Ticket to ride: The Hawaiian Railway Society takes Ewa back in history

Samson Kaala Reiny

EWA—The Ewa District on Oahu is fast resembling any other cookie-cutter suburb. Grids of sterile homes and duplexes, strip malls, and golf courses hug the main artery. The only break from monotony appears to be the odd patch of raw land that will most likely be slathered in concrete or carpeted with fairway grass in the near future.

But on a Sunday afternoon, if you listen carefully, you might hear a sharp whistle followed by the metallic jangles of a departing train—a bastion of old Hawaii that takes passengers back to the times when locomotives transported royalty, crowned sugarcane kings, and bolstered America’s efforts during World War II.

The Hawaiian Railway Society offers rides twice a day every Sunday of the month. Departing from its home station at the far leeward end of Renton Road, within the historic Varona Village plantation, the diesel-powered refurbished train takes passengers on a 90-minute round-trip journey to Nanakuli’s Kahe Point.

Along the way, a docent weaves together some interesting tidbits about the passing landscape while covering the broader history of the kaaahi (the Hawaiian word for train, which literally means “fire wagon), several of which used to meander throughout much of the entire island in its heyday.

It all began in 1888, when Benjamin Dillingham convinced King Kalakaua to grant him a charter for the railway in order to facilitate the thriving sugarcane industry. By the next year, he had quickly laid his track and began operating what was named the Oahu Railway and Land Company (OR&L). And the rest is history. Freight and passenger trains became the prevailing mode of transport. Even the king and the royal family would travel by locomotive—they even accompanied Dillingham aboard his personal parlor car, which, by the way, has been refurbished and is available to ride for an extra fee.

As inevitable as technology’s constant progression, trains eventually gave way to trucks, cars, and the open highway. And by the end of World War II, the locomotives, having been run ragged for several years in order to support the military effort on the island, were soon out of commission. In 1947, the OR&L closed down. But since the early 1970s, the dedicated members of this non-profit have lovingly restored some original cable cars and engines back to gorgeous condition and have made many of them available for viewing at the depot. And they continue to search for more captivating pieces of the OR&L’s history.

As far as the anecdotal gems, plenty are shared during the ride: from Dillingham introducing sisil to the island in an attempt to start a fabric business (you’ll see the spiky fibrous plants still situated along the tracks), to an interesting take on how the “shaka” sign came to be (involving a worker and a sugarcane-cutting machine—yes, it’s a little macabre).

According to Jeff Livingston, the historian for the Hawaiian Railway Society, the many absorbing stories involving the kaaahi are little known even to the locals.

“You can be born and raised here and not even know about the railroad,” he said. “It was an intriguing part of this islands’ history. It was just full of drama—and everything else in-between.”