Sweet History on Rails
By Keiko Ehret
19 Sep 2009
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