If you are visiting the Garden Isle on the second Thursday of each month, you will have the opportunity to experience one of the best things to do on Kauai. Riding the last of Hawaii’s sugarcane trains. Some of which are more than one hundred years old, the four narrow gauge locomotives were responsible for hauling millions of tons of sugarcane to the sugar mills for nearly 50 years. They are in remarkable condition which attests to the quality of their manufacture, and the hours of work by Hawaii railroad buffs to keep them running.
A debt of gratitude and acknowledgement to her foresight must go to the late Ms. Mabel Wilcox, who decided in the 1970′s that these steam engines were part of Kauai’s sugar legacy and should be preserved. It was her decision and tenacity, despite the grumblings of family members, who wanted to sell the then derelict locomotives to the Disney company for 500 dollars each.
Sugarcane cultivation is no longer an industry on Kauai, however for 150 years it was the number one employer in the Hawaiian Islands for most of those years. Sugar planters reaped great profits during and after the Civil War providing sugar to the healing nation. The cane companies required efficient transport to bring the bulky harvest from the field to the sugar mill on their ever expanding plantations. They turned to trains in the 1880′s and in 1881 the soon to be Queen Lili’uokalani drove the first spike in the ground at Kilauea Sugar Company. Eventually there were over 200 miles of track on the island when the last locomotive, the Wainiha was retired in 1959.
In 1888 the first train began hauling cane at the Koloa Plantation, the Paulo manufactured in Dusseldorf Germany, at a cost of $4000 for the 10 ton locomotive. It is a wood fired side tank locomotive designed for a 30 inch track. It is the oldest operational locomotive in the state and the pride of the Grove Farm Homestead Museum’s collection. These engines were not built for speed but for their high torque capacity, enabling them to haul up to 400 tons of sugarcane.
The Wainiha, which we had the privilege of riding, was manufactured in 1915 at the Baldwin Locomotive plant in Philadelphia in 1915, it was also designed for a 30″ track. It is a converted wood burning side saddle steam engine that originally ran on coal or oil and is remarkably efficient. It takes the operator about 90 minutes to fire up and produce enough steam. Once pressures are reached, it can run for 10 hours without requiring much wood to maintain steam pressure.
Railroads come in many different track widths or gauges. Here in Hawaii the plantations primarily used a 30″ track. The reasons were practical and economical. Narrow tracks were easier to move into the field where the cane cars could be loaded by hand, then pulled by horses to the mainline. Where they would eventually be hooked to the locomotive waiting on the main track for the trip to the mill. Narrow track also allowed for smaller turning radii and were substantially cheaper to build. Ideal for industrial railways where terrain was particularly difficult to traverse.
Scotty, the conductor and your guide, has been instrumental in bringing these gems back into operation and he has worked on almost every train remaining in Hawaii. He is sure to entertain with facts of plantation life in the early years of the last century, to the technical side of locomotive repair and operation.
Tours on the second Thursday of the month begin about 9am and last approximately 2 hours, admission is free, but donations are happily accepted. Park at the “station” on Haleko Road in Lihue, across from the Lihue Plantation sugar mill. Located just 20 minutes by car from our Kauai vacation rentals in Poipu. This is a great event for the children and it will answer that age old question. What’s there to do on Kauai?