Hawaiian History: Railroads and Locomotives on the Big Island

Thanks to King Kalakaua’s interest in locomotives and railroads came to Hawaii before much of the western part of the United States. In 1878, King Kalakaua signed the act to promote the “Construction of Railways,” and by the next year the first railway in the kingdom started operations on the island of Maui.

The first Big Island railroad was started at North Kohala in 1880 by Sam G. Wilder. The railroad tracks went 11 miles from Mahukona to Niuli’i replacing the bullock-drawn wagon trails. The tracks were narrow gauge, 36 inches wide and lay on 20 pound rails built by 100 Chinese laborers and 20 haole lunas (Caucasian bosses) who completed it in 1882.

The first three locomotives were named “Akeahi” (Thing-of-fire), another “Kauka” (Doctor) in honor of one of Sam Wilder’s sons (Sam Wilder was the president of the Hawaiian Railroad Company) and one locomotive was named “Leslie” in honor of the manager of the steamship line.


Wilder’s initial plans were to have a rail system around the island, but that did not happen because of the cost. The Hilo Railroad Company was incorporated in 1899 by B.F. Dillingham, as president, along with Mark Robertson, and Lorrin Thurston. The first tracks were laid from Waiakea to Olaa in 1899. This was the first and only time the standard gauge, 56 ½ inches, was used for a Hawaiian Railroad.

This bit of Big Island railroad history was brought to you by the Hawaii Plantation Museum. Located in the historic plantation town of Pāpa‘ikou on the Hāmākua coast, the Hawai‘i Plantation Museum tells the story of the establishment of the sugar cane industry on the Big Island. The museum highlights how the sugar industry transformed business and gave rise to Hawai‘i’s multi-cultural heritage. Visit us today, and learn about this remarkable history.

27-246 Old Mamalahoa Highway
Papaikou, HI 96781
(808) 964-5151

For more articles about Hawai’i History Visit us HERE!

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