CaneSIG: Sugar in Australian


Industry head

Above: A selection of sugar cane railway images from Cuba, Egypt, Fiji, Java, Hawaii, and Queensland. These and other images can be found in the Image Collection.

Please Note: This page has not been properly updated for several years, especially as regards the ownership and closure of Queensland sugar mills.

Goto: Sugar Industry Outside Australia

Sugar comes from a variety of sources, including a tropical grass (sugar cane), sugar beets, corn (maize) and a variety of palm trees. Sugar cane is grown in tropical and semi-tropical countries around the world, and railways often provided the most economical means of getting the sugar cane to the mill and the resulting sugar to port or market.

Queensland's mill-owned sugar cane railways (aka tramways) provided the main impetus for the CaneSIG website, however an attempt is being made to include materials from other sugar growing areas as well. Please contact the CaneSIG coordinator if you have information that can be shared with other modellers, railfans and historians.

Sugar in Australian

Farnborough Sugar Mill, Capricorn Coast Historical Society

The Australian sugar industry as we know it today began in the 1800s with small plantations and local sugar and juice mills. As the industry expanded rivers and creeks were often used for transporting the cut cane, otherwise bullock or horse-drawn carts moved the cane to the mill.

The Australian industry gained impetus with the blockades of the American civil war but by 1855 prices had dropped again and many mills were operating at a loss. This pattern of boom and bust has continued worldwide throughout the succeeding decades to the present.

Cane tramways came with the expansion of growing areas and mill consolidations around the turn of the twientieth century. Portable track systems and lightweight rolling stock allowed temporary narrow gauge lines to be extended into the fields where wholestick cane was loaded by hand and the trucks pushed/pulled out to the permanent way. Surplus World War I trench railways equipment facilitated the expansion of Australian and other SE Asian tramways. Cuban and American systems, on the other hand, often used the larger equipment and operating practices of their mainline cousins.

Sugar Industry poster, Peter Cokley Collection Isis Mill bogie DH with chopped cane bin, Lynn Zelmer photo

The change from plantation to family-owned farms, along with the labour shortages of the twentieth century wars, encouraged innovation in both harvesting and transport technologies. By the 1970s both wholestick cane and steam power had been replaced in Australia by cane billets transported in bins and pulled by diesel power, although steam power did continue in some other countries

The sugar milling process also improved, from low-efficiency crushing and batch boiling to today's highly efficient semi-automated mills producing thousands of tons of raw sugar a day. However, transport of the cane to the mill remains one of the largest milling costs.

Many mills operate rail transport systems to minimise these costs. In Australia tracks are typically laid on easements beside Shire roads or along farmer's fields with the rail system, locomotives and rolling stock mill owned and operated.

Isis Mill extended cane bin, Lynn Zelmer photo

Since cut cane deteriorates fairly rapidly, the tramway system also performs an important short-term storage role. Empty wagons are delivered to the farm pick-up points just-in-time for use with full loads delivered to the mill as rapidly as possible, maintaining a constant flow of raw cane. The cutting season extends over several months (typically June to November in Australia) to optimise sugar production and minimise the infrastructure investment required.

Raw sugar must still be refined before delivery to the final customer, typically at an overseas or capital city refinery. Rail systems often carried the raw sugar to the nearby port or refinery and some also transported molasses and other by-products... although increasingly road transport is being used.

Sugar growers are very dependent on the world price for sugar, which fluctuates up and down as politics and the weather dictate. It seems reasonable to suggest that rising costs, low prices and urban development will hasten the end of the sugar industry in Australia, just as similar factors have effectively ended sugar production in a number of other countries.

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Qld map with cane growing districts

Australian Mills

Some information on Australian mills, especially mill closures and ownership changes, has not been updated for some time.

Over the years there have likely been several hundred mills in Queensland alone if one counts both 'juice' and regular mills. Some lasted a few months, others are still going strong after more than a century of service to their communities. As well, there are bulk sugar terminals at Cairns, Mourilyan, Lucinda, Townsville, Mackay, Bundaberg and Brisbane to transport bulk sugar to refineries in the capital cities and overseas.

