story by Liza Simon
photo by Chris McDonough
The late Kirk Smith had a passion for Island life, an affinity for business and an exuberance for "just making big, wonderful things happen," remembers Smith's business partner and friend, Fred Atkins. Smith used all of those gifts to help transform a decaying mansion into Kilohana, a handsomely restored visitor attraction complete with carriage rides and tropical gardens. Then he decided to bump things up a nostalgic notch or two: His idea was to bring in old-fashioned locomotives, the kind sugar planters used a century ago to haul cane from field to mill. Atkins confesses to initial skepticism.
"The last trains I had touched were the kind you put under the Christmas tree, but Kirk thought this would be something all of Kaua‘i would get a kick out of," Atkins recalls. Atkins and Smith, along with historic preservation architect Boone Morrison, immersed themselves in boyhood train-building fantasies and launched into international dealings that finally netted two 100-plus-year-old Baldwin train engines from a remote plantation in the Philippines. It was a homecoming of sorts: The engines had actually spent their earlier lives in Hawai‘i's sugar industry. Atkins says one of the biggest rewards was hiring an all-local crew to plan and build a figure-eight track. "One of the biggest joys was having my own son call me and say he was coming home to work on therailroad," laughs Atkins, who notes that the pro bono help and all-around kokua of Kaua‘i's people were the real reminders of old Hawai‘i.
As nostalgic as the train may be, it takes passengers for a forty-minute ride into Kaua‘i's future as well: The track winds through a lush patchwork of plots now maintained by farmers who are growing new crops. Got rambutan, anybody? Train narrator Terri Goo promises passengers the tropical fruit will be harvested soon. Goo approaches her job with verve, never tiring of answering the same question from kids when the train stops to let passengers feed the farm animals. "They want to know: ‘Are the pigs for the lu‘au?' I tell them, ‘No, they're to spread the seeds and keep Kaua‘i green."
Kaua‘i Plantation Railway