The northeastern coast of the island of Hawaiʻi presents an almost continuous succession of valleys, with intervening uplands rising gently for a few miles, and then more abruptly toward the snows of Mauna Kea and the clouds.
The rains are abundant on that side of the island, and the fertile plateau, boldly fronting the sea with a line of cliffs from fifty to a hundred feet in height, is scored at intervals of one or two miles with deep and almost impassable gulches.
The streams reach the ocean either through rocky channels worn to the level of the waves, or in cascades leaping from the cliffs and streaking the coast from Hilo to Waipiʻo.
In the time of Līloa, and later, this plateau was thickly populated, and requiring no irrigation, was cultivated from the sea upward to the line of frost. A few kalo patches are still seen, and bananas grow, as of old, in secluded spots and along the banks of the ravines. (Kalākaua)
“Lapahoi (Laupāhoehoe – leaf of lava) is a small stony flat with a few huts and sweet potatoes and taro patches scattered over it. It lies at the extremity of a deep ravine, the declivities on either side nearly 500 feet in height and extending to the sea beach, terminating in a rocky precipice.”
“The coast all the way to Lapahoi was intersected by many deep ravines, many of which had large rivers forming beautiful waterfalls that fell over the outward cliffs into the ocean, the angry surf of which broke a long way up upon the rocks underneath.” (Macrae, 1825)
“The country, by which we sailed, was fertile, beautiful, and apparently populous. The numerous plantations on the eminences and sides of the deep ravines or valleys, by which it was intersected, with the streams meandering through them into the sea, presented altogether a most agreeable prospect.”
“The coast was bold, and the rocks evidently volcanic. We frequently saw the water gushing out of hollows in the face of the rocks, or running in cascades from the top to the bottom.”
“After sailing very pleasantly for several hours, we approached Laupāhoehoe: although we had come upwards of twenty miles, and had passed not less than fifty ravines or valleys, we had not seen a spot where we thought it would be possible to land without being swamped”.
“(A)lthough we knew we had arrived at the end of our voyage, we could discover no place by which it seemed safe to approach the shore, as the surf was beating violently, and the wind blowing directly towards the land.” (Ellis, 1823)
In January 1834, David Douglas (a fir tree was named after him) visited the island of Hawai‘i, traveled around the base of Mauna Kea – including the upper Laupāhoehoe forest zone – and ascended Mauna Kea; while on his second visit to the island, he died at a location near the mauka boundary of Laupāhoehoe and Humuʻula.
In 1859, Abel Harris and FB Swain entered into a partnership and secured a section of land on the Laupāhoehoe peninsula and lower plains; they ran a trading station and attempted to undertake several business ventures, including, collection of pulu (down) from hāpuʻu tree ferns, hunting bullocks in the upper forest lands, and cultivation of sugar cane on the lowlands.
The lowlands of the Laupāhoehoe region became the focus of sugar plantation efforts as early as the 1850s. But it was not until 1876, that a full-scale plantation was incorporated, and a mill established.
At the industry’s peak in the 1930s, Hawaiʻi’s sugar plantations employed more than 50,000 workers and produced more than 1-million tons of sugar a year; over 254,500-acres were planted in sugar.
As elsewhere, sugar cultivation exploded on the Big Island. As a means to transport sugar and other goods, railroading was introduced to the Islands in 1879. All the sugar grown in East Hawaiʻi, in Puna and on the Hāmākua Coast, was transported by rail to Hilo Harbor, where it was loaded onto ships bound for the continent.
The rail line crossed over 12,000-feet in bridges, 211-water openings under the tracks, and individual steel spans up to 1,006-feet long and 230-feet in height.
Some of the most notable were those over Maulua and Honoliʻi gulches, the Wailuku River and Laupāhoehoe. Over 3,100 feet of tunnels were constructed, one of which, the Maulua Tunnel, was over half a mile in length.
While the main business of the railroad remained the transport of raw sugar and other products to and from the mills, it also provided passenger service.
Targeting tourists to augment local passenger and raw sugar transport, the Hawaiʻi Consolidated Railway ran sightseeing specials under the name “Scenic Express.”
Not for the faint of heart, rail trips included a stop on the trestles, where passengers disembarked to admire the outstanding scenery.
But the end was near for the railway. Early in the morning of April 1, 1946, a massive tsunami struck Hawaiʻi. The railroad line between Hilo and Paʻauilo suffered massive damage; bridges collapsed, trestles tumbled and one engine was literally swept off the tracks.
At Laupāhoehoe Point, waves destroyed teachers’ residences and flooded school grounds, killing twenty-five people, including sixteen students and five teachers of Laupāhoehoe School.
(The 1946 tsunami killed 159-people and caused $26-million in property damage throughout the islands. To prevent such widespread loss of life and property, the territory-wide Tsunami Warning System was put in place in 1948 and successfully utilized for the 1952 and 1957 tsunamis.) (hawaii-edu)
At the time of the tsunami, plantations were already phasing out rail 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 tsunami accelerated that transition.
A few remnants of the railway are still visible. In Laupāhoehoe, a concrete platform remains where Hula dancers once performed for tourists. And the Laupāhoehoe Train Museum is housed in the former home of Mr. Stanley, the superintendent of maintenance.