Atherton, a stately rural town, is 50 km south-west of Cairns. Its elevation is generally 800 metres and it is situated on the western side of the Atherton Tableland. Atherton was the administrative centre for the former Atherton Shire and continues that role for the Tablelands Regional Council.
The overlander and grazier, John Atherton settled near Mareeba (30 km north of Atherton) in 1876, near the junction of the Barron River and Emerald Creek. Recognised as the European pioneer of the district, his name was given to both the town and the surrounding Tableland.
Although partly rain-shadowed by the Bellenden Ker range near Cairns, the Tableland gets over 1500 cm of rain a year, and was originally well forested with durable timbers. Much was cut out for fluming, building and mineshaft linings. Sawyers accessed the Tableland by Aboriginal tracks, which led to clearings referred to as pockets. The Prior brothers pit-sawed their timber at Priors Pocket, which had the advantage of a natural spring. A track from Herberton to Port Douglas passed through Priors Pocket, as did a surveyed railway route from Herburton to Mareeba. (Herberton was a rich tin-mining town originating in 1880, and the survey followed in about 1882).
Co-incident with the survey, tentative farm selections began on the margins of the Tableland at Tolga and the 'Tinaroo district'. When the time came for the selection of sites for townships, Priors Pocket was chosen, and the town was named Atherton. Town lots were sold early in 1886. The railway did not arrive in Atherton until 1903, but the coach road used Atherton as a stopping place.
Many of the Tableland farm selections were not occupied by their proprietors: clearing was hard work, crops were liable to insect destruction, and mining and timber cutting could be more rewarding. Instead, farms were rented to Chinese tenants who had the persistence to grow maize and rice. They formed a Chinatown adjoining Atherton, and built a Taoist temple there in 1903 (both of which are listed on the Queensland heritage register). Chinese farmers continued until the end of World War I when the lands were resumed for soldier settlement, although most of the allotments turned out to be uneconomic.
Atherton's first annual show was held in 1904, and during the next four years more farm selections were taken up east and south of Atherton. Some selectors came from northern New South Wales and Southern Queensland and, with their experience in dairying, they continued their previous farm occupation. A butter factory was opened at Golden Grove, just north of Atherton, in 1909, and by 1917 330 dairy farmers were supplying the factory. By then, however, the dairy herds at Malanda and Yungaburra outnumbered Atherton's, and from the 1930s dairy processing concentrated on Malanda.
In Atherton itself, a school was opened in 1891 and by 1910 there were three churches, a school of arts (1902) and a hospital. In the early 1920s the Queensland Labour government passed legislation for orderly marketing of primary products. Atherton's farmers joined trading pools for pigs (bacon), dairy goods and maize. Tableland maize growers borrowed funds for silos at Atherton, Tolga and Kairi.
At the turn of the century Mareeba (which had been connected to Cairns by railway in 1893) was the largest Tablelands town. After the railway's extension to Atherton in 1903, Atherton pulled ahead. Its population topped 1000 in 1910 and neared 1500 by the mid-1920s. Pugh's Queensland Directory (1924) recorded a wide range of shops and tradespeople at Atherton, along with five hotels, two bi-weekly newspapers (Atherton News and Tableland Advocate) and the co-operative butter and bacon factory. Reticulated water was connected in 1929.
Breadline-size farms and stringent economic conditions during the 1930s lowered living standards, and a report by Grenfell Price in 1936 stated that many farmhouses were rudimentary. Children combined schoolwork and home duties, described by Price as little short of child slavery.
In 1942 the Tableland was occupied by Australian and American services personnel, for jungle-training and a holding base (the Australian units based at Atherton during the war are listed on over 80 plaques in the Rocky Creek War Memorial Park established in 1995). Upwards of 100,000 troops were accommodated on the Tableland, the American GIs drinking milk in copious quantities, while Land Army women were employed for vegetable harvesting. Sixty thousand troops were treated as patients at the two general hospitals.
Postwar reconstruction plans in 1944 endorsed the idea of an irrigation scheme by damming the Barron River at Tinaroo Falls, and the Tinnaroo Dam began filling in 1958. Atherton's farming diversified in the postwar period into cereals and field crops, along with pigs and beef cattle. The township evolved into a substantial urban centre, nearly doubling in population in three decades, 1970-2000. A solidly built military 'igloo' was converted to an amenities centre, 'Merriland Hall'.
The Atherton war cemetery is on the state heritage register.
Atherton is situated on the Kennedy Highway, and has several streams running through its precincts. Chief among them is Priors Creek, with extensive linear parks and a golf course. The town centre includes a comprehensive shopping centre, a showground, hospital, Olympic swimming pool (1959), the Tableland information centre, a cultural centre and the former Atherton Shire offices. The railway adjoins tall grain silos, and the Railco station is next to Platypus Park and tourist attractions. There are State primary (1891) and high (1959) schools and a Catholic primary school (1923). The Atherton Turf Club's racecourse is at Tolga.
A cancer cluster among firefighters based at Atherton Fire Station was investigated in 2008.
Atherton's census populations have been:
Tableland visitors guide to the Cairns hinterland, Atherton, The Tablelander, annual, nd
Anne Statham, Cows in the vine scrub: a history of dairying on the Atherton Tableland, Malanda, Malanda Dairyfoods, 1998
Queensland Government Tourist Bureau, Tablelands of north Queensland: Atherton and Evelyn Tablelands and Oswalds's Track (Returned Soldiers' Settlement), Brisbane, The Bureau, 1918
Tall timber and golden grain, Atherton 1885-1985, Atherton, Atherton Centenary Committee, 1985
Edwina Toohey, From bullock team to puffing billy: the Atherton Tableland and its hinterland: Aborigines and settlers 1860s to 1994, Rockhampton, Central Queensland University Press, 2001