Cairns Transshipment Port Project

Aumuller Street

Naval/port facility

Smiths Creek, Waterfront and Aumuller Street, Cairns 4870

Cairns’ wartime port development has all but disappeared today. Perhaps the largest US project planned for Cairns was the establishment of a major transshipment port to handle much of the war materials arriving in north Queensland from America. Initially the project allowed for almost two kilometres of wharves, 12 wharf stores, more than 40 warehouses, and drainage, sewage and camp facilities for 40,000 troops. Construction entailed dredging to provide a depth of 8.5 metres at low water and a large turning basin together with roads and railway sidings. Grand plans were incrementally reduced as the war situation in the South-West Pacific Area improved. The scheme was abandoned after just 250 metres of wharf and construction of seven warehouses and a reinforced concrete section of access road to the Smiths Creek wharves—which continues in use today as Aumuller Street.


US military personnel began arriving in Cairns in greater numbers early in 1943. They were led by the 411th Engineer Base Shop Battalion which was responsible for major construction works around the town, including bridge building and road improvement. The US engineers provided facilities for training Australian troops in amphibious landings, including erection of a boat assembly factory at the mouth of Smiths Creek for the construction of plywood landing barges for use in the planned New Guinea and island campaigns. The first boats came off the assembly line in April 1943. Soon the factory was producing six boats a day.

Because of its railway connection, deep-water port and closer access to the Pacific frontline, Cairns was selected in late 1942 to be the main US supply base and transhipment port for north Queensland, where supplies arriving from America would stockpiled before redistribution to the fighting forces on the Pacific islands to the north. The Cairns Transshipment Port Project was envisaged as a mile-long wharf extending along the western bank of Smiths Creek, behind which camps, workshops and warehouses would be built for the many units involved in establishing and operating the base.

Preliminary work on the transshipment port commenced in May 1943 and in June the

US Army Services of Supply organisation approved construction of the project at a cost of US$10 million. At this period there was an acute labour shortage in Cairns and American engineer regiments and US Navy 'Seabee' (Construction Battalion) units were assisted through the Allied Works Council by the Main Roads Commission (MRC) and Civil Construction Corps (CCC) in providing labour for the project.

A CCC camp was established by the MRC on the corner of Aumuller and Hartley Street for the construction work. A concrete strip was laid along Aumuller Street from Spence Street to Smiths Creek by US Army Engineers in anticipation of the heavy traffic that would be using it when the transshipment port was completed. The reinforced concrete strip was laid over swampy, sandy ground by a new concrete paving machine from the US which mixed the concrete then laid and levelled it in one operation. Warehouses and camps for this large project occupied much of the area between Mulgrave Road and Smiths Creek, bounded by Lyons and Fearnley Street.

By early 1944, with the Japanese being pushed back and the strategic situation improving, construction requirements were reduced and the project was finally cancelled as US forces began leaving Cairns to set up supply bases closer to the battle zone. Completed buildings and infrastructure were handed over to the Australian military. However, full control of the transhipment port project was not gained until March 1945, and it was not until February 1946 that the last of the Americans departed from Cairns.


Pearce, Howard (contributing author).

Vera Bradley. I Didn’t Know That: Cairns and districts Tully to Cape York, 1939–1946, Service personnel and civilians, Boolarong Press, Brisbane, 1995.

Commonwealth Parliamentary Paper No.15, Defence Construction in Queensland and Northern Territory, Joint Committee on War Expenditure, Canberra, 1944.

Peter Nielsen. Diary of WWII North Queensland, Nielsen Publishing, Gordonvale, 1993.

Howard Pearce. WWII: NQ: A cultural heritage overview of significant places in the defence of north Queensland during World War II. Environmental Protection Agency, Brisbane, 2009.