The small Queensland town of Tully stands on the Bruce Highway, about 1,550km north of Brisbane and 140km south of Cairns. With a population of some 2,400 people, Tully is one of the larger towns of the Cassowary Coast region and, until 2008, was the administrative centre for the Shire of Cardwell. It takes its name from the nearby Tully River, which was itself named in 1872 after William Tully, Queensland’s Surveyor-General at that time.
The Tully area was first settled in the early 1870s by graziers raising cattle on its lush pastures. Pastoralists James Tyson and Isaac Henry established a sugar cane plantation and mill in the river valley in the early 1880s but abandoned that enterprise in favour of timber and dairying. The uneven seasonal returns from sugar dissuaded other attempts at cane growing and bananas emerged as a potentially more lucrative crop. After leaving the northern goldfields, Chinese market gardeners arrived to build up the banana industry, which reached peak production in 1905-08. Other settlers grew a variety of crops, including citrus, cotton and rice.
In 1911, a Queensland Royal Commission determined that the Tully district was well suited to cane growing and placed the town on its list of candidates for a centralized crushing mill. World War I delayed the plan until 1923, when construction began on the mill and adjacent land was subdivided for freehold farms. When it was completed two years later the Tully sugar mill was the largest of its kind in Australia, spread over 50 hectares.
The Tully mill was Government-run until 1931 when it was sold to a cooperative of local cane growers, who later gained Government approval to determine their own production quotas. Many of the local cane farmers at this time were Italian, diverted to Australia after restrictions on southern European migration to America. Their contribution to the social and economic development of Tully is remembered in the Hearts Full of Hope statue in Banyan Park, near the visitor centre.
After World War II the Tully River was selected for a hydro-electricity power scheme. In the 1950s, Koombooloomba Dam was constructed, followed by two separate power stations. Water is captured from the dam and released back into the river through the 7 megawatt Koombooloomba hydro-electric station. From here the water flows about 13km to a weir just above the Tully Falls, where it is again diverted down the range via a concrete intake structure into the 86 megawatt Kareeya power station. Scheduled water releases from the dam also support commercial white-water rafting in the Tully River.