Sugar was once big business for Kona


Editor’s note: West Hawaii Today, in conjunction with the Kona Historical Society, is pleased to present readers a weekly feature compiled by the society called “A Guide to Old Kona.” These articles and accompanying photographs have been compiled and provided by Kona Historical Society and were published previously in a book of the same title.

The 1901 Sugar Mill and Railroad

Commercially grown sugar has totally disappeared from Kona’s landscape, but it was big business in the early 20th century. A railroad once ran 11 miles to haul cane from fields in upland Kona as far south as Onouli to the mill above Kailua. In those booming days, cane was planted on any available land above the railroad leaving only pockets of rocky soil for coffee.

The Kona Sugar Co. started in 1899 with ambitious plans to create a major sugar plantation in Kona. The company built Kona’s first sugar mill above Kailua village in 1901. In a district famous for its lack of fresh water, the mill site near Waiaha Stream at an elevation of 764 feet was considered a likely location. Although the company built a reservoir, there never was enough water to properly process the cane. In 1903, the company went broke.

Other investors later purchased the company, renamed it the Kona Development Co. In 1916, the plantation was bought by a group of Japanese with capital from Tokyo and continued to produce sugar for 10 more years. Many Kona youngsters grew up in sugar camps complete with stables, plantation stores and communal baths for the Japanese laborers. When the plantation collapsed in 1926, that spelled the end of the railroad and Kona’s brief stint as a plantation community.

During World War II, the U.S. Army set up a training camp at the mill site. Once again, the availability of water was of primary importance. Concerned that the mill’s tall smokestack would act as a “marker” to attract enemy attention, the Army took the smokestack down, salvaging the metal for scrap iron. From 1942 to approximately 1944, at least three Army regiments passed through this camp to be acclimatized and trained for battle in the Pacific arena.

The ruins of the sugar mill can be clearly seen from Hienaloli Road of Hualalai Road. Be sure to notice the large stone embankments built all by hand for the railroad bed. Once planned to run 30 miles through Kona, the West Hawaii Railway Co. was an ambitious project thwarted by Kona’s terrain and slow economy. Portions of the old railway bed can be seen at the top of Nani Kailua and Aloha Kona subdivisions; a fine, flat surface for jogging and walking the dog.

Copyright 1998 Kona Historical Society. Reprinted by permission.