BARRIER REEF HOTEL Est. 1898

33 Wharf St, Cairns City QLD 4870 Phone: 07 4051 4245

The Barrier Reef Hotel - A Brief History

Barrier Reef Hotel is a heritage-listed hotel at Abbott Street, Cairns, Queensland, Australia. It was designed by Lawrence and Lordan in conjunction with Richard Hill built in 1926 by Carl Peter Jorgensen.

It was orginally known as Empire Hotel. The Barrier Reef Hotel was added to the Queensland Heritage Register on 29 July 1997.

The Barrier Reef Hotel is situated at the corner of Abbott and Wharf Streets on what was formerly Section II of the 1876 Cairns Town Plan - the survey point from which the town of Cairns was laid out was fixed at this corner just 0.5 metres (1 ft 8 in) from the present building. On the opposite side of Abbott Street the Government Reserve was established.

Close to the earliest wharves, this end of Abbott Street developed during the last quarter of the 19th century as the principal business and administrative district of Cairns, composed principally of government offices, warehouses, shipping agents' offices and hotels. The latter catered for local office and wharf workers, as well as for travellers arriving by the coastal steamers. Little of this district's 19th century structures survive, the area being largely re-built in the first four decades of the 20th century as wharf facilities expanded to cater for the emergence of Cairns as a major sugar port. And of the buildings extant in this district by the late 1930s - Burns Philp Building, Joseph Pease Building, Jack and Newell Building, Consolidated Fertilizers Building and a string of working- class hotels: the Australian, Criterion, Mining Exchange, Oceanic, Royal and Empire (later the Barrier Reef) - only the Barrier Reef Hotel and the former Jack and Newell Building remain to perpetuate the association of this part of the city with its waterfront origins.

Orginally established as the Empire Hotel in 1898 the corner was plagued by a series of unfortunate events in the early years. But it wasn't until early 1940's that American soldiers coined the phrase Barbary Coast because the notorious precinct became a hangout for wharfies and the like constituting the rougher end of town.

An employee, Jimmy, was murdered there in 1910. A year later the building was almost de-roofed by a cyclone. In 1913 a fire broke out in the kitchen.

Despite suffering major damages as a result of another tropical cyclone (February 1920) the hotel remained operational for five years before being ultimately condemned by the Cairns Licensing Court in 1925.

The hotel was demolished and work on a new concrete structure began in April 1926 at the cost of £10,000. Built by Carl Peter Jorgensen (Architect Lawrence & Lordan) for owner PJ Doyle Ltd – wine and spirit merchants of Cairns and Thursday Island

Seemingly leaving its history of bad luck behind, the new Empire was open for business as of February 1927, averaging 105 guests per week in 1936.

In late 1938 the Empire Hotel site was transferred to Northern Australian Breweries Ltd, who held the title until 1960. PJ Doyle Wines & Spirits Pty Ltd maintained a close connection with the Empire after 1938, firstly as a mortgagor, and from 1 December 1959 until c. 1977 as the lessee. A variety of sub-lessees, (often the owners of the property), operated the hotel during this latter period. During the Second World War the Royal Australian Air Force occupied part of the hotel, from early 1943 until mid-1945.

Both the first and second Empire hotels maintained a strong association with the workers on the wharves across the road. Reputedly, during the 1950s, when Cairns' sugar handlers were working round-the-clock in three eight hour shifts, the Empire Hotel remained open 24 hours a day. The name was changed to the Barrier Reef Hotel in May 1960, possibly reflecting the burgeoning prawning and fishing industry based in Cairns from the late 1950s. During the 1960s and early 1970s the hotel fell into disrepair, with the license suspended briefly in 1974. Since the mid-1970s the hotel and adjacent sites, including the former Jack & Newell Building, have been amalgamated as a re-development site. The building still functions as an hotel.


About Us Today

Locally Owned and Operated

After standing the test of time and many a calmity, today the Barrier Reef Hotel is owned and operated by Dennis and Donna Maher.

In these recent years of ownership Dennis and Donna have taken on the huge task of keeping this grand old pub in heritage condition. Dennis and Donna have extensive experience in the hotel hospitality industry and have raised 3 boys in Cairns.

The Barrier Reef Hotel is a great place for locals and tourists alike to meet for a catch up and cold beverage.

We hope to see you here soon...


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