Railroads Once Big in Hawaiian Islands

This historic photo shows the construction of an amazing railway bridge crossing Maliko Gulch. EMI photo

This historic photo shows the construction of an amazing railway bridge crossing Maliko Gulch.  EMI photo

Long gone now, railroads once provided much of the transportation needed by Islanders and the crops that supported them. Beginning with the first recorded locomotive run on Maui in July 1879 (between Kahului and Wailuku), trains chugged along tracks that crossed deep gulches on tall trestles, hauling their sweet cargo from field to harbor.

Within the fields themselves, workers laid temporary tracks to take loads of harvested sugar to the permanent railways that carried the harvest to mill or steamship. The trains also hauled crops such as rice and sisal, building materials, fertilizer, people, and mail. According to the Hawai`i Railway Society, 47 sugar plantations had private railway systems, each with from one to nine locomotives, and the military had its own rail system. Trains ran on all the islands except Ni`ihau and Kaho`olawe.

Plantations established most of the railroads. But on O`ahu, it was the railroad that made plantations possible. Benjamin Franklin Dillingham, a New Englander who arrived in Hawai`i in 1864, established the O`ahu Railway & Land Company, a narrow-gauge railway that made its first run in 1889. Dillingham’s entrepreneurial spirit launched the development of both sugar and pineapple industries on O`ahu, as well as the building of communities in central O`ahu. Dillingham ran his rails around the then-undeveloped Pearl Harbor and created Hawai`i’s first subdivision, Pearl City, along its banks.

Like other railroads in the Islands, Dillingham’s declined as automobiles improved and trucks became available. World War II reenergized O`ahu’s railroads when soldiers and war workers poured into the Islands that had become a huge training area and jumping-off point for combat units in the Pacific.

By the 1950s, buses had taken over public transportation, and people wanted cars of their own. One by one, the trains stopped running, their equipment was sold or cut down for scrap and, and the rails recycled for fence posts and roof supports. The last railroad, like the first, was on Maui, where the final train ride, from Ha`iku to Kahului, took place in 1966.

Today, Hawai`i’s railroading days are pretty much over, except for a short segment restored and run by the Hawaiian Railway Society on O`ahu and another built for tourists between Lahaina and Ka`anapali on Maui, currently closed while supporters try to find funds to keep it running. On O`ahu, they’re working on light rail, and on Maui, citizens and politicians sometimes talk about the possibility of establishing some sort of light-rail system to replace the narrow and inadequate Pali Highway. It might take someone with the determination of B.F. Dillingham to get that done.

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