Claus Spreckels (1828–1908) was perhaps the most successful German-American immigrant entrepreneur of the late-nineteenth century; he was one of the ten richest Americans of his time.
The career of the “sugar king” of California, Hawaiʻi and the American West consisted of building and breaking monopolies in sugar, transport, gas, electricity, real estate, newspapers, banks and breweries.
The first industry in which Spreckels succeeded was quite typical for German immigrants: beer brewing. In the spring of 1857, together with his brother Peter Spreckels and Claus Mangels, among others, he founded the Albany Brewery, the first large-scale producer of beer in San Francisco.
Though profitable, he sold his beer operation in 1863 and switched to a new field that would make him rich: sugar. That year, he started the Bay Sugar Refining Company, but sold it three years later.
He then constructed the California Sugar Refinery in 1867 to process sugar. While grocers, then, sold “sugar loaves,” Spreckels introduced the European process of packaging granulated sugar and sugar cubes (so customers could more easily divide the portions.)
In 1878, through his friendship with King Kalākaua, Claus Spreckels secured a lease of 40,000-acres of land on Maui and by 1882 he acquired the fee simple title to the Wailuku ahupuaʻa.
That same year, Spreckels founded the Hawaiian Commercial Company, which quickly became the largest and best-equipped sugar plantation in the islands.
The Spreckelsville Mill was actually four mills in one complex (it was located just to the northeast of the present Kahului Airport, near the intersection of Old Stable Road and Hana Highway.) The town of Spreckelsville built up around it.
Part of the production innovation was the use of electric lights; the first recorded onshore use of electric lighting in Hawaiʻi was at Mill Number One of the Spreckelsville Plantation on Maui on Aug. 21, 1881.
To satisfy the curiosity of people anxious to see the “concentrated daylight,” Capt. Coit Hobron ran a special train from Kahului, and King Kalākaua, Widow Queen Emma and Princess Ruth were among those who came to view the lights.
Spreckels modernized and mechanized the sugar production process, from hauling cane to the mill, to extracting the juice, reducing the juice to syrup and producing sugar grains. The raw sugar was then packed and shipped to his refinery in San Francisco. (Miller)
Sugar is a thirsty crop and Spreckels built the Haiku Ditch that spanned thirty miles and delivered fifty million gallons of water daily, irrigating twenty times as much land as had previously been irrigated.
Looking to upgrade from the mule and oxen means of moving sugar to the mill (as well as reduce costs,) Spreckels built a narrow-gauge railroad to haul the sugar from the plantation to the mill.
By 1881, twenty miles of iron track were completed. The rail line also transported the processed sugar to Maui’s major port, Kahului. By 1885, Spreckelsville had forty-three miles of railroad, four engines and 498 cars for hauling cane.
Needing transportation to move his Hawaiʻi sugar for refining on the continent, he formed JD Spreckels & Bros. shipping line in 1879, which was incorporated as the Oceanic Steamship Company in 1881.
It was the first line to offer regular service between Honolulu and San Francisco, and his sons managed to reduce travel time immensely. While the sailing ship Claus Spreckels made a record run of less than ten days in 1879, by 1883 the new steam vessel Mariposa needed less than six days.
Spreckels incorporated the Hawaiian Commercial and Sugar Company in 1884; it included four sugar mills, thirty-five miles of railroad with equipment, a water reservoir and the most advanced ditch system in the Pacific region. (Spiekermann)
Spreckelsville was the largest sugar estate in the world by 1892.
The late-1890s saw internal family conflicts. Spreckels lost control of HC&S and in 1898; it became a part of Alexander & Baldwin Co. Following the 1948 merger of HC&S and Maui Agriculture Co., HC&S became a division of Alexander & Baldwin.
Claus Spreckels was a controversial figure. For friends, he was a man “with a fine presence, an open, pleasant countenance and a cheerful word for everybody.” Others, however, characterized him as impatient, implacable, and ruthless, driven by “Dutch obstinacy.” (Spiekermann)
Hawaiʻi served as only one of the venues for the Spreckels holdings. During the 1880s and early 1890s, he bought and built up several blocks of office buildings in San Francisco.
Claus Spreckels was a financial and an industrial capitalist. Obtaining, investing and multiplying money was his main business, and his role as a pioneer of Hawaiian sugar planting and Californian beet sugar production was merely an outgrowth of his desire to increase his fortune. (Spiekermann)
Although none of his firms survived, his name today is still mentioned in San Francisco and Hawaiian travel guides as an example of an exceptional self-made man: “The life of Claus Spreckels is one of the interesting and absorbing personal histories of which America is so proud.” (Spiekermann)