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Monday, September 9, 2013

Volunteers help maintain O‘ahu’s historic 1880s rail line

Workin’ on the railroad
Volunteers are critical to maintaining the historic line's remaining section
By Sarah Zoellick /

Sunday, September 1, 2013 

Dennis Oda /
Not many teens would get excited about lacing up work boots and tossing on jeans and a blue-and-white-striped train engineer's cap on a Saturday morning, but Zach Jackson has been infatuated with Oahu's living locomotive treasure since he was 5.
"My auntie brought me down here," the 19-year-old Honolulu Community College student recalled while he took a break from replacing railway track ties along the remaining stretch of historic railway that runs from Ewa to Nanakuli.

"I kept riding and riding and riding until I was about the age of, probably, I would say 16," he said. "I started volunteering and then I decided I want to work here."

Jackson, a Salt Lake resident, became part of the railroad staff when he was 18 and now helps run public train rides on the track each Sunday. His mentor, Larry Howard, who serves as vice president of the Hawaiian Railway Society, said he hopes to get more young people and community members involved in the upkeep of the 16-mile railway that's on the State and National Registers of Historic Places.

"Usually, some of us older guys are too old to come out and do much … and that's getting harder," Howard said above the pounding, creaking and clinking in the background. "It's not easy but generally it's kind of fun."

For Saturday's volunteer work day, Howard donned a big brimmed straw hat, aviator sunglasses and a gray, short-sleeved worker's jumpsuit with a white Hawaiian Railway Society name patch on the left breast pocket.

He said two young track crewmen recently moved back to the mainland, making the pool of workers even thinner.

The society holds work days almost every Saturday as long as a few people can make it, Howard said. According to the society's website, it has worked to restore about 6.5 miles of track and hopes to restore more.
Dennis Oda /

The track is made up of about 22,000 railway ties, and Howard said his organization can replace between five and 15 ties in a typical work day. Each tie costs about $50, along with $4 for four spikes, making a typical volunteer day cost between $270 and more than $800, not including fuel for equipment and other expenses.

Howard said the line, which dates to the 1880s, once ran throughout the island — from Ko Olina out west and north up to Kahuku, and through the center of the island to Aiea, Mililani and Wahiawa. The Oahu Railway and Land Co. transported its last passenger in December 1946 and the train was used by the Navy until the late 1960s, he said.

The society began maintaining it in the 1970s and started offering rides again in the '80s.
"If it wasn't for it being on the register, it wouldn't have been here," Howard said.

"If you'd have come down here in the late '70s, early '80s, this would have just been a forest of kiawe," he added.

Among the helpers Saturday were 12 Hunt Cos. Inc. employees. Hunt owns about 540 acres of land south of the railroad and is working to renovate and revitalize the area, said Jose Bustamante, Hunt's vice president of development.

Dennis Oda /

"We felt that it would be awesome to work with them on restoring some of these wooden ties … so that generations to come can continue to use this railroad system," he said.

Hunt Cos. previously sent volunteers from its construction side, but Saturday was the first time employees from the development arm of the real estate company chipped in.

"I think that bringing in a new generation of folks to come in and work to improve this is very important," Bustamante said.

Jackson also said he hopes more people will get involved in the effort to restore the track.

"It's a nice experience and (you can) save some railroad history from Hawaii," he said. "There's a lot of track work that needs to be done."


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