Newsletter article; Transportation and the 1946 Tsunami
Transportation and the 1946 Tsunami
By Ian Birnie
In 1946, the Hawai'i Consolidated Railway, successor to the Hilo Railroad Company, ran
between Ola'a (now Kea'au) in Puna to Pa'auilo in Hamakua, serving a number of plantations
along the way. At that time, sugar was the mainstay of our island economy. All the sugar
grown in East Hawaii, in Puna and on the Hamakua Coast, was bagged and transported by rail
to Hilo Harbor, where it was loaded onto ships bound for the mainland U.S. After World War
II broke out, even Kohala's sugar was trucked to the Pa'auilo railhead for transport to
Hilo by freight train. The Hamakua stretch of the Belt Highway at that time ran into and
out of each gulch. The narrow roads that lead down to the Laupahoehoe peninsula and into
Hakalau Gulch today are remnants of that "highway". The railroad, bridging most
of the gulches along the coast, was by far the shortest and fastest means of transporting
sugar to the docks.
In addition to sugar and other freight, the railroad carried passengers. Although the
traditional steam locomotive and passenger car had been replaced by a railbus, some Hilo
businessmen and students rode that railbus daily from Puna. Its two-man crew stayed
overnight in Kama'ili; the train left early in the morning for Hilo, stopping in Kapoho
and Pahoa as well as in Ola'a.
In March, 1946, the Hawai'i Consolidated's yards were in the Waiakea district of Hilo,
where the roundhouse still stands today, next to the county swimming pool on Kalanikoa
Street. The rail line crossed the Wailoa River between the Hilo Iron Works building and
the new highway bridge, and ran along Bayfront to the Hilo station, located makai of the
Koehnen Building, between Waianuenue Avenue and Shipman Street. From there, the tracks
crossed the Wailuku River where the "Singing Bridge" stands today, and ran for
34 miles up the Hamakua Coast to Pa'auilo.
On April 1, 1946, the tsunami washed away a section of the Wailuku River railroad
bridge, collapsed the center section of the Kolekole bridge, and uprooted most of the
track along Bayfront. There was extensive damage to the piers and the rail line serving Hilo
Harbor. The estimated cost of rebuilding was $500,000.
The outermost plantations, controlled by Theo H. Davies & Company, voted to restore
the line; those closer to Hilo, controlled by C. Brewer & Company, voted to dissolve
it. The Brewer plantations prevailed and the railroad and all its assets, including the
rights-of-way, bridges, engines, cars, rails and structures, were sold to a California
salvage company for $81,000. The locomotives were cut up, the wooden cars were burned, and
the scrap iron was shipped back to the mainland. Because they were steel, most of the
bridges were slated to be dismantled.
For the plantations, the abrupt demise of the railroad meant having to transport bagged
sugar by other means. Most sugar from Hamakua was trucked to Hilo Harbor, although the
Hamakua Sugar Company continued to use its offshore cable landing at Honoka'a until 1948.
Part of the railroad was rebuilt between the Waiakea yards and Hilo Harbor, and it was
operated privately for a few more years, servicing the Puna Sugar Company mill at Ola'a.
At the time of the tsunami, plantations with their own railroads were already phasing
them out in favor of trucking cane from the field to the mill. It was inevitable that
trucking would also replace rail as the primary means of transporting sugar to the harbor.
The abrupt end of the Hawai'i Consolidated Railway on April 1, 1946, accelerated that
transition, but trucking was difficult at best. The belt road, with its steep grades,
sharp curves, and occasional bridge washouts, meant a 2-1/2 hour drive from Honoka'a to
An evaluation of Big Island roads found them to be inadequate for any amount of
traffic. Road maintenance had been minimal during the war years, and military traffic had
taken its toll. Federal emergency aid for tsunami damage repairs amounted to $6.5 million
and, over the next few years, the Territory provided an additional $8.1 million. East
Hawai'i's devastated transportation network was high on the list of reconstruction
The rights-of-way and bridges on the Hamakua Coast had been offered to both Hawaii
County and the Territory's Highways Division, but for some reason the offer was declined
by both agencies. Two years later, however, the Territory acquired the rights-of-way and
remaining bridges for $310,000, nearly four times the price paid by the salvage dealer for
the entire railroad.
Salvaged steel from previously dismantled bridges was used to widen railroad bridges on
the Belt Highway to accommodate vehicle traffic. Today, five of those bridges are still in
use, and the State Highways Division has one crew devoted exclusively to maintaining them.
Hakalau bridge is probably the most notable example. Take the old Belt Highway leading
into Hakalau Gulch and drive under today's highway bridge; you'll see how the original
railroad bridge was widened for the two lane highway. The bridge over Kolekole Gulch
reveals another creative use of existing materials: the two Wailuku River railroad truss
bridge sections that survived the 1946 tsunami now support the steel girder highway
bridge. About two-thirds of the Hamakua highway was rebuilt by 1952, but the entire Belt
Highway was not completed until 1960. Use of the railroad rights-of-way and bridges,
"straightening out the curves," reduced road mileage from Honoka'a to Hilo by
only 4 miles, but driving time was cut by a full 1-1/2 hours. Acquisition and use of the
railroad's assets certainly benefited those involved in the rebuilding process, as it is
difficult to imagine the time and cost of constructing the new highway without them.
Transportation in East Hawaii was never the same after April 1, 1946. Modern vehicles
and highways may be more efficient, but without the railroad's evocative sights and sounds
today's route is certainly far less exciting and picturesque than it once was.
Born in the Islands, Ian Birnie has been the Hilo Harbormaster since 1984. He describes himself
as a "Hawaii Island transportation history buff"and
a "railroad expert by default" because he has read extensively on the subjects.
Ian delivers very popular talks on the interdependence of sugar, the railroads, and the
harbors to local audiences and Lyman Museum Elderhostel Program visitors. Please contact
Ian if you have any old photos of Hawaiian railroads, ports and landings (particularly
cable landings) in Hamakua and North Kohala.
All materials © Copyright 1996-2007 Pacific Tsunami Museum Inc.
130 Kamehameha Ave Hilo, HI 96720 tel: 808-935-0926 FAX: 808-935-0842
Last Revised November 2007