Photo Essay

Sweet History on Rails


There was a time when tourism was a secondary industry to the Hawaiian Islands. That was when the sugar cane and the pineapple plantations were major resource harvests in Maui. From about 1860 to the 1950's the train transported the sugar cane and their workers to the ships for export. However, September 2009 marks the last of the sugar cane harvest from the Pioneer Mill. The future of the Sugar Cane Train is now uncertain since the Pioneer Mill is owned by the local Ka'anapali Resort, which would rather not have the train running through their golf courses.

The Sugar Cane Train was first brought to the island to assist in the transportion of the sugar cane from the fields to the shipping port. The number of fields that required the train diminished as tourism began to replace sugar and pineapples as the primary economic resource for the area. Fields were sold to make way for large vacation hotels and resorts, and roads were expanded to accommodate the growing number of people visiting Maui. The Sugar Cane Train adapted to these changes, and in the 1950's began transporting tourists along its 6 miles of track that runs from the resort town of Ka'anapali to beautiful Old Lahaina Town.

I first visited Maui over 20 years ago, when I met my grandfather for the first time. He was a local street artist in Old Lahaina Town. He used to point things out to us along the road as we passed, sharing funny stories, and giving us an appreciation for local life outside of the paradise that we see in travel brochures. We traveled to Maui to visit several times over the years, and I have continued the tradition with my own children to visit family, although my grandfather passed away many years ago.

Sugar cane used to cover the mountain side, and when the wind would blow, the cane would sway in waves, mirroring the ocean that hits the beaches below. You could smell the sugar cane, sweet and earthy, as you drove past the fields, and you could often spot locals helping themselves to a few stalks of cane that grew close to the roadside. The sky would fill with smoke as the cane fields were burned after harvest to prepare for the next season, and then the cycle continued again the following season. Hotels and resorts were dotted along the beach, and every time we came back to visit I would take notice of the fact that there would be more hotels and fewer fields.

The first time I rode the Sugar Cane Train it passed through several fields of sugar cane, and over a 325 foot trestle. Along the way the conductor would share with passengers, as he does today, the history of the local towns, and of the Hawaiian people. Different types of sugar cane would be pointed out along the tracks, as well as landmarks and whale sightings. Between December and April whales can still often be spotted from the train spouting water in the distance. A delightful reminder that the whaling that once flourished here, is over! Today, the cane no longer lines the route of the Sugar Cane Train, and the views are mainly a behind the scenes peek at local golf courses, resorts, and of the economically challenged local community that is otherwise mostly hidden from the high priced hotels and beaches 100 yards away. But there is still much to see and learn from the history that lives with the Conductor "Uncle" Terry and his crew who have been operating the train for many years.

Over the past 40 years more than 5 million people have ridden the train. The Sugar Cane Train now offers a Dinner Train with a show and buffet dinner, as well as the daily scenic train ride over the Hahakea Trestle (as seen in the main photo). Conductor Terry will often set up beautiful shots using the steam engine, Myrtle, creating rainbows and mystic steamy views along the way. Highly recommended for amateur and professional photographers alike. With the future still uncertain, Terry and his crew remain a positive reminder of the living history of Lahaina. Hoping photography can help keep the train rolling. In honor of the Lahaina-Ka'anapali Pacific Railroad crew... Alooooooha!

For more info on the Sugar Cane Train:

17 Kaka'alaneo Drive

Lahaina, Maui, HI 96761

Phone: (808) 661-0080

Fax: (808) 661-3444

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25 responses

  • Bruce Miller

    Bruce Miller (Deleted) gave props (19 Sep 2009):

    This is an unknown history for me. But you've made it live and it feels important. Hope you can document the stories of the train's crew. I can see why this is a sentimental journey for you. Bravo. More would be welcome. There are places in my childhood that I can't go as they are just to raw and full of loss. It takes courage to face the changes and I sometimes lack it. You've got it and that's an admirable quality.

  • Keiko Ehret

    Keiko Ehret said (19 Sep 2009):

    I wish I had more time during my last visit to photograph the crew, and document their personal stories. Perhaps I will make it to the islands again soon and finish in more of a documentary fashion. They are fantastic people to talk to, and enjoy when local, or in my case wish-they-were-local folk, chat with them.

  • Desiree Adams

    Desiree Adams said (19 Sep 2009):

    It brought me back in time. To a place I heard about and dream of offten. My GR8 GR8 Father owned a cane and cotten platation out side of New Orleans before the civil war. But to see it and photograph it is but a dream to me. You have lived it. Very well done Keiko!

