Next Stop Honolulu!

“Next Stop Honolulu” is the story of the Oahu Railway & Land Company, a narrow-gauge railroad that served the island and its residents for nearly 60 years. It enabled (and was made possible by) the sugar and pineapple industries that were the economic engine of Hawaii in the early days. The train also made Honolulu accessible to and from the rest of the Island for passengers and freight. 

In addition to taking raw sugar to the docks and pineapples to the canneries, it hauled garbage to the dump, South Seas guano fertilizer to plantations, coral concrete to construction sites, landfill to lagoons, oil and gasoline and on and on. During and prior to each war it hauled shore guns to batteries, ammunition to bases and depots and ships, and soldiers and sailors to the downtown bars and brothels. It had 4 heavy Mikado locomotives (sisters to those still on the Durango line in Colorado) and a host of other steam locomotives. 

The Oahu Railway was one of the most sophisticated narrow-gauge lines in the country, featuring automatic block signals, a double tracked mainline, and helper engine service on the steep grade to Wahiawa. 

“Next Stop Honolulu” is a definitive history of the Oahu Railway, but is also a lens through which to view and understand the history of Hawaii across an era that took the Islands from a sleepy whaling port to a key part of the US, poised for statehood. It contains a rich selection of photographs, drawings, and newspaper clips that tell the story in the words of the day. 

This book will delight those with an interest in Hawaiian history, as well as rail fans and modelers. Keywords: Hawaiian Railroads, Oahu Railway, Railroads in Hawaii, Hawaii transportation history.

From the Publisher

This book is the culmination of an interest spanning well over half my life.

I arrived in Hawaii in 1971 to take a job crewing on Seraphim, a charter sailboat based in Pokai Bay, near Waianae, on Oahus leeward coast. The business soon went broke, but I was determined to stay in the Islands, and found a job as a technician with the tiny cable TV company serving the rural Waianae Coast, an area otherwise without reception. As I followed cable lines up and down every country road, I became aware of the narrow gauge railroad tracks which led up the coastline and into a broad valley which was home to the Lualualei Naval Ammunition Depot. Residents explained that during the Vietnam War, Navy trains had hauled ordnance from the depot to ships in the West Loch arm of Pearl Harbor, and that, years earlier, a privately owned railroad had steamed up the coast from Honolulu and around rocky Kaena Point to the North Shore of the island. Further investigation revealed that the Hawaiian Railway Society was restoring locomotives in a borrowed equipment facility at! the Depot, as well as publishing newsletters recounting the history of the original rail line, Oahu Railway & Land Company.

My career consumed most of my time, as I first became manager of the little cable TV system, and then chief engineer for the larger Oceanic Cable system in Honolulu. Oceanic eventually wired the entire island and absorbed the smaller operations, including my original employer. I spent fifteen years on Oahu, working in cable and starting an electronics manufacturing company on the side. I often visited the Hawaiian Railway Society, which had moved from Lualualei to the sugar mill town of Ewa, not far from Pearl Harbor. My interest was less in restoring old equipment, however, than in the history of what I came to realize had been a very sophisticated railroad operation and a central part of life on Oahu for more than half a century. I felt a kinship with the people, especially the engineers, who had built a vital network for island commerce nearly a century before my own efforts to construct a different kind of network across the same geography.

I began collecting information on Oahu Railway?and narrow gauge railroads in general in the mid-seventies. These included the Societys monthly newsletter, Akahele I Ke KaAahi, as well as the few books written about Hawaiian railroads, all now long out of print. As my career moved my wife and me from Honolulu to Colorado, Connecticut, and Manhattan, we returned to Hawaii as often as possible to see friends and to visit Oceanic Cable, as I still worked for its parent company, Time Warner. A feature of the visits was almost always a trip to the Bishop Museums archives, where Id poke through the collection of photos, maps and documents about OR&L. I purchased copies of many of the photographs, and displayed them in my office and home, and I began plans for a model railroad depicting the Oahu Railway. I constructed my first layout in our basement in Connecticut, but had to dismantle it when we moved. A more ambitious layout is now underway in our Colorado home.I built and purchased a collection of locomotives and cars along the lines of those on OR&L. The many similarities with the Colorado narrow gauge lines of the Denver, Rio Grande & Western railroad, very popular with modelers, made this task much easier.

Oahu Railway is actually 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 a variety of goods. Its economic reasons for being were, of course, transporting raw sugar from the six mills it served to the docks, and moving huge loads of pineapples from the pine sidings in the fields of the islands central plain to the canneries. But the railroad was also a fixture of the community, with frequent passenger service, including connections with branch routes. It hauled garbage to the dump, south seas guano fertilizer to plantations, coral concrete to construction sites, empty cans to three canneries and full ones to the docks, landfill to lagoons, merchandise to general stores, oil and gasoline and on and on. Prior to and during each war, it hauled guns to batteries, ammunition to bases, depots and ships, and soldiers and sailors downtown to the bars, tattoo parlors and dance halls of Hotel Street. OR&Ls locomotives ranged from small and simple to unusually heavy and powerful for a narrow gauge operation. It included a sophisticated automatic block signaling system, perhaps the only narrow gauge in existence to have one. And it had a beautiful passenger terminal in Honolulu, and a large and active roundhouse. The modeling possibilities are endless.

For a long time, my research into OR&Ls history was focused on planning a large model railroad, but it eventually dawned on me that there might interest in a book offering a comprehensive pictorial history of the railroad. I know that there are many current and former Hawaii residents with a keen interest in the history of that unique place. I know as well that there is an audience that reads and collects railroad history books. And my own modeling experience hinted that others might enjoy a collection of useful information about this wonderful line.

The idea of writing a book led me into conversations with Mac Simpson, an old friend who had authored and designed a number of illustrated books with Hawaiian themes, including Streetcar Days in Honolulu (2001), a history of the Honolulu Rapid Transit Company. Oahu is a very small island in many ways, and Mac had often worked with my former next-door-neighbor, the late Bob Goodman, who founded both Island Heritage Press and Beyond Words, along the way publishing some 120 books, mostly about Hawaii. He and Mac later pioneered the composition, layout and publication of high quality books using Macintosh computers in 1986, a technique which came to be called “desktop publishing.” Their first effort, a richly illustrated history of Hawaiis whaling days called WhaleSong, created an enormous stir in the computer industry. Bob and Mac probably sold more copies of WhaleSong to aspiring computer publishers than to whaling aficionados, and the book featured an extensive “how we did it” section which provided a tutorial on this new approach to publishing.

Chats with Mac over the years opened my eyes to the practical possibility of publishing the dedicated history that OR&L deserved. And conversations with various folks in the railroad publishing and modeling communities confirmed that there was at least a vague awareness that there had once been an interesting railroad on Oahu, and that there was a genuine interest in knowing more. Mac and I decided to collaborate on this book, and hope that it pleases its various audiences. It is indeed a labor of love.

Jim Chiddix, Evergreen, Colorado

The Oahu Railway & Land Company