The OR&L was arguably the most sophisticated narrow-gauge railroad in the United States or her territories. It boasted a double-track mainline and automatic block signals. During the 1920’s it offered 18 passenger train departures daily; at harvest season it ran up to seventy pineapple trains a day on ten-minute headways. During wartime it moved immense amounts of military supplies and manpower. It transported students to school, vegetables to market and soldiers and sailors to the honky-tonks and tattoo parlors on Hotel Street. The Oahu Railway was key to the evolution of Honolulu from a sleepy whaling village in a Polynesian Kingdom into a thriving port at the center of global trade, and the growth of the Island of Oahu into an agricultural and military powerhouse.
History & Operations
The Oahu Railway & Land Company had a profound impact on the history of the Island and its operations were worthy of a Class 1 railroad on the Mainland. It was the pride of the Dillingham dynasty in Hawai’i and the key to the family’s fortune. For much of its nearly sixty years of operation it was the primary means of transportation on the island and touched every aspect of life for residents. Kids got to know the distinctive whistles of each locomotive and had favorites. Every significant industry and most military bases had connections to the railroad. The OR&L had a large fleet of freight and passenger cars and a stable of dozens of powerful steam locomotives.
Maps & Drawings
Maps illustrate the reach of the railroad and the connections to the plantation railroads that served the sugar mills. The tracks that encircled much of the island and climbed to the central plateau were part of the critical infrastructure of the Island. A rich heritage of drawings left behind, or created after the fact, flesh out the details of the operations and equipment of the Railway.
The OR&L made possible the two agricultural industries that drove the economy of the Island for decades. Bags of raw sugar had to be moved from mills in the midst of plantations to the docks for shipment. And pineapples had to be moved from field to cannery. The Oahu railway’s ability to handle an enormous volume of frequent trains during pineapple harvest season supported the canneries of Dole, Del Monte and Libby. In addition, lesser but important crops ranging from rice to sisal and watercress and other truck vegetables depended on the railroad for transport to market.
A Model Railroad
The Oahu Railway was a surprisingly good prototype for a model railroad. It was constrained in size by its island location, had only one major and two minor branch lines, and hauled passengers and a huge variety of goods. The similarity of its locomotives and rolling stock to those of various heavily modeled Colorado narrow gauge railroads provides a rich source of easily modified raw material. An ambitious model is under construction in Evergreen, Colorado, and modelers around the world have taken creative approaches to individual models or complete layouts inspired by the OR&L.
Next Stop Honolulu
The Story of the Oahu Railway & Land Company
Next Stop Honolulu, The Story of the Oahu Railway and Land Company, is a comprehensive illustrated history of the OR&L, spanning its beginnings as Ben Dillingham’s entrepreneurial dream all the way to its demise after World War II and the disastrous 1946 tsunami. Authors Jim Chiddix and Mac Simpson have assembled a rich collection of images and well-researched text to bring the story of the railroad to life. The book is easily ordered from Amazon with a link from this website.
Links & Additional Information
Links are provided to a variety of historical railway societies and other sources of information about the Oahu Railway and its history.
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