Today, the tiny town of Laura, located in Cook Shire on Cape York, 310 km north-west of Cairns, is primarily known for the ancient and impressive Aboriginal rock art connected with the Quinkan and Regional Cultural Centre. The town itself (home to 80 people and consisting of a handful of buildings, including a roadhouse, and a pub) is hardly known at all. This obscurity is despite its notable location on the sole road leading north to the top of Cape York and its role as the tip of the so-called ‘Scenic Triangle’ linking it to Cooktown and Lakeland.
Laura’s seeming insignificance conceals a fascinating history. Its name derives from the Laura River, named in 1873 for the wife of the surveyor Archibald Campbell Macmillan. The town itself, developed when, in the same year, the Palmer River revealed itself as a fertile goldfield, sparking a gold rush, which saw ambitious prospectors frequently crossing the Laura River to reach the Palmer Goldfields.
In this optimistic atmosphere, a plan developed to build a railway between Cooktown and the Goldfields. By 1888, construction was complete from Cooktown to Laura, which gained a bridge and a smart new station. By this point, the Goldfields were in decline and progress promptly ground to a halt. Although it cost a princely 15,000 pounds, only one train ever crossed the Laura Bridge and then only as a solemn commemoration of its opening.
Despite never making it to the Goldfields, the railway proved useful to miners and cattle farmers, remaining open until 1961.