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Sugar Cane Train slated to shut down on Friday

By Staff | Jul 31, 2014

The Lahaina Kaanapali & Pacific Railroad is slated to close on Friday, Aug. 1. Meetings with prospective buyers will be held this week. PHOTO BY TONY LATHROP, PARADISE AERIAL PHOTOGRAPHY.

LAHAINA – The Lahaina Kaanapali & Pacific Railroad (LKPRR) is closing down on Friday, Aug. 1.

“We will run our regularly scheduled trips until that time. The last round-trip will be reserved for a private charter,” announced LKPRR General Manager Iolani Kaniho.

What led up to it?” Kaniho contemplated when asked. “Lots of different factors; but, in the end, everything basically comes down to financial, yeah?”

But to many, the local railway is more than just a balance sheet; it’s become a part of our West Side landscape over the past 45 years, and multiple images and personalities make up the kaleidoscope of our Sugar Cane Train memories.

To 88-year-old Joan McKelvey, it’s a tender recollection of her husband, A.W. “Mac” McKelvey (1914-94), founder of the LKPRR in 1969.

“He was at the time the idea came to him the vice president of AMFAC in charge of the Kaanapali development,” the long-standing community leader recalled.

“One Sunday morning at breakfast at the Pioneer Inn, one of the engineers from the old railroad that used to carry the sugar cane down to the wharf by the Sheraton was having breakfast, too. Mac struck up a conversation with him; and, by the time breakfast was over, Mac got up from the table with the idea that he wanted to recreate that railroad. That’s where it all started,” she said.

To West and South Maui Rep. Angus (Anaka) McKelvey, the train is a “poignant first memory.”

One of the steam engines is named after him.

“Obviously, the ‘golden spike’ was a very fleeting memory, because I was very young; but I do remember because of the color and the sound. It made an impression on me,” he said.

“It was a huge event. Everyone dressed up in 1900 regalia. I remember my dad in his seer sucker jacket – something out of ‘The Music Man,’ ” the Lahaina native added.

Sonny Koonce III helped build the railway.

“I started with a construction company that was digging and blasting rock to make way for the tracks. Mr. McKelvey hired me when I was still working for Royal Hawaiian Air. He wanted me to be a conductor on the train,” he remembered.

“Train buffs came from far and wide to ride the train,” Koonce commented.

Its name is on the list of Heritage Railroads in the United States.

“My grandfather (George Ventura) was the fireman on the train when I was a kid,” Joseph Ventura posted on Facebook.

“In the early ’70s, I remember going with my dad to drop him off at work at the Kaanapali Station.”

The LKPRR conjures up visions of the red double-decker bus, singing conductors, keiki birthday parties, mock train robberies, paniolo dinner fetes and almost forgotten names like Richard, Andy, Frank the Brakeman, Stan the (machine shop) Man and Mother Mavis.

Joan shared an article she saved from a past issue of the Maui Press dated July 18, 1986, citing “celebrities from all over the globe” associated at one time or another with the popular Lahaina tourist attraction, including singer-composer George Benson, novelist Alex Haley, ’60s fashion icon Twiggy, pro football star Russ Francis, comedian Arte Johnson and Hawaiian entertainers Loyal Garner and the Beamer Brothers.

Our kids have grown up waving to the friendly conductors, and the train whistle is a familiar sound.

But the strongest image, now lost forever, was the fields of cane shimmering and swaying like no other place on the planet along the 12-mile round-trip train track route.

Kaniho summed it up: “We are the last living, breathing link to the sugar history that was pretty much Lahaina Town.”

Besides Kaniho, there are eight full-time and two part-time employees of Railroads of Hawaii.

Blossom Flores has been a ticket agent for LKPRR the past ten years. She’s losing more than a job.

“Besides the crew and the aloha, what we have to offer is something that you can’t get anywhere else,” Flores said.

“We’ve kept something from the old days. Many of these people, especially the locals,” Flores continued with passion, “they have an investment in this train. Meaning, they have ancestors that worked in the sugar industry. They probably have family – maybe one or two – that have worked on a train as well. This brings back the old to the present; you won’t find this anywhere,” she added. “You won’t find this outside of Hawaii; you will not find it.”

Kaniho agreed: “For me, personally, it’s not really anything to do with saving my job; but it’s keeping a piece of history for us alive.”

All is not lost, however. Owners Robert and Kimberly Butler of Nebraska have listed Railroads of Hawaii for sale.

“We have a couple of meetings with prospective buyers,” Kaniho advised. “We are hoping to find someone in the last final seconds to purchase us.”

Flores is optimistic: “Miracles happen every day.”