From 1955 to 2000 six mills closed: Gin Gin (1974), Qunaba (1985), Goondi (1986), North Eton (1988), Cattle Creek (1990) and Hambledon (1991). As well two mills closed their tramway systems: Harwood (NSW, 1973) and Condong (NSW, 1974). Thus the three NSW mills, Rocky Point, Maryborough, the two new mills (Tablelands and Ord, WA) have no tramways. All modern mills, except for Pioneer (1067mm), had 610mm tramways.

The 2003 Australian Sugarcane Annual listed 26 mills in Queensland (Tablelands, Mossman, Mulgrave, Babinda, Mourilyan, South Johnstone, Tully, Victoria, Macknade, Invicta, Pioneer, Kalamia, Inkerman, Proserpine, Farleigh, Marian, Pleystowe, Racecourse, Plane Creek, Fairymead, Millaquin, Bingera, Isis, Maryborough, Moreton, Rocky Point) plus the three NSW mills... however, Moreton (2003), Fairymead (2004), Mourilyan (2006), Ord (WA, 2007), Pleystowe (2009) and Babinda (2011) mills have subsequently closed.

Route kilometres are a bit harder to provide, however, in 2004 the Sugar Research Institute indicated "Queensland sugar mill owners own, operate and maintain 4100 km of narrow gauge (610 mm) railway...". [*] This figure does not take into account recent mill closures and the removal of their tracks or new track being built for mill interconnection. A small amount of cane is also carried on Queensland Rail tracks.

    [*], accessed 26 Jul 04.

Mill Locomotive lists (full listings): 2005 (Browning-LRRSA), 2004 (Chris Walters); 1978 (Browning/Mewes-ANGRMS), all pdf files. Individual mill extracts below where applicable.

Alphabetic Mill Listing, Australian Mills (past and present)

The Queensland, NSW, and WA mills below, some of which are no longer in existence, illustrate the geographic, political, historical and social factors affecting the sugar industry. Most of the operational mills still have some form of railway delivering cut cane to the mill, and/or within the mill, and/or transporting sugar and other milling products. Practically speaking, road transport has taken (or is taking) over many of these functions.

Additional details on individual mills may be available in pdf format from the Modelling Resources page and or the Sugar in the News page. Photos can be accessed via the Image Collection using the mill name (eg Moreton). [All links in the left hand column above].

  • Atherton Tablelands Mill: The Tableland Mill (MSF Sugar Ltd: Mitr Phol Sugar Corp, Thailand; Atherton Tableland Qld), formerly Bundaberg Sugar Ltd ownership, Mareeba Qld) crushes roughly 62,000 tonnes of cane harvested from almost 7000 hectares annually (2009 statistics). The mill does not have a rail network.

  • Babinda Mill: Mill (MSF Sugar Ltd; Babinda Qld) closed 2011.

    Mill loco lists: 2005 (Browning), 1978 (Browning & Mewes).

  • Bingera Mill: With the closure of Fairymead Mill, Bingera Mill is one of only two Bundaberg Sugar mills remaining in the Bundaberg area (Bundaberg Sugar Ltd: Finasucre, Belgium; Kolan South Qld).

    Bingera Mill's A10 #6 (Nelson & Co, Glasgow of 1865, and rebuilt by the ARHS in 1991) can often be seen operating in the Brisbane area as part of QR's Heritage Fleet.

    The Gin Gin Mill at Wallaville ceased crushing at the end of the 1974 season but the Wallaville Yard and out-depot still serves as an important staging point for the long haul into Bingera Mill.

    Mill loco lists: 2005 (Browning), 1978 (Browning & Mewes).

  • Broadwater Mill: Located on the Richmond River with no rail network (New South Wales Sugar Milling Cooperative; Broadwater NSW).

  • Carmilla Tramway: Carmilla, now known as Carmila (Qld), is a cane-growing locality about 50km south of Sarina. An isolated 7km cane tramway feeder ran from Carmila Station up the south side of Carmila Creek. It was started in 1921 and closed in 1971.

    The Southern Cane Railway, built in 1995, extends to Karloo on the north side of Carmila Creek to take cane to the Plane Creek Mill at Sarina. The new line was built to the highest standards then seen on any cane line, allowing much higher speeds than was normal for the time.

  • Cattle Creek Mill: Cattle Creek Mill (Finch Hatton Qld) closed 1990 and was absorbed by Marian Mill.

