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Vol. 14, no. 3
June / July 2011


Riding the Sugar Train 

Story by Jon Letman

Photo by Elyse Butler & Matt Mallams


Drivin' that train: Scott Johnson fires up Wainiha, one of the working plantation-era steam locomotives still riding the rails at Grove Farm museum in Lihue.

Next time you drive
by the old Lihu‘e Sugar Mill, listen closely—you just might hear a klaxon of Hawai‘i’s bygone sugar era.


One of Hawai‘i’s best-preserved examples of nineteenth-century railroad history still chugs through a wooded valley just off Haleko (“sugar house”) Road, which snakes below Lihu‘e’s main drag. The Grove Farm museum, home of the erstwhile Kaua‘i sugar titan George Norton Wilcox, has restored and operates three of its four nineteenth-century steam locomotives on two thousand feet of original, narrow-gauge track dating from 1891. All four trains are on the National Register of Historic Places, and they are the only steam engines run by the original company on the original tracks in Hawai‘i.


“Coincidence? I don’t think so,” says Scott Johnson, who drives the train on monthly “fire up” days. It makes sense, he says, that such a wealth of railway history would be preserved on Kaua‘i, home to Hawai‘i’s first commercial sugar cane plantation. Crown Princess Lili‘uokalani pounded the first railroad spike on Kaua‘i in 1881; Kaua‘i also saw Hawai‘i’s first electric locomotive, first diesel train, first standard-gauge railroad, first steampowered sugar mill as well as Hawai‘i’s last steam and diesel sugar cane locomotives. Kaua‘i was also the only island to experience a train robbery.


Paulo (named for Kaua‘i sugar planter Paul Isenberg) is the museum’s centerpiece, a ten-ton black workhorse built in Düsseldorf in 1887 and run in Köloa until 1920. It’s powered by wooden shipping crates, a process that diverts waste from the landfill and lightly fertilizes the valley with ash.


Paulo and the other three trains, Wainiha, Kaipu and Wahiawa, remain on Kaua‘i thanks to G.N. Wilcox’s niece Mabel Wilcox, who declined Disney’s request to sell the locomotives in the 1960s and initiated restoration efforts. The museum began offering free train rides as a literal vehicle for preserving plantation history.


“The people who once lived in this valley come down to ride the train,” says Johnson. “As they do, they remember their own history and share stories with their families and us, and the history gets preserved.”


Grove Farm museum offers free train rides on the second Thursday of each month between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. as well as guided tours of the historic homestead Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.