmark in Innisfail." For more detailed information check out https://environment.ehp.qld.gov.au/heritage-register/detail/?id=602332

19. See Poy House
Located at 134 Edith Street, See Poy House was built between 1929-1932 for Johnstone and Theodora See Poy, a family of second generation Chinese whose father, Tom See Poy, had made his fortune on the Palmer goldfields and compounded the fortune by astute investment in local banana plantations and property. The Queensland Heritage Register notes: "The street elevation of See Poy House was typical of an interwar Queenslander house; however its materials and special features reflect the wealth and standing of the family. It was noticeably larger than a standard house at 670 square metres in area and featured specially selected timbers (black bean, white hickory and silky oak), brass fittings and leadlight windows. During construction, rough sawn hardwood timber was transported from Maryborough and dressed on site. The use of mortised joints and anchor bolts cyclone-proofed the house. Leadlight windows and 12 ft (3.65 m) high ceilings were notable features of the interior of the house. It comprised a typical room format for a large interwar house being formal dining and lounge rooms, main bedroom, bathroom, second bedroom, study and kitchen. Verandahs were located on both sides and at the rear of the house. Balustrades were solid, other than decorative timber batten panels centred beneath timber bracket arches with side openings. The battening pattern used was consistent throughout: below arched openings and on the front stair balustrade in the infill latticework. The house cost between £1,200 and £2,000." For more detailed information check out https://environment.ehp.qld.gov.au/heritage-register/detail/?id=602759.

24. Chinese Temple
The Chinese Temple in Ernest Street, known locally as The Joss House, is a small red building. Its incense and brassware is a reminder that the goldfields of North Queensland attracted considerable numbers of Chinese and that after the goldrushes they dispersed south settling in towns like Innisfail. It is a universal temple honouring Buddhism, Taoism and Ancestor Worship.


Other Attractions in the Area

Australian Sugar Heritage Centre
Located only 9 km south of Innisfail at Mourilyan, the Australian Sugar Heritage Centre is focussed on the history of sugar cane in North Queensland. It features a number of exhibits including "Historic Tractors and Farm Implements", "Steam Locomotives", historical photographs of the area, a history of the South Sea Islander (Kanaka) workers who laboured picking sugar cane, and stories of the Europeans who settled the area. Tel: (07) 4063 2477 or check out http://www.sugarmuseum.com.au.

Paronella Park
Located 19 km south-west of Innisfail at 1671 Japoonvale Road is Paronella Park. It really is a "must see" experience. Covering 5 ha beside Mena Creek Falls it is a remarkable anomaly - a combination of rainforest and a revitalised castle and wonderland. A Spaniard named Jose Paronella emigrated to Queensland in 1913 to work on the local cane fields. He made his fortune by developing and selling cane farms and proceeded, between 1930 and 1936, to build a fantasy castle on the banks of the Mena Creek which included a superb ballroom with a metre diameter mirror ball, a European cafe, a music pavilion, waterfalls and a remarkable 45-metre tunnel which led into a secret garden. It was the fulfilment of a lifetime's dreams and ambitions and it was hugely successful as a social centre for the local area. In 1946 Jose saw his dream home seriously damaged by floodwaters which swept down the Mena Creek. Two years later Jose Paronella was diagnosed with terminal cancer. The park did not recover. In 1993 Mark and Judy Evans purchased what was essentially a ruin. The castle had been nearly destroyed by fire in 1979. The paths were seriously overgrown. Today it is open to the general public and is one of the eccentric wonders of North Queensland. To learn more, and find out about entrance costs, check out http://www.paronellapark.com.au or tel: (07) 4065 0000. It is open from 9.00 am - 7.30 pm daily.

Etty Bay
Etty Bay, located 15 km south east of Innisfail and only 7 km from the Bruce Highway, is a 700 metre long, unspoilt beach where the tropical rainforest reaches down to the shore and where cassowaries can be seen wandering through the undergrowth. The beach has a caravan park and a surf lifesaving club. Although idyllic and unspoilt it is worth remembering that cassowaries can attack and the waters can include such dangers as saltwater crocodiles and box jellyfish.

