The Oahu Railway and Land Company
, or OR&L, was a narrow gauge
common carrier railroad that served much of the Hawaiian island of O‘ahu until its dissolution in 1947.
The OR&L was conceived and brought to life by Benjamin Dillingham
, a self-made businessman who arrived in Honolulu as a sailor in 1865. After falling from his horse and breaking his leg while riding in the countryside, Dillingham was forced to stay in Hawai‘i and recuperate. It was at this time that he decided to make the island kingdom his home. Fortunately Dillingham had a great deal of business acumen and soon became quite wealthy and influential in the early Honolulu community. Among his various development ideas, he conceived in the 1870s of the relatively arid ‘Ewa Plain as an excellent location for human settlement. However, there were two problems: a lack of water and, more significantly, a lack of transportation, for at this time a trip from Honolulu to the ‘Ewa
by horse-drawn wagon was an all-day affair. The key was to build a railroad.
Around the time Dillingham was dreaming of constructing his railroad, another early and important businessman named James Campbell
successfully dug ‘Ewa's first artesian well at Honouliuli
in 1879, effectively solving the water problem. Campbell, who had purchased 40,000 acres (162 km²) of ‘Ewa land from the Hawaiian crown thought he might start a cattle ranch, but it was quickly realized that ‘Ewa's rich volcanic soil (most of which overlay a massive ancient coral reef formation) combined with year-round sunshine and a ready supply of water was ideal for growing sugar cane. Within a couple of years sugar plantations were sprouting up in this southwestern part of O‘ahu. The need for reliable transportation between the harbor at Honolulu and the ‘Ewa was becoming essential.
OR&L: early phase
While Dillingham's dream of large-scale human settlement on the ‘Ewa Plain would have to wait until the last decades of the twentieth century, his plan for a railroad that served the area came together fairly quickly. After leasing Campbell's ‘Ewa and Kahuku land in order to start two sugar plantations Dillingham obtained a government charter for a railroad. It was granted by King David Kalakaua
on September 11
, and soon after the OR&L was organized. After securing the necessary capital, Dillingham broke ground in March 1889 with a goal of connecting the twelve miles (19 km) between Honolulu and ‘Aiea (as demanded in the charter) by the fall of 1889. On November 16
, the king's birthday, the OR&L officially opened for traffic, giving free rides to more than 4,000 curious and excited people that day. Over the next ten years the OR&L would see exponential growth. By 1892 the line was long, reaching ‘Ewa sugar mill, home of Dillingham's ‘Ewa Plantation Company property. Although progress stalled somewhat during the chaos of the late Kingdom and early Republican periods, by 1895 the railroad had passed through what would become the junction of Waipahu, traversed the ‘Ewa plain, and was skirting the breathtaking Wai‘anae coast to a sugar mill located there. After issuing gold bonds in January 1897 the company was able to extend the railroad around O‘ahu's rugged Ka‘ena Point to Hale‘iwa on the north shore (which it reached in June, 1897) where Dillingham built a tourist hotel. By December 1898 the main line was complete, stretching past Waimea Bay
and Sunset Beach
all the way to Kahuku
and the Kahuku sugar mill a little past the island's northernmost tip. Although some early surveys were carried out for a proposed circle-island line, that scheme was never seriously considered. In 1906 an branch line was constructed from Waipahu up the Waikakalua Gulch to Wahiawa and the pineapple fields of central O‘ahu. The railroad had taken its final shape.
OR&L to WWII
A common misconception about the OR&L is that it was a sugar cane railroad. While it served a number of sugar mills and plantations, this was in the capacity of hauling end products, as well as equipment and workers. The sugar plantations had their own lines that were true "sugar cane railroads." As a common carrier the OR&L carried freight and passengers, as well as handled mail and parcels. Freight traffic was varied. For instance, besides handling sugar products and pineapples, the railroad hauled garbage from Honolulu to a major dump on the Wai‘anae Coast, carried sand from Wai‘anae to Honolulu during the development of Waikīkī
, and served all of the major military bases: Pearl Harbor
, Hickam Field (Hickam Air Force Base
), Barber's Point Naval Air Station, Schofield Barracks
, and Wheeler Air Base. Financially the railroad was almost continuously in the black, even during the Great Depression
, and was a significant mode of communications and transportation until the 1930s. As with railroads in the mainland United States, the spread of private automobiles and public roads led to a decline in railroad traffic, especially passengers. In the years leading up to World War Two the OR&L had all but abandoned its passenger operations, focusing its efforts on its profitable freight operations.
OR&L and WWII
World War II
was arguably the OR&L's most productive and important period, while at the same time would prove to be the company's undoing. When the bombs struck O‘ahu on December 7
the OR&L became a major player in the wartime transportation situation. In fact, the railroad basically served double duty since it had to carry out its regular freight operations as well as handle the massive amount of military-related traffic. Notably, the OR&L became the chief transporter of civilian base workers, as well as sailors, soldiers, airmen, and marines, whether from Honolulu to their respective bases, or from those bases back to Honolulu for coveted R&R. The numbers of passengers during the war years speak for themselves. While during the 1930s passenger traffic had all but been abandoned, in both 1944 and 1945 the OR&L carried nearly two million riders. Numbers such as this are firm evidence of the important role played by the OR&L during the war.
