The Forgotten Railways of Hawaii

Railways may not be the first thing you think of when it comes to the "Aloha" State, but indeed the island is still home to a couple small railroads.

Oahu Railway & Land Company Locomotive 85, Oahu Railway & Land Company 4-6-0 #85, now on display at the Hawaiian Railway Society on Oahu.

Historically, the Hawaiian archipelago was actually home to many railroads, and at least one ran on each of the main Hawaiian Islands. In today's blog, we'll explore some of these railroads.

Island of Hawai'i

The Island of Hawai'i, otherwise known as the Big Island, was home to the only standard gauge railroad in the future State of Hawaii, the Hilo Railroad, which later reorganized as the Hawaii Consolidated Railway. A story map tells the story of the railroad much better, and more in depth, than I ever could.
Map of Hilo, HI, showing the route of the Hawaii Consolidated Railway. Source: University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
The mainline of the HCR was the longest of all the railroads in Hawaii, although the Oahu Railway & Land Company covered more ground. And like the OR&LC, this railroad owed it's existence to Benjamin Dillingham, who used the railways to transport sugar from the interior parts of the Islands to ships en route to the United States, to which Hawaii enjoyed free trade.

The railroad faced steep competition from the trucking industry, and was an expensive and expansive engineering marvel, navigating the rugged East coast of the Big Island. It was profitable until it was extended 33.5 miles north in 1907.

World War II was kind to the railroad, as tourism increased to the island, it appeared as though the line might turn a financial corner. Although this did not occur as I've covered previously, as a massive tsunami on April 1, 1946 stemming from the Aleutian Islands would destroy the right of way and the railroad's operations.

Steam Engine destroyed in the tsunami. Image:

Most of the right of way is now the Hawaii Belt Rd, or the Mamalahoa Hwy, as the bankrupt railroad sold their land to the Territory of Hawaii. Today, a train museum also exists in Laupahoehoe, near the right of way of the former HCR.

Another railroad, the aptly-named Hawaiian Railroad, served the far North end of the Big Island, began operations in 1882, and would close on October 29th, 1945. This railroad also served the sugarcane industry, and was proposed to connect to the HCR, but this never came to be, as neither railroad had the capital to complete the gap between them.

"Hawaiian Railroad near Māhukona, first built in 1882" Image: James J. Williams, Hawaii Historical Society
Island of Maui

A railroad runs on the Island of Maui even today, albeit a tourist train. The heritage line, the Lahaina Kaanapali and Pacific Railroad runs the Sugar Cane Train on the West side of the island, between Lahaina and Kāʻanapali, for about 5 miles.

Image: Smart Destinations
The heritage line keeps alive the history of rail transport on the island. The original right of way was once part of a 200 mile network of rail lines on the island, almost all of which for transporting sugarcane, much like the Big Island Railways.

Kahului Railroad. Image: Hawaii Department of Transportation
Another benefactor of the duty free sugar trade to the United States was the Kahului Railroad, which connect Wailuku to Kuiaha on the North end of the island. While it would succumb to the trucking industry like every Hawaiian common carrier railroad, it enjoyed the longest life of any railroad in the State, as it remained in service until 1966. Some of it's equipment was donated to the LK&P railroad, and is thus still alive today. The company itself is alive too, as Kahului Trucking & Storage.

Island of Kauai

Now part of a farm/museum called Grove Farm, The Kauai Plantation Railway keeps the railroad and sugarcane industry's history alive with a 2 mile tourist train around a plantation near Lihue, HI. It's history dates back to the early 20th century when it was one of many plantation railways in Hawaii.

Image: Kauai Plantation Railway
It was part of a much larger railroad history on the island, highlighted by the two common carrier railroads who ran on Kauai: The Kauai Railway and the Ahukini Terminal and Railway Company.

