Sugar and Steam
by Veronica S.
Mahukona Harbor as it
looked on a busy day in the 1950's. Workers prepare
for another shipload of sugar.
"The latest mania in Kohala is going to the station
at Hawi, below Hind's. On a fine day even the ladies
may be seen wending their way to the attractive spot
and returning in raptures about the whistle and the
bell, 'that keeps ringing all the time, just like a
real train'," wrote the Saturday Press on March
18, 1882. The Baldwin locomotive Kinau pulled sugar
and passengers to the sheltered port of Mahukona where
the steamer Likelike took over the load for further
About two weeks earlier, the first eleven miles of
the Big Island's first railway in North Kohala had opened
up, heralding a new era of mechanized production.
Plans for the Mahukona railroad had started in 1878,
when a new treaty between the Hawaiian Kingdom, ruled
by King Kalakaua, and the United States encouraged sugar
exports. While Samuel Parker at Parker Ranch envisioned
a Hilo-Hamakua connection, the owner of the Likelike
and its steamer company, Samuel G. Wilder, proposed
a cheaper Kohala route. With the calculated judgment
of a man with indomitable vision, he became Minister
of the Interior in the King's cabinet, started surveys
in Kohala, and was granted a Charter of Incorporation
under the official name "The Hawaiian Railroad
Company" in July 1880.
As happened often in the Hawaiian Kingdom, cabinets
were constantly replaced and Wilder was dismissed as
Minister only a month later, just after amending the
Railway act according to his needs. Free now to dedicate
himself to his dream, Wilder became President and largest
shareholder of the Hawaiian Railroad Company. His ultimate
plan was to grit the whole island with a network of
railways, all owned by one man, himself. Kohala was
just a springboard.
Until the opening of the Railroad, the six plantations
in North Kohala had used bullocks to pull heavy wagons
to a couple of landings on the treacherous and rugged
coastline. In the winter during high surf these landings
could hardly be used. In the summer hundreds of people
would anxiously participate in the dangerous struggle
to get the cane from land to flatboat to interisland
steamer through high surf and swell.
Wilder started the Railroad task with improving Mahukona
port, a sheltered oceanfront which could make a safe
shipping terminal operating throughout the year. He
built a store house and numerous wharf facilities. He
ordered his materials including the Baldwin Kinau and
hired 100 Chinese workers and 20 Caucasian supervisors
for the construction of the tracks. Work was delayed
when a small pox epidemic forced immigrants into long
quarantines, but by March 1881 the first tracks and
ties were being laid.
The Chinese workers earned $17.00 per month, they lived
in tents which they shared in groups of 8. Anyone who
has spent time in the blazing sun, the torrential downpours,
and the raging dusty trades of Mahukona can imagine
what work was like.
The 36-inch narrow gauge railroad had to be forced
onto bare lava and had to negotiate steep cliffs and
deep gulches. Sharp curves and impossible trestles were
only a few of the challenges. There was a chronic lack
of fresh drinking water and the locomotive itself needed
freshwater steam. Water had to be shipped, gallon by
precious gallon, from Honolulu, and then carried by
mule from port to camp and train.
Yet, according to the Hawaiian Gazette in September
1881, the railroad was progressing well and men were
working on the twelfth mile. "No one (of the Chinese
workers) has run away or attempted to run. This report
is better than is given by the planters in Hawaii who
are again complaining of their men running away and
their inability to get them back again," commented
Kohala was about to reach new levels of prosperity,
but conditions for the laborers must have been absolutely
Soon after the unofficial opening of the Hawaiian railroad
in March 1882, Wilder ordered two other locomotives,
the A Ke Ahi and the Kauka. The A Ke Ahi (Thing of Fire)
was named "in memory of the name given to Mr. Wilder
when he first landed," wrote the editor of the
Gazette, "The Fire is Lighted! He has lighted the
fire of the locomotive and sent the flame of civilization
on through this district!"
It was always a struggle
transporting the sugar across the surging ocean
from train to steamer, Mahukona Harbor, circa 1950's.
By May 1882, 15 miles were finished. Tourists were
visiting from Hilo to take the train, and sugar revenues
started to surge.
Accidents with engines rolling over a hair-width away
from the cliffs or while suspended a good 60 feet up
in the air on narrow trestles were quickly overlooked.
So was the cattle or the occasional pig that ran head
on into the train. So were serious complaints from Hawaiian
families who said their taro patches and family traditions
were destroyed. Mechanization ruled.
Wilder hosted a picnic for the 80 young girls at Bond's
seminary: A round trip on the train and several hours
swimming and relaxing at Mahukona. He wanted Mahukona
to become a commercial shopping center, with a store,
another warehouse, and special rates for shopping sprees
to increase business, $2.00 for first-class and $1.50
second class for the now existing 16 miles. A restaurant,
run by Chinese men, was already flourishing.
In January 1883, almost two years after work had begun,
the Hawaiian Railroad reached its full 19 7/8 miles
to the end-stop at the most northern sugar fields of
Niulii. It crossed 17 gulches, one of them 84 feet high
and one of them measured 560 feet long. The train traveled
12 miles per hour, winding around 25 sharp curves. Needless
to say, train sickness was common, despite gold beading
ornaments, cane seats and Venetian blinds in first class!
