Trains could be rolling in Puhi by summer

PUHI — Kaua’i’s largest commercial locomotive project using historic Hawai’i train locomotives is coming around the corner.

Leaders with Kilohana Partners brought four flat railroad cars to the Kilohana Plantation estate last week that are to become part of plans to begin operating a 2.3-mile “excursion and railway system” on the grounds of the Kilohana Plantation and on surrounding acres, totaling 103 acres.

Kilohana Partners spokesman Fred Atkins said company leaders are hoping the restoration of one of three locomotives could be completed in the next few months, and that the project could open for business by as early as summer 2006.

The locomotives would haul the flat cars through most of the historic plantation that includes Kilohana, the former sugar plantation manager’s estate of Gaylord Wilcox.

Welded passenger enclosures are to be added to the flatcars, Atkins explained.

The project will showcase crops grown on Kaua’i in the past and present, and historic trains that once operated to haul sugar cane in Hawai’i.

Last week, Kauai Freight Services workers delivered the four flat cars to the estate, and company owner Stephen C. Girald personally supervised the unloading of the cars.

The project has special significance to him, he said. Girald grew up on the Kilohana estate, and his father, Manuel Girald, took care of the historic Wilcox family plantation home, now known as Kilohana Plantation, for nearly 50 years.

The train will go through a small part of the 36 acres leased by Kilohana Partners, and another 67 acres company leaders more recently leased from owners and operators of Lihue Land Company.

Located on the original 36 acres is the historic Wilcox family home, Kilohana, which has been converted into a commercial center that is home to retail stores and Gaylord’s Restaurant.

The flat cars resonate with Hawai’i’s history, Atkins and Boone Morrison, a partner in Kilohana Partners, recently told The Garden Island.

The flat cars were used to haul freight, and were once part of the O’ahu Railway system.

Some 40 years ago, the cars were sent to Alaska for use by the White Pass and Yukon Route Railway.

That railway system is steeped in locomotive history.

Built in 1898, during the Klondike Gold Rush, the narrow- gauge railway system is an international Historic Civic Engineering Landmark.

That designation is shared with the Statue of Liberty and the Panama Canal.

Morrison, an avid history buff of locomotives, said he has spied the flat cars for some time, and negotiated the purchase.

“I have been plugged into that for a long time, and we started connecting with people.”

The flat cars will be fitted with the shell of new passenger trains that will be manufactured by John Groak, a man with Hawai’i ties.

Groak owns Inside, Outside Creations, a factory in Sacramento, Calif., which refurbishes locomotives. The company has offices in Honolulu and Cebu City in the Philippine Islands.

Once the passenger shells are made and brought to Kaua’i, a contractor and some Kilohana Plantation employees will weld them to the foundation of the flat cars, Atkins and Morrison said.

The passenger trains will travel over 36-inch-gauge railways that will be laid shortly.

All the train systems in Hawai’i operated on 36-inchgauge tracks. The exception was Kaua’i, where 30-inch-gauge tracks were the rule.

No one knows exactly why that is, but, as far as Morrison can see, “somebody in the 1880s (on Kaua’i) made a decision to go with 30-inch-gauge, and it has been that way ever since.”

The system could be up and running by this summer, with the laying of tracks to start in February, and their projected completion by early May. The completed restoration of the first of three locomotives will be followed rapidly by opening day, Atkins and Morrison said.

The plan is to use the diesel-engine locomotive first, because it is easier and quicker to refurbish, Morrison said.

That locomotive and two other steam-driven versions are being refurbished by Brooks Locomotives Work in Sacramento, Calif.

The diesel-engine locomotive was built by folks at Whitcomb Company in Ohio in 1939, and the two steam-powered locomotives were built in 1899 and 1911, respectively, by Baldwin Locomotives Works.

Leaders of the locomotive company, based in Pennsylvania, built many of the sugar trains that operated once in Hawai’i, Morrison said.

The locomotives operated on O’ahu until 1947, when they were sold to the Hawaiian Philippine Co. located in Silay City on Negros Island in the southern part of the Philippines.

With Morrison’s help, Kilohana Partners leaders purchased the trains, and had the refurbishment work started.

Kilohana Partners’ leaders say they want the project to have a distinct flavor.

“One of the really nice things about this project is that it is very Kaua’i,” Morrison said. “Everybody involved in this project has vested connections to the island. And we want to keep it that way, all the way through.”

Morrison said the project “is not like Disney coming over from the Mainland with a big wad of money and superimposing something on us. This is our people doing this.”

Between 50 percent to 80 percent of the investors have ties to Kaua’i, Atkins and Morrison said.

“When we are done with it (getting all the pieces of the project in place), we want to see local people running this train,” Morrison said. “That is very important to us.”

Morrison and Atkins said they hope to set up training programs, and want to hire as many local folks as possible for the project, which could generate 20 and more jobs.

Company leaders have gotten the go-ahead for the locomotive project from officials with Kaua’i County and other government agencies.

The starting point of the train ride is located within the first 36 acres Kilohana Partners leased from the heirs of Gaylord Wilcox, a one-time manager of Grove Farm Plantation, among the most prolific sugar plantations on Kaua’i at one time.

Atkins said the locomotive ride will start by a train station, a plantation cottage that will be converted, located by the Wilcox home, which is on the State and Federal Registers of Historic Places.

Once on board, the riders will be provided with a narration on the history of Kaua’i’s tropical-crop industry.

The train will then make its way mauka, first through sugar and coffee fields developed, respectively, by workers from Gay & Robinson, Inc. sugar company and Kauai Coffee Company.

Gay & Robinson is the last operating sugar company on Kaua’i, and Kauai Coffee is a subsidiary of Alexander and Baldwin, which boasts the largest coffee-crop fields in Hawai’i, in South and West Kaua’i.

The sugar and coffee were developed with the assistance of leaders of the two companies, Atkins said.

The agricultural portion of the 102-acre project will be unlike any other commercially-based agricultural project in Hawai’i, Atkins said.

“This will be a working tropical-agricultural project. This is not a show,” Atkins said. “We are working with the KCC (Kaua’i Community College agricultural experts to train agriculture or horticulture students), and will do experimental stuff.”

Atkins said the train ride will take riders through fields on which will be grown a variety of crops that will showcase the evolution of Kaua’i’s agricultural history.

There will be sugar cane, cherries, bananas, papayas, taro, pineapples, teas, hardwood trees and rambutan that will be harvested and sold at the train depot, following the train ride, Atkins said.

What riders see could be something they will want to tell their friends back home, he said. “A lot of visitors have never seen bananas grow. They don’t know what a papaya looks like on a tree,” Atkins said. “It’s a really exciting thing for them.”

Nine individuals and entities, excluding those from Gay & Robinson and Kauai Coffee, have signed leases to grow the crops and trees, Atkins said.

The train project will draw visitors, but will be of benefit to local residents as well, he said.

Plans call for setting aside a small part within the 67 acres for lu’au, first-year baby parties and family picnics, Atkins said, and local folks can be dropped off at the parcel by the train.

One goal of the project is to preserve the rural ambiance of the 103 acres, Atkins said.

Atkins and Morrison said most of the project site will provide a huge greenbelt for decades to come.

“What we are doing here is blending agriculture and tourism,” Atkins said. “It is exciting.”

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