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FreightWaves Classics: Hawaii’s first railroad began service 143 years ago

The Kahului Railroad (KHRR) was a common carrier railway company in the Territory of Hawaii. In fact, it was the first operating railroad in the Hawaiian Islands. Its first day of operation took place on July 17, 1879. The KHRR operated on a 3-feet narrow gauge track. It ran from Wailuku to Kuiaha on the north coast of the island of Maui. The company continues today as Kahului Trucking & Storage, a subsidiary of Alexander & Baldwin.

Japanese sugar cane field workers. (Photo: Nisei Veterans Legacy)
Japanese sugar cane field workers. (Photo: Nisei Veterans Legacy)

The growth of the territory’s sugar industry

The U.S. government had decided that Hawaiian-grown sugar cane could be exported duty-free in 1876. The Reciprocity Treaty caused a number of sugar importers to become interested in Maui’s agriculture potential, including Claus Spreckels, who came to Hawaii from San Francisco.

The treaty increased the territory’s sugar cane industry operations significantly. The isthmus between Haleakala and West Maui contained rich soils ideal for crop cultivation. Within a few short years, the region soon supported one of the largest sugar plantations in the world.

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Spreckels leased land from the government and obtained the water rights necessary to build a large irrigation ditch that provided water for crops. Captain Thomas H. Hobron, who headed the postal authority of Kahului, recognized the need to transport the island’s sugar cane harvests quickly to processing plants and then to the port at the harbor in Kahului. 

These factors led to the establishment of Maui’s first railroad system. The new railway was originally named the Kahului and Wailuku Railroad. Hobron ran the first train line from Kahului to Wailuku; the railway was eventually extended to over 15 miles in length along the north coast to Kuiaha, and a number of branch lines were also constructed.

Therefore, less than a decade after the construction of the first transcontinental railway in the United States, the first steam railroad line in Hawaii was established. The first passenger train operated July 29, 1879. But passengers were not the primary focus of the railroad’s business. 

The 1880s-1900

The Kahului Railroad hauled sugar cane from the fields to a mill and then took the finished sugar to the port of Kahului. As postmaster of Kahului, Hobron allowed mail to be sent free via the railroad. 

Scheduled mixed trains operated from Tuesday to Friday. On September 21, 1880, the rail extension eastward from Kahului to Pa’ia was opened. The enterprise was incorporated on July 1, 1881, as the Kahului Railroad Company.

The Kahului station was located southeast of the harbor at Hobron Point (on the east side of the harbor). By 1884, the railroad’s tracks extended through Spreckelsville as well as to the sugar mill at Puʻunene. That same year, a subsidy of $25 per month was paid to the railroad for hauling mail. The mail carried on the railroad was in closed bags for delivery to postmasters along the route.  

By 1889, the Kahului Railroad Company had built more track. It had three locomotives, two passenger cars, one baggage-mail car, 14 platform cars and 60 boxcars. 

The Kahului Railroad Company was acquired by the Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. in 1899. By the turn of the 19th century, Kahului supported a new customs house, a saloon, a Chinese restaurant and a small but growing population.

A Kahului Railroad patch. (Photo: ebay.com)
A Kahului Railroad patch. (Photo: ebay.com)

The early 1900s-World War II

In 1901, the Kahului Railroad purchased its first tugboat, the Leslie Baldwin, to tow lighters (a type of flat-bottomed barge used to transfer goods and passengers to and from moored ships). The railroad was a key force in the development of Kahului Harbor.

According to a 1903 report by the territorial governor, the railroad owned a variety of railroad equipment, the steamer Leslie Baldwin, “two wharves with the necessary appliances for handling freight, and nine lighters of 65 tons capacity each.” 

As noted above, the Kahului Railroad hauled sugar cane from the fields to a mill and then took the finished sugar to the port of Kahului. The various extensions of the rail line meant that the railroad could also haul other commodities, such as pineapple, to the port. 

The rail line was extended again on February 8, 1913. The railway constructed a steel bridge to reach Ha’ikū and Kuiaha. The bridge crossed the Maliko Gorge, and the bridge was 230 feet above the valley floor and was 682 feet long. It was the highest railway bridge in Hawaii.

As the years passed, the railroad’s trains hauled goods to stores and mills, sugar cane to mill and then to the port, pineapple from field to cannery, and passengers to school or work.

The KRR's locomotive #7. (Photo: PacificNG.org)
The KRR’s locomotive #7. (Photo: PacificNG.org)

During World War II, the U.S. military took over the Kahului Railroad Company (as well as railroads on the other islands that were built after the Kahului Railroad). During the war, these island railways transported everything from food to amphibious vehicles. 

Legacy

After the Kahului Railroad proved its value, rail lines were built on the four larger Hawaiian islands. Generally, they were built to connect sugar plantations and other agricultural or industrial enterprises with their shipping points. 

In addition to being the first railway in Hawaii, the Kahului Railroad was also the last public railroad in operation. 

On August 21, 1959, Hawaii became the 50th state in the United States. That year also saw the cessation of operations on the Kahului Railroad after almost 87 years of service. In 1962, Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar was acquired by Alexander & Baldwin. The railroad’s Engine No. 12 made its last run on May 24, 1966, and the railroad was decommissioned at that time, followed by the Maliko bridge being demolished. The railroad’s tracks and some of its railcars were later used on the Lahaina, Kaanapali and Pacific Railroad, a tourist train on the west side of Maui. 

The Lahaina, Kaanapali and Pacific Railroad, which was also known as the Maui Sugar Cane Train. (Photo: jeffsetter.com)
The Lahaina, Kaanapali and Pacific Railroad, which was also known as the Maui Sugar Cane Train. (Photo: jeffsetter.com)

Engine No. 12 was shipped to the mainland in 1967. Silverwood Theme Park in Athol, Idaho purchased the engine. Later, it was returned to service as part of the Georgetown Loop Historic Mining & Railroad Park in Colorado.

Kahului #12 on Maui. (Photo: PacificNG.org)
Kahului #12 on Maui. (Photo: PacificNG.org)

What was the Kahului Railroad Company continues today as Kahului Trucking & Storage, a subsidiary of Alexander & Baldwin.

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Scott Mall

Scott Mall serves as Managing Editor of FreightWaves Classics. He writes articles for the website, edits the SONAR Daily Watch series, marketing material for FreightWaves and a variety of FreightWaves special projects. Mall’s career spans 45 years in public relations, marketing and communications for Fortune 500 corporations, international non-profits, public relations agencies and government agencies.