    Finch Hatton lies at the base of the Eungella Range and the cane fields extend up into the lower slopes of the range. Cane from these farms is loaded into bins in the field and is then transported to a short isolated section of track for transfer to road transport, then again onto the rails for the last distance into the mill.

    Mill loco lists: 1978 (Browning & Mewes; no separate listing, see pg 24).

  • Condong Mill: Located on the Tweed River with no rail network (New South Wales Sugar Milling Cooperative; Condong NSW).

  • Fairymead Mill: Closed 2005 (Bundaberg Sugar, Fairymead Qld).

    Bundaberg's sugar industry began in the 1880s when independent capitalists built mills to exploit the mainly undeveloped lands of the Burnett River. Frost, drought and other problems plagued the area but 100 years later the area boasted an integrated industry comprising "eight plantations, four raw sugar mills, a refinery and a rum distillery". [John Kerr, Southern Sugar Saga, 1983]

    In recent years the Bundaberg Sugar Company mills (Bingera, Millaquin and Fairymead) sold to overseas interests, the Austoft cane harvestor manufacturing plant has closed and, early in 2005 Bundaberg Sugar announced the closure of Fairymead Mill.

    Mill loco lists: 2005 (Browning), 1978 (Browning & Mewes).

  • Farleigh Mill:(Mackay Sugar; Farleigh Qld) territory runs from the outskirts of Mackay north and west with, until a fairly recent diversion, a very heavy haul on its northern 'Summit' line.

    Farleigh Mill is part of the Mackay Sugar group but because of its relative isolation north of the river operated somewhat more independently than other Mackay Sugar Mills.

    Mill loco lists: 2005 (Browning), 1978 (Browning & Mewes).

  • Farnborough Mill: The Yeppoon Sugar Company mill and plantation at Farnborough (QLD) operated from 1883 until 1901, when labour laws were changed to stop the use of Islander labour. A short-lived plantation and mill was also established at Alton Downs (Pandora Mill), and another plantation (Cawarral Sugar Company) existed at Cawarral, but both failed with the price crash of 1884.

    Although cane was collected from as far away as Tanby, Zilzie and Joskeleigh the mill had many problems (including failure to sell all the company's shares, water shortage, poor roads, and low sugar prices), resulting in forclosure in 1898.

    A second (private) company increased the capacity of the mill from 80 to 130 tons per day (or about 2,000 tons of sugar in a season) and made other improvements. While the mill did acquire a steam traction engine for hauling, most of the heavy work was done by Kanakas (Islanders), even on the small privately owned farms beyond the plantation. With the passing of the Pacific Islands Labour Act in 1901 the mill closed and assets were disposed of over the following years.

    While transportation was a major problem, it is unlikely that there was sufficient water or suitable cane growing areas within the mill's likely service area to justify a mill, even if there had been a rail/tram connection.

    It is still possible to find some artefacts from the sugar industry on the Capricorn Coast, and the Joskeleigh Museum has a two-wheeled cart, one of the types used for hauling cane on the Farnborough Plantation (period photos also show four-wheeled carts).

  • Goondi Mill: Established in 1885, Goondi Mill (Goondi Qld) closed in 1986 and was absorbed by Babinda and Mourilyan Mills.

    Mill loco lists: 1978 (Browning & Mewes).

  • Hambledon Mill: With a cane tramway established in 1882 Hambledon Mill (Edmonton Qld) lasted until 1992 when it was absorbed by Mulgrave Mill.

    Mill loco lists: 1978 (Browning & Mewes).

  • Harwood Mill: Located on the Clarence River with no rail network (New South Wales Sugar Milling Cooperative; Harwood NSW).

  • Herbert River (Macknade (Halifax Qld) and Victoria (Ingham Qld) Mills): (Sucrogen Ltd, Singapore, formerly CSR)

    CSR first established a mill on the Herbert River near Ingham in 1883; Victoria Mill grew to become, and remains, one of the most modern sugar mills in Australia. Raw sugar from it and nearby Macknade Mill is shipped from the bulk sugar terminal at Lucinda. The two mills are now operated under a single management.

    Mill loco lists: 2005 (Browning), 1978 Macknade and 1978 Victoria (Browning & Mewes).

  • Huxley Mill: The former CSR mill at Huxley (Qld) was closed in 1932 and its tramway taken over by the Isis Central Mill.