The Kauai Railway ran along the South coast of the island between Port Allen and Kalaheo on a narrow gauge right-of-way. Opening in 1907, it would last until the sugarcane industry turned to trucks to transport goods along the route in 1947. One locomotive survives at the Grove Farm, also home to the Kauai Plantation Railway.

Wahiawa Locomotive. Image:

Map of each abandoned railway on Kauai, not including the numerous plantation railway lines.

The Ahukini Terminal and Railway Company ran on the East side of the island, connecting Lihue with Anahola, a distance of about 12 miles. It survived a little longer than the Kauai Railway, ending service in 1959. Despite being a younger railroad, I can't seem to find any pictures of the line's rolling stock.

Islands of Lanai/Molokai

I combined the entry on these two islands, since there was only one railroad on each of the islands, each of which was used to transport sugar, like the rest of the railroads mentioned in this blog. 

On Lanai, the Maunalei Sugar Company began railroad operations in 1899 near Keomuku, a ghost town on the Eastern part of the island. Quite soon after operations, by 1901 a plague occurred, forcing the plantation to close down. Local legend places the blame for the plague on the Company's building near a Hawaiian Temple, and damaging sacred sites in the process. 

Despite only operating for three years, a locomotive ruins and rails can still be found on the island. 

Rails of the former Maunalei Sugar Company Railway on Lanai Island, HI. Image: Greg Camporelli
The same locomotive would also be used for railway operations on Molokai Island by the American Sugar Company.
Image: Narrow Gauge Discussion Forum
Smoke Box and Tender. Image: Greg Camporelli (2001)

Island of Oahu

As Hawaii's most populous island, Oahu has probably the most expansive railway history, other than perhaps arguably the Big Island. The island was home to plantation railroads, military railroads, and is still home to Honolulu Rail Transit

Benjamin Dillingham, the same father of the Hilo Railroad, conceived the Oahu Railway & Land Company in an effort to improve transportation on the island. Beginning service in 1889 between Honolulu and Aiea, the railroad only continued to grow. By 1898, the mainline extended to Kahuku on the island's West side. It was proposed, although never seriously considered to circumnavigate the island in a circle. Rather, numerous branch lines were constructed. 

In 1905, the Koolau Railway would make but one step closer to a circular route, connecting with the OR&LC at Kahuku, and running 10 miles south to Punaluu. The railway was unsuccessful, and would fold in 1932, merging with a nearby plantation railroad, thus keeping operations alive until 1954.

Koolau Railway Train. Image: Brigham Young University-Hawaii Archives.

A OR&LC locomotive takes on water at Waipahu Station. Colorization: Anthony Williams
Back to the OR&LC, during World War II, the railroad would take on a new life in transporting military supplies and personnel in and out of Pearl Harbor. At the same time, the US Military used railroads on the military base, both before and after the Japanese Bombing on December 7th, 1941. The US Government also had railroad operations at Naval Magazine Lualualei in the Western part of the Island, north 

US Navy Pearl Harbor Tank Engine
There is actually footage of the Oahu Railway & Land Company Railway in action: 

Much like the Hawaii Consolidated Railway, the Oahu Railway & Land Company also suffered damage due to the April 1, 1946 tsunami, but in this case the damage was not fatal. A plantation worker strike in 1947 also contributed to the line's demise, but the OR&LC mainline was in service until 1959. A branch line in Honolulu's harbor would reorganize as the Oahu Railway would remain in service until 1971. 

The Hawaiian Railway society was organized in 1970 to keep the history of railroads in Hawaii alive and to build a museum, and eventual heritage operation. Today, the ROW of the OR&LC is now active as the Hawaiian Railway between Ewa, HI and Kahe Point, HI.

Image: Hawaiian Railway Society
Each major island in Hawaii had at least some railroad operations on it. This blog does not go into detail on some of the more obscure plantation railroads, and there is still more to learn out there when it comes to the archipelago's railway history. Nonetheless, I hope you enjoyed today's blog and found it informative.

As always, thanks for reading!


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