Ke Ala Hele Makalae History


At a Glance

Name: Ke Ala Hele Makalae
Length: 7.3 Miles
Trail activities: Bike, Inline Skating, Wheelchair Accessible, Walking
Counties: Kauai
Surfaces: Asphalt, Concrete
State: Hawaii

A Brief History

It may seem hard to believe, but the Hawaiian Islands were not only once home to one, but many railroads. Except for the Hawaii Consolidated Railway located on the Big Island, all of the chains’ railroads used narrow-gauge track and were constructed primarily to serve the numerous sugar plantations once found there. Kauai also featured two of its own systems, the Kauai Railway and the Ahukini Terminal & Railroad Company (AT&RC). A section of the latter is what the 7-mile Ke Ala Hele Makalae follows. The AT&RC was established during the early 20th century, but like many of Hawaii’s railroads, saw only a few decades service before it was abandoned. It did survive longer than many others, and the rails were not removed until the late 1950s.

The development of railroads on the Hawaiian Islands was largely a result of U.S. intervention. On September 9, 1876, the Kingdom of Hawaii and the United States signed an agreement allowing the latter to harvest sugar from the islands, free of charge, for the right to establish a coaling station at Pearl River Lagoon (present-day location of Pearl Harbor Naval Station). Hawaii would become an American territory in 1898 and a state in 1959. To extract and refine sugar required an extensive array of equipment and materiel, which soon began arriving in large amounts. Transportation, of course, was vital in moving the raw and processed product efficiently and profitably. Because there were no established roads on the islands, and reliable, motorized travel was decades away, railroads were tapped for the job. According to George Hilton’s book “American Narrow Gauge Railroads,” such systems were chosen on Hawaii for a number of reasons: firstly, they provided a compatible interchange among private (common-carrier) and plantation-owned operations; secondly, there was no standard-gauge precedent like there was on the continent (4 feet X 8 ½ inches); and thirdly, rails were less costly to construct.

All narrow-gauge systems on Kauai were built to either 24-inch or 30-inch gauge. The first plantation-owned carriers here dated to the early 1880s, while the first common-carrier was established in 1906, known as the Kauai Railway. This little operation was funded by Theodore H. Davies & Company, Ltd. (one of Hawaii’s major sugar agents) and ran along the island’s south shore. During peak operations, this railroad operated about 17 miles of track. Running west from Port Allen (Eleele Landing), it served the Hawaiian Sugar Company’s mill at Makaweli 4 miles away, To the east, rails covered 11 miles to serve a sugar mill at Koloa. Finally, a 2-mile branch ran to the small town of Koloa, where the railroad interchanged with the private trackage of the Koloa Sugar Company. The Kauai Railway was liquated in 1933, and all remaining service on this part of the island ended by 1947.

The Ke Ala Hele Makalae Trail uses a section of former road bed constructed by the Ahukini Terminal & Railroad Company (AT&RC), a system not organized until 1920 by American Factors, Ltd. Its purpose was to serve private clients along the island’s eastern shore, the Lihue Plantation and Makee Sugar Company. The AT&RC was built to 2-foot X 6-inch gauge standards, and its initial route ran from Ahukini Landing along Hanamaulu Bay north to Anahola Landing. Along the way, the railroad connected Kealia and Kapaa, where both locations also had landings allowing for the transport of raw sugar to small boats. The boats then ferried the sugar to large ships waiting offshore. The AT&RC featured the island’s most spectacular feats of engineering in the form of two notable bridges; one was 165 feet long, rising above the Hanamaulu River, while the other was a concrete-arch design at 390 feet long and spanning the Waialua River. There was also an impressive 900-foot long, 30-foot high fill along the line, as well as an 1,800-foot long, 40-foot deep cut.

By May 1921, the AT&RC was in service from Kealia to Ahukini Landing; the remainder of the line was completed to Anahola (14 miles) by the end of the year. Following a decade of operation, the railroad carried out a small extension to Lihue and the port of Nawiliwili to serve interests owned by the Lihue Plantation in 1931. Three years later, this plantation acquired the assets of both Makee Sugar as well as the AT&RC. In time, the steam locomotives (ranging from 0-6-0s built by H.K. Porter to 0-6-2s manufactured by the Baldwin Locomotive Works) were replaced with small General Electric-built diesel switchers. Under Lihue control, the railroad remained in service far longer than many others across Hawaii, surviving until 1959 when the remaining trackage was removed.

Today, you can still ride trains on Kauai via the Kauai Plantation Railway in Lihue, constructed during the mid-2000s, although not on the original right-of-way. Other railroad attractions in Hawaii include the Hawaiian Railway at Ewa Beach (Oahu); Lahaina Kaanapali Railroad in Lahaina (Maui); Laupahoehoe Train Museum in Laupahoehoe (Hawaii); and the Pineapple Express in Wahiawa (Oahu).

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