The Oahu Railway & Land Company (OR&L) had a profound impact on the history of the Hawaiian Islands.  These forces—dating back as far as the first rails in 1889—are still being felt today, more than half a century after the whistles were stilled.  Until the narrow-gauge railroad snaked around the Island, Oahu was little more than the compact village of Honolulu huddled around the North Pacific’s only natural harbor. The rail line enabled the creation of huge sugar plantations, splayed from hillside to sea around the Island. And sugar’s ravenous need for labor changed the population from a few surviving Hawaiians, foreign missionaries and businessmen to a bubbling cultural mix of thousands of people from China, Japan, Korea, Germany, Puerto Rico, Portugal, The Philippines, and Scotland.  The addition of thousands of immigrants from afar made Hawaii the successful cultural blend that it is.

The story of the railroad chronicles one man’s indefatigable determination in overcoming the challenges of lava terrain, political revolution and financial instability, while building his railroad and changing Hawaii forever!

This high-risk venture to pioneer a railroad where no infrastructure existed took fearlessness, imagination, entrepreneurial vision, ego, and a spirit innately American.  

The Story

Benjamin Franklin Dillingham

In 1864, Benjamin Franklin Dillingham fell off a rented horse, and the history of Hawaii was changed forever.

Thus begins the story of one of the most remarkable and important periods of modern history in Hawaii.  From 1889 until 1947 the Oahu Railway & Land Company (OR&L) created and operated a narrow-gauge railroad on Oahu.  For nearly 60 years OR&L moved both freight and passengers around the island, amassing great fortunes for its owners and those of the businesses created along its route.  More importantly, it ushered in a new era in Hawaii.

This is far more than the story of a railroad. It is, instead, the story of Hawaii’s people, beginning with a monarch, King Kalakaua, who encouraged new technology in the Kingdom of Hawaii, and an enterprising entrepreneur, Frank Dillingham, who stood at the dawn of a new century with a vision of Hawaii’s future that was very different than its past or present. With enormous foresight and energy, he managed to affect that dream.

 It is the story of waves of resilient immigrants from around the world who came to work in the cane and pineapple fields and stayed to change the islands forever.  

And, it is the story of people employed on the line – engineers, firemen, conductors, brakemen and station agents, all working to operate the railway efficiently.

The journey takes us back to old Honolulu, steam locomotives trundling passengers, pineapples and boxcars of sugar, great expanses of waving sugar cane, chuffing mills and the communities that sprung up around them.  Along the route, we meet people who lived through those times and hear their extraordinary stories, full of grace and humanity, and bring Hawaii’s history to life.

This is a story which helps explain Hawaii to a fascinated world both here in the Islands and beyond.

The Oahu Railway & Land Company