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Maui’s Sugar Cane History

by tr on September 6, 2012

by Barry Osman 

While on vacation in Maui, why not explore something a little out of the “beach” box for a few hours? Feeling sunburned, shopped out and ready for a little insight into what helped to create Maui’s melting pot of ethnic cultures? Well then, hop into your car for a fun afternoon exploring Maui’s Sugar History.


Maui’s Sugar Cane History

I guess that Maui can thank the gold rush for its sugar plantations. With gold at a premium, sugar became extremely overpriced, prompting a sea captain mesmerized by Maui’s beauty (and great sugar growing profit potential) to build the first sugar plantation in Hana in 1849.

With production growing, the first wave of immigrants, the Chinese, started arriving in 1852. Sixteen years later, the Japanese arrived and one year later, Samuel Alexander and Henry Baldwin founded Hawaii’s largest sugar company with over 5,000 acres in the central valley of Maui. It is called today Hawaii Commercial & Sugar Company (HC&S).

In 1876 King Kalakaua signed the Sugar Reciprocity Treaty with the U.S. Federal Government, paving the way for the sugar industry in Hawaii to reap the rewards of favored deals on pricing and tariffs.

As sugar production continued to boom, by the turn of the 20th century, immigrants to Maui began to arrive from Puerto Rico, Korea and the Phillipines.


These immigrants stayed, had families and found lives on Maui, far from their homelands. Camp life was hard and very structured. Many women rose early to prepare the kau-kau tin (lunch in tin containers) for themselves and their husbands. They then prepared for a full day in the fields with a 45 minute routine donning their protective clothing, much of which they had to sew and design. After work, rush home to tend to family, and husband and sleep, repeat.

To boost morale, there were many extracurricular activities sponsored by the “company” that produced many of Maui’s original top athletes in many areas, and of course there were the various “company” stores and services that popped up a la Disney in master planned fashion around the plantation housing.

Subsidized by the U.S Government, sugar cane reigned supreme in the islands and the sugar companies ruled the islands’ economy, changed the social structure and instituted a colonial plantation lifestyle whose architecture still dominates in certain areas of Maui.

With sugar fueling the need for more workers, the newly arrived immigrants were part of a turning point in Hawaiian history when Native Hawaiians became a minority in their own homeland.

Currently sugar is grown on over 70,000 acres on Maui and Kaui. It is the second largest crop grown in value, and utilizes the largest amount of land.

One acre of crops equals 12.5 tons of raw sugar annually. Yielding once every 24 months, one stalk can produce 3 times, then it dies and needs to be replanted.


As a trade off for the sugar cane burning necessary to harvest the crop, the continuation of sugar production on Maui insures that the fields will remain fields, and not fall victim to more sprawl, allowing us to enjoy a greener Maui for just a little bit longer.

But there is increased opposition to the sugar cane burning every year as more mainlanders move to Maui.  As the battle against sugar cane burning rages on, Maui Now has a very comprehensive article on the possible dangers of cane smoke here on Maui. Meanwhile, HC&S is experimenting with no-burn sugar harvest, while at the same time providing updated maps displaying the location and schedule of upcoming burns.

The Sugar Museum

Located at the intersection of Mokulele Highway and Hansen Road (you can’t miss the giant smokestacks across the street), the Sugar Museum is housed in an original, lovingly restored, 1902 plantation supervisor’s house.


Standing in what once was the main dining room of the house, with it’s high arched windows looking out over the mountains and the fields, it’s hard to imagine what life was like in Maui at the turn of the 20th century. In the superintendent’s house, servants were plentiful (and grateful for indoor work) and life took on a formal approach, with many family and friends gathered at various tables dressed for dinner each evening.

Conveniently located near Hawaii’s only operating sugar factory  next door, the superintendent’s house now houses an eclectic assortment of sugar tools and machinery both indoors and out. As you meander from room to room, the photos and stories of the evolving plantation life in Maui are very vivid and will linger with you after you leave.

Sit for a few moments and watch the video produced by the company, it is both informative and thought provoking, just like the museum itself.

Do pick up a walking tour map; the strong Kahalui breeze and sunshine feel great as you exit the house and enter the grounds. One of the first things that you will see is the 1920’s Portugese oven; you can almost smell the bread baking as it did for so many immigrants on the plantation , many who remember being paid “A dollar a day”.