Second class travelers had to hold on to wooden slats
in open cars and were definitely very uncomfortable.
The train serviced all sugar plantations except Hawi
Mill, owned by Robert Hind who preferred to stay independent
by using the mill's wagons and the old Honoipu landing.
In May 1883 the Hawaiian Railroad Company grasped its
claim to fame hosting a ceremonial train ride for King
Kalakaua himself. The original statue of King Kamehameha
I which had been lost at sea, then found and restored,
was waiting in Kapaau to be unveiled. Kohala outdid
itself in preparation for the King's stay. The King,
from his side, thrilled Kohala by arriving in a Russian
gunboat which fired him a royal salute. King Kalakaua
and his entourage rode the first Big Island train The
teak passenger cars in which they were seated earned
their new name, the "Kalakaua cars".
Over the next months Portuguese plantation laborers
arrived in Kohala and sugar productivity thrived. Two
workers were killed in railroad accidents. Reports in
both cases stated that there was no one to blame but
the men themselves. No one seemed willing to question
the safety of equipment or working conditions.
By 1884, North Kohala produced 10,000 tons of sugar,
taking in well over $40,000 in profits. The Railroad
carried 20,000 tons in freight and 6,000 passengers.
There was even a primitive telephone system connecting
all the different stops, although John Hind, Robert's
son at Hawi Mill, wrote, many years later, that the
telephone was often more of an aggravation than a benefit.
Whoever shouted the loudest through the line gained
control over the many conversations trying to go on
Around this time, the strong locomotive Kalakaua.,
the first engine of the Hawaiian Islands came to replace
the original locomotive Kinau , which was shipped to
Maui in exchange. The Kalakaua was renamed Leslie.
But now that Kohala was blossoming and the railroad
was in business, Wilder's attention shifted to his next
project, the planning of a railroad on the Hilo side.
His dream was opening up. With this one he was willing
to risk everything. He described the Kohala railroad,
his original baby, a "dead-end", promising
instead to make Hilo "a place of more export than
Honolulu and a more wide-awake city." His dream
ended, however, in absolute failure. His death, in 1888,
marked the end of an era.
Back in Kohala, Charles L. Wight, who had been the
railroad manager all along, was appointed new president.
In a study of the Company's financial past, it became
clear that many notesand records about owner's shares
and transfers were missing. Wilder had effectively owned
the whole Company without anyone being aware of this!
These discoveries combined with other developments gradually
extinguished the fiery heartbeat of the Railroad.
Over the next few years income decreased slowly. Roads
and other ways of mechanized transport were improving.
Travelers now avoided the screeching, scraping sound
of the wheels around the tortuous tracks. And so, despite
some modifications in bylaws tightening shareholder
policies and salaries, by the end of 1896, the Company
judged it better to transfer all franchise and property.
The railroad tracks at
It reincorporated under a new name. In January 1897
the Hawaiian Railroad Company became the Hawaii Railway
Company, Ltd. Two years later, four of the five remaining
sugar companies bought the suffering Railway out. Hawi
Mill continued its refusal to take part in the transaction.
The sugar industry was booming in Kohala, especially
with the opening of the new ditch system in 1906, but
the excitement around the Railway was ebbing fast. In
1912, Hawi Mill abandoned the Honoipu landing and John
Hind, Robert's son, agreed to start using the Railway
with him as president of the Company. Under supervision
of Hind, a few minor improvements took place and so
the steam struggled quietly on.
For several years no spectacular events shook Kohala,
but some of the sugar companies started to merge and
sell out. Finally, in 1937, Kohala Sugar Company, consolidated
all sugar activity in Kohala into one, large business
while transferring the Railway Company to the new Mahukona
Manager of the new company was Mr. Scott Pratt. For
the first time in the railroad's history a new expansion
in Ainakea was to connect the railroad directly to a
One of the Kalakaua with
Despite the revitalization, the railway appeared doomed.
New, efficient cane haul trucks reached Kohala. A special
road was dug to accommodate the trucks, known today
as Pratt Road. The most northern part at Niulii was
abandoned, but the inevitable ending was brought on
before its time by the war. In 1941 the Mahukona port
was forced to close for security reasons. The struggling
train merely hauled unprocessed cane from fields to
And so -it was inevitable-, October 29, 1945, at the
end of another season, the train carried its last freight
and shut down for good. Bulk processing and truck transportation
had won. A very small section at Mahukona port itself
survived till 1955.
Note: The Leslie, who had served
as Kalakaua on Maui, and had been the first locomotive
to reach the Hawaiian islands was shipped to California
around 1959 and received the undignified name Little
Toot. Here, along with three Kalakaua cars, it was partially
restored. A newer engine was sent to Colorado. They
say, somewhere hidden in Kohala, are some remains of
two old engines. A teak passenger car made it to a museum
in Maui. As for the others, no clear records remain.
Most of the equipment was scrapped. One of the great
feats of Hawaiian history has gradually slipped away
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