Atherton Shire, an area of 623 sq km, and generally 40 km south-west of Cairns, was amalgamated with Eacham, Herberton and Mareeba Shires in 2008 to form Tablelands Regional Council. It is bounded to the north-east by the Tinaroo Range and the south-west by the Nelson Range. Mount Bartle Frere and the coastal Bellenden Ker Range put the shire and the Tableland in a minor rain shadow. To the west are extensive folding ranges which continue the Great Dividing Range.
The Atherton Tableland has been variously defined. A definition used in 1918 put it at an area not much greater than the shire. Atherton, Yungaburra and Malanda townships were included, but not Herberton, Ravenshoe or Millaa Millaa; they were placed in a slightly higher plateau, the Evelyn Tableland. To the north, Mareeba, with an elevation of 350 metres, was also excluded from this early delineation of the Atherton Tableland. During World War II 'Atherton Tableland' was used generally to describe an extensive upland occupied by upwards of 100,000 Australian and American services personnel and from which Flying Fortress bombing missions were flown. This broader definition spread with increased public familiarity of the area brought about by the military activity, with some authorities placing its northern limit at the headwaters of the Palmer River and its southern limit at the Burdekin's headwaters. Later descriptions have reverted to the smaller area, recognising a discrete Evelyn Tableland.
Explored by James Mulligan in 1875, the area north of Mareeba township was settled by John Atherton in 1876. Tin mining at Herberton, about 20 km south-west of Atherton, began in 1880. The mining industry's need for timber for shaft linings and shorings brought sawyers into the Tableland, and the growth of Herberton township prompted a survey for a railway line from Cairns around the north and west of the Tableland. The Cairns to Herberton railway line reached Atherton in 1903. Farm selections in the 'Tinaroo district' followed. The scrub cover was tenacious, growing in fertile basaltic lavas. Evidence of the sources of the basalt can be seen in cones and explosion craters such as Bald Knob (north-west of Atherton) and Lake Eacham (east of Yungaburra).
Farm selectors survived with mixed farming - maize, pigs and dairying. A butter factory was opened at Atherton in 1906, and a maize-growers' co-operative erected storage silos at Atherton, Tolga and Kairi in the 1920s. A dairy factory began operation at Malanda in 1917 and by the following year dairying was concentrated around Malanda and Yungaburra. Malanda interests would ultimately dominate the Tableland's dairy industry.
Local government began in 1880 with the Tinaroo division which was headquartered at Herberton. In 1894 the division's office was transferred to Atherton, and the next year Herberton division was excised from Tinaroo. The district was unserviced by a railway until the Cairns-Mareeba line was extended to Atherton in 1903. The line was further extended to Herberton in 1910, and a branch from Tolga to Yungaburra and beyond was also opened in 1910 (the main railway line through Atherton continues but the branch from Tolga was closed in 1963). The lines facilitated the establishment of soldier-settlement farms after 1918, but the holdings were often uneconomic. In 1903 and 1911 large parts of the Tinaroo Shire were severed for Eacham and Mareeba Shires. In 1935 it was renamed Atherton, the name gaining prominence during World War II.
American troops created an enormous local market for milk and fresh vegetables, although smallholding farm practices and production pressure during the war resulted in soil and pasture debilitation. A state farm at Kairi east of Tolga became a pasture research station in 1946, beginning a rehabilitation programme. In 1949, the Atherton Shire was described in The Australian Blue Book, using the limited definition of Atherton Tableland that applied in 1918:
Maize growing had been a Tableland staple since the 1880s, but declining productivity in the 1950s prompted research into hybrid varieties. As a result of those efforts, yields recovered and had doubled by the 1970s. Peanut production also escalated sharply in the 1970s, and a processing factory was opened at Tolga. Further diversification during this period saw moves into potato growing, avocados and tropical fruits. In 1955 work began on damming the headwaters of the Barron River at Tinaroo Falls, on the northern face of the Tableland. Tinaroo Dam today irrigates land beyond Mareeba and Dimbulah and is a popular recreation spot.
Despite the quantities of timber taken from the Tableland and surrounding ranges (as late as the 1950s), sufficient furniture-grade species remained for use as plywood and veneers. Supply was assisted by plantation hoop pine, kauri and maple, some planted as early as the 1920s. A forestry-control office is in Atherton, along with a CSIRO botanical and rainforest research station. Most rainforest is outside the shire, although Mount Hypipamee National Park (a diatrene volcanic void) and Hasties Swamp National Park are close to Atherton.
In 1993 Atherton Shire had 9300 beef cattle, 7500 dairy cattle, 5000 pigs, 3000 ha of cereals and 3000 ha of field crops. Its census populations were:
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
Atherton, Tinaroo, Tolga and Wet Tropics entries