In 1770, James Cook first mapped the future site of Cairns, naming it Trinity Bay. One hundred years later, closer investigation by several official expeditions established its potential for development into a port city, it was named Cairns after a Governor of Queensland, William Wellington Cairns. The town was formed to serve miners heading for the Hodgkinson River goldfield, but experienced a decline when an easier route was discovered from Port Douglas, a town about an hour to the north. It later developed into a railhead and major port for exporting sugar cane, gold and other metals, minerals and agricultural products from surrounding coastal areas and the Atherton Tablelands region. Prior to British settlement the Cairns area was inhabited by the Walubarra Yidinji people who call the area Gimuy and have recognised indigenous property rights.

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