Sugar and Steam in Kohala

by Veronica S. Schweitzer

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 transportation.

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 an editor.

Kohala was about to reach new levels of prosperity, but conditions for the laborers must have been absolutely grueling.

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 at once!

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 Mahukona, circa 1950's.

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 Terminals Ltd.

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 mill.

One of the Kalakaua with teak paneling.

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 mills.

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 in oblivion.

photo credit: Michael S. Gomes

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