Kauai Railroad History

Railroads on Kauai date from 1881 with the first three miles of rail laid at Kilauea Plantation, and by 1915 there were nearly 200 miles of narrow gauge track in service on the sugar plantations of the Island.

Early sugar planters encountered transportation problems from the start, struggling with wagons on unpaved roads to move cane from the fields to the mills and processed sugar to the ports for shipment to market. In late 1881 management of the Kilauea Plantation ordered rail equipment from the John Fowler Co, of Leeds, England. Rail, spikes, a locomotive and cars arrived on Kauai late in 1881 and by the end of 1882 the line was in operation. Track gauge was 2' and the tiny (likely 6 tons) 0-4-2 Fowler locomotive could move up to ten loaded cars of cut cane in one train.

While the original line at Kilauea Plantation remained at 2' gauge to the end, all the other lines on Kauai chose 30" gauge, the only Island in the Hawaiian Chain to run with this gauge.

The success of the Kilauea line lead management at the Koloa Sugar Plantation, the first on Kauai, to follow their lead and order a similar Fowler locomotive, but chose 30" (2' 6") gauge for their line. The reason is not known. The success of this line soon prompted management to order a second Fowler locomotive of similar size.


By 1887 the Koloa operation needed more powerful engines and ordered a 10-ton, 0-4-2T locomotive from the Hohenzollern Co. of Germany. Today this engine is preserved by the Grove Farm Homestead Museum in operating condition - it is the oldest functioning plantation locomotive in Hawaii and is put in steam occasionally for special events.

None of the railroads on Kauai were intended for passenger service, though on special occasions flat cars were outfitted with seats and canvas roofs. Workers often rode out to the fields on the railroads and returned on the last trip of the day. The daily work on these railroads involved moving cars loaded with cut cane from the fields to the mill and the bags of processed sugar to the nearest ship landing, as well as moving supplies and equipment to the plantation from the landings. The expansion of the plantations increased the length of the railroad lines and the improvements in the sugar processing plants enabled much greater production capacity.

As the lines increased in length and management wanted to move larger quantities of sugar cane per trip, the locomotives were upgraded to larger units. The Baldwin Locomotive Works, of Philadelphia, became the prime supplier to most Hawaii plantations and Kauai was no exception. Initially the 0-4-2 design was popular, but soon the larger 0-6-2 wheel arrangement, with the water tank draped over the boiler ("saddle tank") was favored because of it's high tractive effort and the ability to negotiate sometimes less than perfect track. Historians have called these the "Bulldog Baldwins" for their squat, compact appearance and renown pulling ability. At one point there were more than 20 of these engines in service on Kauai at the same time, and three of them survive in the collection of the Grove Farm Homestead Museum, two of which are operational.

The Kauai Plantation Railway has been fortunate to locate and recover a pair of these Baldwin 0-6-2 tank engines that once ran on the Honolulu Plantation Co, on the Island of Oahu. Unlike the other Kauai railroads, these are 36" gauge, which was common on all the other Hawaiian Islands. Once restored this will raise the number of Hawaii narrow gauge steam engines on Kauai to six, the largest surviving group of Hawaii sugar engines in existence.

By 1927 plantation managers began to experiment with internal combustion engines and a 12-ton Plymouth diesel was placed in service at the Kekaha Sugar Company and was soon followed by similar units on other operations. In 1936 management at the Lihue Plantation purchased a 10-ton Whitcomb diesel-mechanical engine, which proved to be successful. The following year a second, similar engine was brought on line.

The Kauai Plantation Railway has located and restored a 1939 Whitcomb diesel-mechanical of the same design as the early Kauai engines, thus replicating this era of Kauai railroading. Also on the KPRY roster is a 1948 GE diesel-electric engine similar to the early GE units purchased by Lihue Plantation Co.

In the same period many Kauai plantations began to experiment with the use of motor trucks in harvesting and other hauling needs - marking the beginning of the end for plantation railroads on the Island. As the lines began to be pulled up locomotives were sold to other Kauai plantations, sold elsewhere, or scrapped on site. Following WWII the improvements brought on during the war in motor trucks and tracked vehicles brought most of the Kauai railroads to an end.

As elsewhere in Hawaii, the plantation railroads were largely gone by 1950 or so, with only the Lihue Plantation Co on Kauai keeping it's railroads in service until 1959 - far longer than expected. By that time five large GE diesel engines were doing the majority of the work, with several of the old steam engines in reserve.

Through the foresight of Mable Wilcox, a member of the family who owned the Lihue Plantation Co, the Grove Farm Homestead Museum was established to help preserve Kauai's plantation history. The museum was able to acquire and preserve four of Kauai's steam engines, three of which have been restored to operational condition.

Though the plantation railroads of Kauai no longer haul sugar cane, the preservation efforts of the Grove Farm Homestead Museum, and the operations of the Kauai Plantation Railway help visitors and Island residents experience this long-gone aspect of Island life.

Riding a narrow gauge train on the Kauai Plantation Railway through the plantation fields is a unique and wonderful opportunity to travel back in time to the heyday of Kauai's railroad history.