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4th Annual Story Festival

"End of the Line"

How the tsunamis impacted the railroad industry on Hawai'i Island

April 1, 2006

All board the Pacific Tsunami Museum's 4th Annual Tsunami Story Festival, commemorating the 60th anniversary of the 1946 tsunami and the "End of the Line" for the Big Island Railway.

Railroad sign
The 1946 tsunami that struck Hawai′i in the early morning on April 1 killed 159 people statewide, including 96 people in Hilo alone. The tsunami also dealt the final blow to East Hawai′i′s railway system, the Hawai′i Consolidated Railway (HCR), which linked the numerous sugar plantation towns in Puna and Hamakua with Hilo Harbor.

Photo of a Railroad sign

On the morning of the tsunami, HCR's Engine 121 was fully loaded with 11 cars transporting lumber, freight, oil and gasoline. The Waiakea station dispatch gave the all-clear signal to Pa'auilo. On board were Engineer Manuel Oliveira at the helm, along with conductor Manuel DeLuz in the caboose, Manuel Leopoldino at the firebox, and brakeman John Varize and Joe Carreira. As they crossed over the Wailoa Bridge, the 7 o′clock whistle sounded from the Hilo Iron Works. The train slowly accelerated and was just across from the Shinmachi area when the engineer gave a warning shout. Leopoldino, who was bending over shoveling sand into the firebox, looked up to see a huge wave engulf the engine and wash over the cab.

Stanley Leopoldino, 69, is the son of Manuel Leopoldino, Sr. He recalls fleeing by car with his mother and brothers to a friend′s house on Kino′ole Street, where the waves couldn't reach.

"We heard rumors that Dad′s train got swept out to sea and everybody got killed," he said. "We all got so upset."

Photo of a wrecked train engine
train engine

But the rumors proved untrue at the end of the day when Manuel Leopoldino was reunited with his family. The rest of Engine 121′s gripping story, and how all five men aboard survived, will be shared at the Tsunami Story Festival. Other survivor stories include glimpses of life along the tracks and on the rails, as told by Sadao Aoki, Roy Wilson, Albert Stanley, and others.

Donna Saiki
Donna Saiki, director of the Pacific Tsunami Museum, kept the storytelling on track as emcee. The evening′s "conductor", Hilo Harbormaster Ian Birnie, enlightened the audience about the history of the island′s railway, and how the 1946 tsunami impacted transportation. Birnie is a renown Big Island railroad expert.

Photo of Pacific Tsunami Museum Director Donna Saiki

"The Pacific Tsunami Museum worked in conjunction with the Laupahoehoe Train Museum to bring together the people and information we shared," Saiki said. "It was a great evening."

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Last Revised July 2010