Kuranda, a rural town of 1600 people, is 20 km north-west of Cairns. It is thought that the name was derived from an Aboriginal word describing the flax or stream lily (Helmholtzia acorifolia).
Situated on the Barron River, Kuranda is upstream of a series of waterfalls. Cairns was established in 1876, and by 1885 farm selectors were taking up sites around Kuranda. In the previous year a route for a railway from Cairns (ultimately destined for the tin mines at Herberton) was approved, up the Barron Valley, passing through Kuranda. In 1888 the township was surveyed, and three years later the railway surmounted the range and reached there. A much-depicted railway station (1913) is listed on the Queensland heritage register.
Farmers grew coffee and had small dairy herds, and their numbers were enough for a school to open in 1892. In 1903 Kuranda was described in the Australian Handbook:
Kuranda was a mere village, attended on Sundays by visiting clergymen. It was 1915 before the first church building, an Anglican one, was built. The clearing of scrub for farming disrupted the food-gathering economy of the Djabugay Aboriginal people; the Seventh Day Adventist church established the Mona Mona mission just north of Kuranda (1913-62). The rainforest around the Barron Valley remained intact, however, ushering in a tourism economy. The 'Maze' (1923), renamed 'Paradise', was a natural history and scenic attraction, as was the 'Fairyland' tea garden (1930s). Each was reached by the scenic Kuranda railway which passed through 15 tunnels and crossed several gorges. Best recognised was the Stoney Creek bridge below the falls, located on an 80 metre radius curve in the midst of spectacular scenery. The Range Road (Kennedy Highway) was opened in 1938.
In 1935 a long awaited Barron Falls hydro-electricity station was built, supplemented by a second powerhouse in 1963. The construction of the powerhouse brought a brief influx of population, disguising a population decline. In the 1970s this was corrected, by alternative life-stylers and augmented by Cairns residents wanting an out-of-town location. The amphitheatre performance venue (1980) signified a change of character for Kuranda. An annual tropical plant festival was begun in 1981, building on a theme established in the 1930s with the gardens at the railway station. Built in 1915, the station is voted by some people as the prettiest in Australia.
Kuranda has local shops, primary and high schools (1892, 1998) and a comprehensive tourism economy: riverboat and rainforest tours, a visitor information centre, a butterfly sanctuary, a heritage museum and adjoining markets, and art and cultural venues. The Kuranda Skyrail Cableway provides views of the Barron Gorge National Park. Amidst concern about the impact on the world heritage environment, the skyrail was opened in 1995. Construction was done with access by helicopter, foot tracks and no additional forest roads. The skyrail's commencement point is in Caravonica. A vintage steam train from Cairns to Kuranda is a major tourist drawcard. Kuranda's census populations have been:
Shep Humston, Welcome to Kuranda: the village in the rainforest, 1888-1988, Kuranda, S. Humston, 1988
Alan Hudson, Tracks of triumph: a tribute to the pioneers who built the famous Kuranda scenic railway, Cairns, Cairns Post, 2003