By the end of the war most of the rolling stock, right-of-way, and facilities in general were almost worn out. The company's executives had a difficult decision as to whether or not they should continue operations. After all, with the end of hostilities wartime traffic began to dry up. Moreover, O‘ahu's road network had been upgraded and extended significantly during the war, and thus for the first time there was serious road competition with the railroad. The company plugged along for the remainder of 1945 and into 1946 transporting servicemen both stationed on O‘ahu and passing through on their way back to the mainland. Nevertheless, passenger traffic and gross revenues dropped more than fifty percent, and when a tsunami struck
the north shore of O‘ahu on April 1
, the railroad's fate was largely sealed. Overlooked by most historians is the fact that from September 1
through November 18
, 22,000 sugar workers struck 33 of Hawai‘i's 34 sugar plantations. Only the Gay & Robinson Plantation on Kaua‘i remained in operation—it was non-union and privately owned, and is one of only two that remain in operation today (the other is Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar on Maui). The strike had a major impact on Hawai‘i as a whole, and the OR&L's freight dropped to record lows during this period. Although the OR&L rebuilt the tracks destroyed by the tsunami and continued operations during the sugar strike, the decision was made to file for abandonment and shut down the entire operation at the end of that year. The OR&L decided to replace its railroad with a truck transport operation. On December 31
a final excursion carrying company President Walter Dillingham (Benjamin Dillingham's son), along with numerous guests, departed from Kahuku behind American Locomotive Company
steam engine number 70 which worked its way through of beautiful O‘ahu countryside back to the Honolulu station. The OR&L was finished after serving the O‘ahu community for fifty-eight years.
Most of the system was dismantled in the years following the company's dissolution, although the abandoned double-tracked mainline from Honolulu to ‘Aiea remained intact until around 1959. Four of the locomotives, 250 freight cars, and a huge quantity of track and supplies were sold to an El Salvadoran railroad in 1950. The value of the line was not lost on all Hawai‘i residents. The Hibiscus & Heliconia Short Line Railroad (H&HSL RR) was formed in 1948 by a group of local rail fans and railroad modelers. Ben Dillingham gave the group a 1st class coach #47 and an observation car #48, formerly the private parlor car named Pearl. The Kahuku Plantation Co. extended the group the use of their rail network from the area near Kawela Bay to Punalu‘u. The group ran excursions infrequently over the line renting a steam locomotive from Kahuku Plantation. In 1950, the last steam locomotive was retired and the H&HSL RR then used one of two ex-Navy diesels. In 1954, the plantation abandoned its railroad in favor of trucks thus ending the H&HSL RR. Due to a lack of money and enthusiasm the group was unable to remove their two coaches from the property, so a plantation official had them torched. The OR&L's Honolulu harbor branch, renamed the Oahu Railway, was utilized until December 31, 1971 as part of the city's industrial operations. There it served a Kalihi stockyard (until 1961), but chiefly hauled incoming Moloka‘i pineapples from the nearby wharves to the Libby, McNeil and Libby and California Packing Corporation (Del Monte) pineapple canning plants. The final section of the line that remained intact was taken over by the US Navy in 1950. The Navy, especially during the Korean War and for part of the Vietnam Conflict, ran ammunition trains between the West Loch of the Pearl Harbor Naval Base, through the ‘Ewa Plain, to the Lualualei Naval Ammunition Depot on the Wai‘anae coast, accidentally preserving one of the most famous and scenic stretches of the railroad. By 1968, however, the decision was made to switch to trucks, and the railroad property was abandoned in 1970.
Fortunately for Hawai‘i's railroad heritage, in that same year a small group of railroad fans on O‘ahu learned of the abandonment and petitioned the Navy to turn the line and equipment over to them. This body became the Hawaiian Railway Society (HRS) in 1970. Nicholas Carter, a charter member of the HRS and one of its founders worked with others in the early 1970s, nominating the former OR&L mainline from ‘Ewa
to the National Register of Historic Places
. On December 1
, U.S. Senator Hiram Fong
reported that this had been done. Today the tracks are owned by the State of Hawai‘i, while the HRS is the line's caretaker. The HRS continues to maintain and extend the right-of-way while running excursion trains from its station in ‘Ewa. Currently, trains are scheduled for Sunday afternoons, running past the new Second City of Kapolei
, through the heart of the Ko‘olina golf resort, and up the Wai‘anae Coast, presently only as far as Kahe Point. However, a railroad crossing at Fort Weaver Road has been paved over, so trains can only operate on the line west of Fort Weaver Road.
Three cars have also been transported to and preserved at Travel Town Museum in Griffith Park, California. Coach #1, combination car #36 and caboose #1, all built circa 1900 at the OR&L shops, were donated to the museum by the OR&L in 1953 soon after the museum was founded.
It is alleged that the steel guitar
was invented by Joseph Kekuku when he picked up a railroad spike and slid along the strings of his guitar whilst walking beside the line in the 1880s, perhaps the line of this very railroad.
- Best, Gerald M. Railroads of Hawaii: Narrow and Standard Gauge Common Carriers. Golden West Books, 1978.
- Chiddix, Jim and Simpson, MacKinnon "Next Stop Honolulu, The Story of the Oahu Railway & Land Company". Sugar Cane Press, 2004
- Treiber, Gale E. Hawaiian Railway Album WWII Photographs, volume 1. The Railroad Press, 2003.
- Treiber, Gale E. Hawaiian Railway Album WWII Photographs, volume 2. The Railroad Press, 2005.