  • Inkerman Mill: (Sucrogen Ltd, Singapore; Home Hill Qld) formerly owned by Pioneer Sugar Mills Ltd (CSR Ltd).

    Mill loco lists: 2005 (Browning), 1978 (Browning & Mewes).

  • Invicta Mill: (Sucrogen Ltd, Singapore; Giru Qld) formerly owned by Haughton Sugar Co Pty Ltd (CSR Ltd)connects with Kalamia Mill using a dual gauge track shared with Pioneer Mill.

    Mill loco lists: 2005 (Browning), 1978 (Browning & Mewes).

  • Isis Mill: (Isis Central Sugar Mill Co Ltd; Cordalba Qld) established in 1896 and first crushed in 1897.

    Mill loco lists: 2005 (Browning), 1978 (Browning & Mewes).

  • Kalamia Mill: (Sucrogen Ltd, Singapore; Ayr Qld) another ex-CSR mill, connects with Invicta Mill using a dual gauge track shared with Pioneer Mill.

    Mill loco lists: 2005 (Browning), 1978 (Browning & Mewes).

  • Lucinda Point Terminal: The Lucinda Point Bulk Sugar Terminal of the Queensland Sugar Industry Corporation has a rail connection to Victoria Mill.

    Mill loco lists: 2005 (Browning), 1978 (Browning & Mewes).

  • Macknade Mill: See Herbert River above.

  • Marian Mill:(Mackay Sugar; Marian Qld) located a few kilometres west of Mackay and incorporates the old Cattle Creek Mill rail system.

    Mill loco lists: 2005 (Browning), 1978 (Browning & Mewes).

  • Maryborough Mill: (MSF Sugar Ltd: Mitr Phol Sugar Corp, Thailand; Maryborough Qld) one of the few Queensland mills which depends totally upon highway transport to deliver cane to the mill. In recent years Maryborough Sugar attempted to increase its holdings in both Queensland and Western Australia but was ultimately purchased by overseas interests.

  • Millaquin Mill: (Bundaberg Sugar Ltd: Finasucre, Belgium; Bundaberg Qld) one of two Bundaberg Sugar mills with the closure of Fairymead Mill and unsuccessful ventures in Northern Queensland.

    The layout of Strathdee's Truck Dump was changed for a new line along the river to Millaquin. Fairymead's Siding 21, which is the truck dump on the other side of the river, has also been upgraded with the rubber tyre bin pushers. These bin pushers will help reduce coupling failures as well as reduce derailments.

    Mill loco lists: 2005 (Browning), 1978 (Browning & Mewes).

  • Moreton Mill: (Nambour Qld) closed in late 2003, the victim of low international sugar prices and increasing globalisation of the sugar industry. While the mill has now gone, locomotives and rolling stock was distributed among other Bundaberg Sugar (Fina Sucre of Belgium) mills and, in some cases, to preservation.

    Mill loco lists: 2000 (Browning), 1978 (Browning & Mewes).

  • Mossman Mill: (Mackay Sugar; Mossman Qld) the most northerly in Queensland, and the only one operating 10-tonne bogie bins and 'canetainers' for chopped cane.

    Until recent years the mill operated the Bally Hooley steam train as part of its mill tour program. The Ballyhooley Steam Railway now operates a steam powered tourist railway through the resorts and cane fields near the mill.

    Mill loco lists: 2005 (Browning), 1978 (Browning & Mewes).

  • Mourilyan Mill: (Bundaberg Sugar, Mourilyan Qld) located near Innisfail Qld, the 120 year old mill was badly damaged by Cyclone Larry (2006) and never reopened.

    Mill loco lists: 2005 (Browning), 1978 (Browning & Mewes).

  • Mulgrave Mill: (MSF Sugar Ltd: Mitr Phol Sugar Corp, Thailand; Gordonvale Qld) Located beside the Bruce Highway, Mulgrave Mill is one of the most visible in northern Queensland.

    Mill loco lists: 2005 (Browning), 1978 (Browning & Mewes).

  • North Eton Mill: (Mackay Sugar; North Eton Qld) closed in 1988 and absorbed by Mackay Sugar's Pleystowe and Racecourse Mills. The loco shed at North Eton is still used for storing DH locomotives for potential conversion to 4th generation cane locomotives.

    Mill loco lists: 1978 (Browning & Mewes).