  • Sweet Cheeks Willieâ„¢

    Sweet Cheeks Willieâ„¢ said (19 Sep 2009):

    Beatiful & informative story! As a child I have visited Maui a few times. We use to stop roadside & hear stories of the sugar cane fields, pick some & have fun. I thought you did a wonderful job documenting many things that were meaningful to you & informative to others.

    Excellent job & well presented!

  • Sherry Davis Johnson

    Sherry Davis Johnson gave props (19 Sep 2009):

    Well done! Ka'anapali is my favorite place to stay in Maui. Everyone should take the train trip.

  • Graham

    Graham (Deleted) gave props (19 Sep 2009):

    Thanks for this presentation about a railway and place I'll probably never see.

  • eithne mythen

    eithne mythen gave props (20 Sep 2009):

    Very well written, sounds like a great ride, long may it run..though the old journey through thr cane fields sounds much more attractive, would make a great nostalgia entry...

  • Suzanne McGeady

    Suzanne McGeady said (20 Sep 2009):

    What a wonderful history of the train. I love the sound of steam trains. Remember riding them when young. Especially through tunnels, where if you put your face out the window it would return covered in soot! Wonderful series Keiko.

  • Karen Foto Fiddler

    Karen Foto Fiddler (Deleted) gave props (20 Sep 2009):

    Bruce is right. You made this come alive for us..I voted yes to publish!

  • Litz Go

    Litz Go gave props (20 Sep 2009):

    This is a great article, Keiko. I wish that it will publish and enjoy by other people. A great story! I love trains. It is a part of me. My father was a train conductor for 40 years and he was so proud of it. Definitely my vote!

  • Sandy Tyler

    Sandy Tyler (Deleted) gave props (20 Sep 2009):

    Wonderful story and photos, well done, good luck!

  • Katie Damien

    Katie Damien gave props (21 Sep 2009):

    I love the shot of the girl by the window with the world whizzing by. Great essay.

  • Bob Lamb

    Bob Lamb said (21 Sep 2009):

    I was surprised that you said the sugar cane industry is dead on Maui. I was there in June and saw a lot of cane. I wouldn't think it was all gone. We lost all our comercial sugarcane many years ago here on the Big Island. Thanks for thinking about me,


  • Keiko Ehret

    Keiko Ehret said (22 Sep 2009):

    I don't think that it is completely gone from the island, but the Cane Train is reporting that their local mill will no longer harvest sugar cane. There may be other fields elsewhere on the island, but not through this mill in West Maui. I was there last month when I took the photos, and there was a notable change there.

  • Alexis - Now on Flickr

    Alexis - Now on Flickr gave props (22 Sep 2009):

    Really cool Keiko! Well done!

  • Deborah Downes

    Deborah Downes gave props (22 Sep 2009):

    Beautifully written story and super photos, Keiko. My vote.

  • Mykola Swarnyk

    Mykola Swarnyk gave props (24 Sep 2009):

    You should do more of that! You are good!

  • Bob Douglas

    Bob Douglas gave props (13 Oct 2009):

    Keiko - I love that you've captured a great story and interwove it with your own. This is just another piece of the Hawaiian story that must be preserved. I am amazed at how few people take the time to understand Hawaii and it's people. Congratulations on a wonderful heart warming story.

  • Andrea Petersen

    Andrea Petersen gave props (26 Oct 2009):

    Very interesting story, very well written...Thank you for educating us on the history of sugar cane ...Your pictures also are superbly photographed. I am voting as I think this should be of the best I have read for content.

  • Michael Garrity

    Michael Garrity said (26 Oct 2009):

    Keiko--not only are you a fantastic photographer--you are a great writer, historian and reporter.

    Good stuff--I hope this makes it to the print edition of the magazine.

  • Sharon Cheung

    Sharon Cheung gave props (23 Dec 2009):

    A wonderful history of sugar cane train and I would like to take a tour with it. Thanks!


    Burak BAYINDIRLI gave props (5 Jan 2010):

    Great story, beautiful pictures, thats how a photo essay should be, congratulations ...

  • William Garvey

    William Garvey gave props (21 Jan 2010):

    Very cool story, I wish I had read it before we went to Hawaii. It was beautiful!

  • Megan Henkel

    Megan Henkel gave props (29 Jan 2010):

    you have my vote!

  • Roxana Brivent-Barnes

    Roxana Brivent-Barnes said (13 Nov 2010):

    One more vote!

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