Mamu Tropical Skywalk
Located 32 km west of Innisfail on the Palmerston Highway, the Tropical Skywalk is unlike all the other "skywalks" (at Jamberoo in New South Wales and in the timber forests of Western Australia) in the sense that the main walk (a total distance of 2.5 km - it takes a leisurely hour) is on ground level through the tropical rainforest. The main attraction is, however, a combination of elevated walkways, an observation tower and a 40 metre long cantilever which sits in the rainforest canopy. These all offer an opportunity to walk amongst the treetops. The heavy-duty plastic which is used for the elevated walkways was made from 900,000 two litre plastic bottles. There is extensive signage and a total of 40 different tropical trees and bushes are identified along the route. The website explains "The Skywalk passes through one of the largest-remaining continuous stands of complex vine forest on basalt soils in the Wet Tropics. Enjoy close-up views of rainforest plants, insects and birds, and take in sweeping vistas. Information signs tell of the rainforest’s complex web of life and the rich culture and history of the area." Check out http://mamutropicalskywalk.com.au.



* Prior to the arrival of the Europeans the area was home to the Aboriginal Mamu people.

* The Johnstone Rivers were first sighted by Sub-inspector Robert Johnstone who came upon the current site of the town and wrote: "a most glorious view appeared -  a noble reach of fresh water, studded with blacks with their canoes and catamarans, others on the sandy beaches; deep blue fresh water expanding to an imposing breadth."

* On Johnstone's recommendation an expedition led by George Dalrymple arrived in September 1873 to explore the coastline. About 4 miles upstream one of Dalrymple's men, P. N. Nind, made a camp and on the basis of this Innisfail was originally known as Nind's Camp or The Junction.

* In 1879 an enterprising Irishman named Thomas Henry Fitzgerald arrived in the area to take up land. 

* In 1880 Fitzgerald started the Innisfail sugar plantation which was backed by James Quinn, the Bishop of Queensland.

* In 1882 the Surveyor-General named the town Geraldton in honour of Fitzgerald.

* The first tea plantation in Australia was planted near Bingal Bay in 1884.

* In 1884 the Mourilyan Sugar Company Mill started crushing.

* The Colonial Sugar Refining Company established the Goondi sugar mill on the Johnstone River in 1885.

* In 1887 Geraldton was officially proclaimed.

* In the 1880s two joss houses were built by the Chinese in the town.

* The Catholic Church was erected in 1892.

* A public meeting was held in 1910 and the name of the town was officially changed to 'Innisfail', the name of Fitzgerald's property.

* A record flood destroyed the low lying areas of the town in 1913. 

* After World War I large numbers of Italian, Maltese and Greek migrants settled in the town.

* In 1915 the Queensland government built a state-run sugar mill.

* The town's third sugar mill was opened in 1916.

* Over 70 sugar farms were created for soldier settlers after World War I.

* In 1918 the town was devastated by a cyclone.

* During the rebuilding, after the cyclone, many Art Deco buildings were constructed.

* The Jubilee Bridge across the Johnstone River was completed in 1923.

* The railway bridge was opened in 1924.

* Paronella Park was opened in 1935.

* The Johnstone Shire Hall was completed in 1938.

* A local court house was opened in 1939.

* In the 1950s the town started to develop a substantial fishing fleet.

* In 2004 the Mamu Tropical Skywalk was opened.

* The town was seriously damaged by Cyclone Larry in 2006.


Visitor Information

Innisfail I-VAN, Anzac Memorial Park, Gladys Street, tel: 0428 228 962. Open Monday to Friday 9.00 am - 3.00 pm and Saturday 9.00 am - 1.00 pm.


Useful Websites

The official local website can be found at https://www.tropicalcoasttourism.com.au/innisfail.

Got something to add?

Have we missed something or got a top tip for this town? Have your say below.

4 suggestions
  • Where was Railway Reserve located does not exist on map but had Railway Houses in the 1950s

    Carol Erbacher
  • Crocodiles don’t actually live at Etty Bay. They get washed in every now and then due to bad weather.

  • We are renovating the O’Brien’s homestead built in 1910 and would like some historical photos of events to show the history of Innisfail. Please can you help.

    Hilary Fahey
  • Could you please tell me the Author’s name of “Sugar flowers” which is a novel set in Innisfail, I think? This historic novel was released in late nineties or early 2000’s!
    Thankyou to anyone whom can remember this book and help me with acquire a copy of this lovely story about your local region!

    Sue-Ann Dwyer