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Preserving Hawaii's Railway History

Steve Vendt
Steve Vendt

The Hawaiian Railway Society in ?Ewa runs the only continuously operating historical railroad in the state. The non-profit has been working to preserve Hawai?i’s rich railroading history for nearly 50 years. HPR contributing reporter Jackie Young takes us on board the train once ridden by Hawaiian royalty. 

“Oh, the kids love it. As soon as they see the train—some of them buy the whistles in our gift shop—and they’re already blowing it.  As soon as they see the train parked out here, they’re already blowing their whistles.  Their face is just like a kid in a candy store.” 

Jackie Young
Credit Jackie Young
The Ewa No. 1 train was the only one of seven steam locomotives used on the 'Ewa Sugar Plantation from the 1870s to World War II that has been preserved. It now sits in the HRS parking lot.

That’s Zack Jackson, head engineer for the Hawaiian Railway Society.  He got hooked on trains when he was only 4, after his aunty brought him here for a ride.

“I enjoy the way people are fascinated by the history of Hawai?i, and how transportation was here, and how many people that live here, don’t even know the train exists here.”

The O?ahu Rail and Land Company was founded in 1889 by Benjamin Dillingham, under a franchise given to him by King Kal?kaua.  The line started in Honolulu, and stretched all the way to the leeward plain, carrying crops and goods, as well as passengers.

Queen Liliu?okalani and other royalty would ride in the lavish Parlor Car 64—now restored by HRS volunteers, and p?lled by a special locomotive, says the group's operations manager Steve Vendt.   

“Dillingham gave friends, families, dignitaries, and people with whom—with other businessmen—he made bets about having a train ride on his birthday in September, and off they went.  In fact, they went on a locomotive that’s out in the parking lot, Kauila 6, that’s the very first locomotive of the O?ahu Railway.”

But with the advent of cars, OR&L stopped carrying passengers by 1947.  It continued to haul containers of goods around downtown Honolulu until 1972.

Jackie Young
Credit Jackie Young
The Hawaiian Railway Society sign welcomes visitors to its parking lot.

The Hawaiian Railway Society was started in 1971 to preserve the remaining 15 miles of original OR&L track, and any original rail cars that used to operate in Hawai?i.

The non-profit’s regular weekend train rides and special weekday charter rides help keep operations running.  In 2014, Vendt and his wife came up with the idea of 3 p.m. ice cream rides on the weekends.  They are extremely popular.

“All of a sudden it kinda clicked with us both and it was like, ‘Why don’t we stop the train for ice cream?’  So we got a hold of the people at the ice cream store and they said they were willing to give it a try, and off it went.  It took about 2 weeks, and the ridership went right through the roof.”

Holiday rides are also very popular.

“We have our annual Spookapalooza … our Halloween rides.  … That was a major sellout this year. … One of our members, Mike Raymond, schedules 2 rides every Christmastime for underprivileged/needy children.  And he pays the cost of the ride, so it’s a free ride for them.”

Jackie Young
Credit Jackie Young
The restored Oahu Railway Parlor Car 64 once carried Hawaiian royalty and dignitaries in the 1800s.

What do people like about the train rides?  Here’s 15-year-old Shayna Santa Maria of Mililani.

“I liked seeing things I’ve never seen before … We went behind Wai?anae and the back of Ko ?Olina.” 

But for others, it’s much more straightforward:  “The ice cream shop!”

For more information, go to hawaiianrailway.com.

hpr news
Jackie Young is the local host of Weekend Edition.
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