  • Ord River Mill: Closed 2007 (Ord River area WA) and likely shipped to Thailand. Late 2012 announcements suggest that a new mill using irrigated sugar cane will be built with Chinese financing.

  • Pioneer Mill: (Sucrogen Ltd, Singapore; Brandon Qld) only 1067mm gauge mill, sections of dual gauge track shared with Kalamia and Invicta Mills.

    Mill loco lists: 2005 (Browning), 1978 (Browning & Mewes).

  • Planecreek Mill: (Sucrogen Ltd, Singapore; Sarina Qld) located a half hour south of Mackay in Queensland, was owned by CSR and has an alcohol distillery as well as the sugar mil.

    Mill loco lists: 2005 (Browning), 1978 (Browning & Mewes).

  • Pleystowe Mill: Closed 2009 (mackay Sugar; Pleystowe Qld) located adjacent to the highway west of Mackay, with tracks running alonside the road, thus was easy for railfans to observe and photograph cane trains and their locomotives.

    Pleystowe Mill was shut down at the end of the 2008 crushing season and it's mill components offered for auction mid-2010. The main mill buildings have apparently been converted into Mackay Sugar's main locomotive facility and the main navvy depot has been made the main truck shop facility.

    Mill loco lists: 2005 (Browning), 1978 (Browning & Mewes).

  • Proserpine Mill: (Sucrogen Ltd, Singapore; Pleystowe Qld) until recently an independent mill, the originator of many innovations.

    Mill loco lists: 2005 (Browning), 1978 (Browning & Mewes).

  • Qunaba Mill: (Qunaba: Queensland National Bank; Burnett Heads Qld) closed in 1985 and absorbed by Millaquin and Fairymead Mills.

    Mill loco lists: 1978 (Browning & Mewes).

  • Racecourse Mill:(Mackay Sugar; South Mackay Qld) mill and refinery located on the southern outskirts of Mackay, surrounded by residential and industrial estates.

    Mill loco lists: 2005 (Browning), 1978 (Browning & Mewes).

  • Rocky Point Mill: (WH Heck and Sons Pty Ltd; Beinleigh Qld) family owned mill at Rocky Point, near Brisbane (Mill Road, southeast of Beinleigh in the Woongoolba area), has not had a rail system since about 1950. It's the smallest mill in the state and is the last mill in private ownership.

    Opened in 1924, the 4.75 mile tramway was closed in 1951 following extensive flooding along the line and the availability of more efficient road transport. A new mill yard was subsequently built to accommodate transversely loaded wholestalk trucks and further expanded for bin operations.

    According to John Browning in his 1986 LRRSA article, 'Rocky Point Mill is unique in many ways. The only mill of the Beenleigh District, it remains the smallest in Australia. It is the only mill still owned by a proprietary company, controlled by the Heck family which first established it over a century ago. It is the only Queensland mill still operating which has completely closed its tramway system, but it shares with the Maryborough Sugar Factory, which has never had a tramway, the feature of an internal yard rail system, without locomotives. (The New South Mills have closed their tramways and have completely dispensed with rail vehicles for cane haulage.)'

    Of particular interest to railfans and modellers, the loading gauge was very narrow and the longer than normal cane trucks were loaded longitudinally with wholestalk cane.'

  • South Johnstone Mill: (MSF Sugar Ltd: Mitr Phol Sugar Corp, Thailand; South Johnstone Qld) was part of the Bundaberg Sugar (Finasucre of Belgium) group of mills in North Queensland.

    Mill loco lists: 2005 (Browning), 1978 (Browning & Mewes).

  • Tully Mill: (Tully Sugar Ltd: Cofco, China) a formerly independent mill in North Queensland, has a relatively large number of ex-mainline DH locomotives converted to 2' gauge.

    Mill loco lists: 2005 (Browning), 1978 (Browning & Mewes).

  • Wallaville Out-Depot (Bundaberg Sugar, Wallaville Qld): The Gin Gin Mill at Wallaville ceased crushing at the end of the 1974 season but the Wallaville Yard and out-depot still serves as an important staging point for the long haul into Bingera Mill.

  • Victoria Mill: See Herbert River above.

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    Copyright © A C Lynn Zelmer or the contributor as appropriate. Last updated: 17 June 2021 [lz]; e-mail: Lynn @