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Friday, August 3, 2012

Travel Back in Time to Kauai's Sugar Era

A monthly train trip gives riders a glimpse into the Garden Isle's plantation history

July 8, 2012: 1931. The Great Depression. Stocks were plummeting, unemployment numbers were soaring, thousands of businesses were failing and millions of people were homeless. Across America, shanty villages were sprouting up around cities, and lines at soup kitchens were stretching for blocks.
But there were bright moments even during those dismal times. On a morning in 1931, shortly before his fifth birthday, a little boy saw an electric train set at the hardware store in his hometown of Minot in North Dakota. It was love at first sight.

Made of tin-plated steel, the train had a locomotive, coach, baggage car and observation car — all painted maroon and equipped with lights and spring-loaded doors. It came with 20 feet of track, barrier and railroad crossing signs, and a price tag of $39 ($575 in today's money) — more than what his parents earned in two weeks at his grandparents' farm and bakery.

Although the couple wanted to put a smile on their only child's face, they knew they couldn't afford such an extravagant toy. So the boy's mother asked relatives to contribute what they could. She collected a dollar here, two there, and managed to scrape together enough to buy her son the gift he cherished for nearly 70 years.

"Dad took really great care of that train," said Scott Johnson, who, like his father, is an avid train enthusiast. "He gave it to me in 2000, and it still runs! I don't take it out of storage very often because salt air is rough on the metal and I live near the ocean, but I occasionally set it up at Christmas, under the tree. Everyone loves to watch it going around and around."

Johnson is known on Kauai as "the train guy." Grove Farm museum hired him in 1982 as the mechanic for its four steam locomotives — Paulo, Wainiha, Wahiawa and Kaipu (see sidebar). Today he's in charge of everything related to the vintage engines, including research, repairs, restoration, maintenance, track installation, funding, public relations, special events, and presentations for schools and other organizations.
All four locomotives hauled cane at Kauai sugar plantations and are on the National Register of Historic Places. During the heyday of Hawaii's sugar industry in the late 1930s, 28 plantations on Oahu, Maui, Kauai and Hawaii island were running trains on about 900 miles of track.

Most of the trains were gone by 1950, replaced by trucks and machinery that were more efficient and less expensive to operate. On Sept. 24, 1957, the use of steam-powered engines at Hawaii's sugar plantations ended when Wainiha pulled a train carrying cut cane to Lihue Plantation's mill. Two years later, on Oct. 10, 1959, a diesel locomotive powered Hawaii's last sugar cane train, which also hauled cane to the Lihue mill.
VISITORS can experience a bit of that history on the second Thursday of every month, when Johnson fires up Paulo or Wainiha for Grove Farm museum's free Train Day. With its whistle blaring and white puffs rising out of the engine's smokestack, the train rolls along 2,000 feet of original right of way — 1,800 feet from Lihue Plantation dating back to 1891 and 200 feet from Grove Farm Plantation dating back to 1895.
Founded by entrepreneur George Wilcox, Grove Farm Plantation (incorporated in 1922 as Grove Farm Co.) operated from 1864 to 1974. Over the years, the plantation acquired acreage, facilities and equipment; by 1955 it owned Paulo, Wainiha, Wahiawa and Kaipu.

"Disney offered to buy the locomotives for $500 apiece in 1970," Johnson said. "Mabel Wilcox, George's niece, said, ‘For that price, I'll buy them to keep them on Kauai.' Grove Farm Co. wound up not selling the locomotives. The following year, Miss Mabel bought the plantation's homestead and created a nonprofit organization to preserve it as a living museum."

IMPRESSED by her vision, Grove Farm Co. executives donated the locomotives to Grove Farm museum in 1975. Miss Mabel died three years later, leaving an endowment for the museum which included care for them.

"She restored Wainiha with her own money right after the museum received the donation, which showed that she wanted the engines to be kept in operating condition," Johnson said. "Her wish was to preserve Kauai's plantation history, and Train Day helps fulfill that."

Fully loaded, the train carries about 80 people seated on benches in a restored 1930s flatcar and cane car and two replica cane cars. It chugs along at a walking pace, the only hints of Kauai's once vibrant sugar industry being water tank pillars, the concrete foundation of one of the bachelors' quarters for Lihue Plantation workers and the dilapidated shell of the plantation's mill, built in 1849, which serves as the backdrop for the boarding and disembarking area.

The mill operated for more than 150 years, until the plantation's closure in 2000. Soon it, too, will be gone; deteriorated beyond repair, it will be demolished over the next three months.

During stops along the way, Johnson walks beside the cars, describing Hawaii's sugar plantation life and the role trains played in it. "The ride is as much about people as it is the historic equipment," he said. "Guests have so many great memories to share. They talk about relatives who worked on plantation trains, the trains they saw in the cane fields when they were kids and the toy trains somebody they knew owned or that they always wanted. I listen to their stories and tell them on other rides. That's how I'm preserving Hawaii's train history — one story at a time."
Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi is a Honolulu-based freelance writer whose travel features for the Star-Advertiser have won several Society of American Travel Writers awards.


» Where: Meet at former employee parking lot of Lihue Plantation's mill, on Haleko Road between Rice Street and Nawiliwili Road, Lihue, Kauai.
» When: Second Thursday of every month; the next ride will be Thursday. Advance reservations aren't necessary. Rides are sometimes scheduled on other days. Call for details. The 45-minute rides begin at 10 a.m.; last boarding is at 2 p.m.
» Cost: Free
» Call: 245-3202
» Notes: The train is available for private tours and functions. Call for prices and availability.


Paulo (built 1887)
Named for Paul Isenberg, owner of Lihue Plantation and a partner in Koloa Sugar Co., Paulo is the oldest operating plantation locomotive in Hawaii. It was built in Dusseldorf, Germany, and purchased by Koloa Sugar Plantation, which, established in 1835, was Hawaii's first commercial sugar plantation. Paulo hauled cane until the 1920s. When Grove Farm Co. bought Koloa Sugar in 1948, Paulo was part of the sale. The locomotive was restored in 1981.
Wainiha (built 1915)
Manufactured by Baldwin Locomotive Works in Philadelphia, Wainiha, named for a stream and valley on Kauai's North Shore, was first owned by McBryde Sugar Co. Lihue Plantation bought it in 1932, and Grove Farm Co. acquired it in 1955. Wainiha was restored in 1975 and now takes turns with Paulo for Train Day rides. It portrayed a Japanese train transporting British prisoners of war in the 2001 World War II drama "To End All Wars."
Wahiawa (built 1921)
This engine, also built by Baldwin Locomotive Works, first pulled a passenger train for Kauai Railway Co. Its original name was Port Allen, after the harbor on Kauai's west coast that was the end of that line. When McBryde Sugar Co. bought the locomotive in 1938, it was named Wahiawa, after one of the workers' camps. Grove Farm Co. purchased it in 1947. It's being restored as funds permit.
Kaipu (built 1925)
Kaipu holds the distinction of being one of the last locomotives built for Hawaii's sugar industry. Hawaiian Sugar Co. purchased it from Baldwin Locomotive Works and dubbed it Kokee. When Grove Farm Co. acquired the engine in 1941, it was renamed Kaipu, after George Wilcox's right-hand man. It was retired in 1953 and restored in 1983. Although Kaipu is operational, it is not being used; it is stored at Grove Farm Co.'s roundhouse in Puhi along with Wahiawa.

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1 comment:

  1. This is so much more than i needed!!! but will all come in use thanks!!
    Landscaping Virginia