Building the Kauai Plantation Railway

Building a railroad is not that easy, no matter where it is located, but doing so on an Island that is 2500 miles from the nearest continent adds a good deal of difficulty. Everything about a railroad line is large and heavy - rail, ties, and the supplies needed to assemble it and all of it had to be moved to the West Coast of the US Mainland and then via ship to Hawaii. But, that is not the beginning of the story.

In 2004 Kilohana Plantation took up the lease on our 70-acre plantation site - at that time it was an abandoned sugar cane field and was impassible due to the thick tangles of un-attended cane. Railroad consultant, Brook Rother, and Project Architect Boone Morrison, began with basic layout of the route of the railroad and supervised as the huge bulldozers crashed their way through the cane to clear the way - at times riding the machine to get a better view ahead.

Once the basic route could be walked on the survey crew set stakes to define the centerline of the route, set out the curves, and make notes for the grading. As the grading was moving forward the survey crew followed along, setting stakes to even more accurate layout. In all three separate survey passes were needed to finalize the route.

Conventional road building equipment was brought in to do final grading, cut drainage ditches, install culverts, and prepare for the placement of thousands of cubic yards of crushed rock to form the roadbed for the line. In one location a 3' high fill nearly 300 feet long (400 cubic yards of material) was constructed across a depression to carry the track.

The rock was spread using a modified asphalt-paving machine, which laid down an eight-inch thick layer of rock exactly the proper width. Then came the winter of 2005/06 and the "50 Year Storm" that brought nearly 40 inches of rain to the site in one 24 hour period! Fortunately, the many ditches and culverts protected the rail line and it came through in perfect shape.

As all of this was going on, nearly 40 container loads of railroad material were on the way from the US Mainland. Rail, ties, spikes, connector bars and bolts, switches, track tools and related elements all made the trip across the Pacific to Kauai and were unloaded and stockpiled on site.

In March of 2006, even in the rain, the track crew of six to eight men went to work setting out the ties at precisely two feet on center and then bringing in the rail, placing it and spiking it down with two spikes per tie, all hand driven. The rail is in 30 foot lengths and weighs 60 pounds per yard - 600 pounds per length. A small Kubota tractor was a big help in handling the rail, but in the end strong backs were needed to muscle it into final position.

450,000 pounds of rail, more than 6500 wood ties, and over 27,000 spikes were used in the construction of the 2.5-mile line.



All the spikes were hand driven, using 11-pound "spike mauls", just as has been done for more than 100 years. Soon the crew was trying to achieve an old standard for trackmen - only four blows of the spike once it had been set, and a mark on the spike head no bigger than a nickel where the maul had hit. Harder to do than one might think!

Despite the fact that none of the crew had ever laid track before, within a few weeks they were moving like a well-oiled machine and could put down 300 lineal feet of completed track in an eight-hour day - amazing.

After a section of track was complete the crew could "line and level" it before it was locked in place with another layer of rock spread between the ties - known as the "ballast". To place the ballast a unique car was designed and constructed. Based on an old fertilizer spreader bin, with a steel frame and two pairs of wheels at least 80 years old, this unique little car neatly spreads just the right amount of rock between the rails - but the crew still had to go back and tamp it into place by hand.

As time goes on the line will need ongoing maintenance, especially in the first year when the roadbed is settling in under the weight of the rail and crushed rock. But, after that the line should serve well for many years to come.


It was quite an adventure and visitors will enjoy their ride not knowing the labor that went into the construction.