Don’t forget to ring the 1915 Locomotive Bell inside (they really do encourage it!) and tell the absolutely lovely volunteers how you liked it. 808-871-8058

Riding the Sugar Cane Train

Evidently, two guys in 1970 thought that what the world needed back then was a six mile train ride from Lahaina to Kaanapali and back to Lahaina on an authentic replica of an old time steam locomotive. Apparently , they were right, 5 million riders later that steam engine of the  Maui Sugar Cane Train is still going strong.

We decided to take the 1pm train ride, by sheer luck. How charming it was to arrive to a fairly empty parking area (about 6 cars) and see the locomotive waiting on the track in front of us, steam spouting in showy bursts. I stopped an older couple as they were about to enter their rent a car and asked them about their ride . They hesitated and mumbled something about the “scenery.”

When I asked them if they would recommend it they both said yes . The jury is mixed about the ride, the primary comments being about the “scenery”. Yes, the train leaves from a commercial warehouse district of Lahaina and travels alongside some local backyards that could use sprucing, but it is still Maui, in every sense, and there is beauty amongst the junk. So, with an open mind, we, as you should too, decided to give  the Sugar Cane Train a try and decide for ourselves. From the first encounter, everyone was full of Aloha, and there was even a hot dog stand with chilled water, too. Boarding the car, aim for the first car behind the locomotive.

Your guide (ours was a charming Alfred) sits in this car and sings and plays his ukelele throughout the trip interspersed with informational tid bits about Maui’s sugar history and other topics. The train cars look authentic but they are replicas made for the 1970 opening of the Maui Sugar Cane Train.

Be sure to check out the brass whales on the sides of each seat, they are a nod to Lahaina’s whaling past, when up to 800 whaling ships would crowd Lahaina Harbor each day. Clickety clacking along, we squeak through the dense overgrowth on both sides of the train, on authentic replica wooden benches (note to self: bring cushion next time). Soon views open up of vast vistas of hillside and open water with Lanai and the Kaanapali shoreline framed by fragrant plumeria trees hugging the tracks.

These are new views to me, a 12 year resident ; it is a new experience to see this perspective of Kaanapali unfold while Alfred sings “Over the Rainbow”, just another reason to go out and explore all of Maui’s fun adventures. Clickety clack and back, we pass over the 325 foot wooden elevated trestle while our conductor does a showy explosive steam burst and the curve of Lahaina harbor comes into view, dotted with boats and surfers.

At the Puukoli stop there are older locomotives and passenger cars at the turnabout loop, along with historic sugar machinery, and a farmer’s market table. (about 5 minutes while the conductor brings the engine around before he stops again and fills up the 600 gallons of water necessary for the roundtrip).

Arriving back (with lots of whistle blowing and steam blowing) we encountered a totally different scene as a tour bus began to unload dozens of new passengers for the Sugar Cane Train’s 2:30 departure. If you asked me in the parking lot if I would recommend the ride, I’d say yes, go for it, and sit in the first car with Alfred. 808-661-0080

My Sugar Experience

What started out as a fun day trip, became something more. Yes, I had always wanted to ride the Sugar Cane Train because it sounded cool and I passed those smokestacks all the time along with the Sugar Museum and always thought about stopping in.

I never really had a big interest in sugar cane production, but the plantation lifestyle and the many different people that came to Maui to find a better life always intrigued me. After exploring the well curated exhibits at the museum, I think that you too will have a better understanding of what impact the advent of the sugar fields had on Maui.

What lies in store for sugar on Maui? With the closing of the Pioneer Mill in Lahaina after 139 years of production, one can only wonder how much longer sugar will survive in Maui, but one thing that will survive is the melting pot of cultures that came together in plantation life and helped to form today’s Hawaii.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Greg September 8, 2012 at 9:25 am

Loved the article. As a sugar cane consuming enthusiast( I have consumed raw sugar cane in many countries around the world) I found the history of sugar quite interesting. Keep the Great articles ? Pineapple growing history next?

Russell Cunningham September 8, 2012 at 5:11 pm

Great stories , great pictures,wonderful memories,we really should stop to see the history and the amazing sceanery..

eileen September 9, 2012 at 7:33 am

Historically informative and conversational enough to not feel like in a college lecture hall;-) Keep info coming!

Adam September 10, 2012 at 3:05 am

Wow. Next time I am in Maui, I must make sure to visit the museum. We take for granted how green the sugar industry actually keeps Maui, even though they still burn. Love the articles. Keep them coming.

T.K. September 11, 2012 at 5:56 am

Informative and great article Barry! Though I have been a resident of Maui for over 25 years, I learn something new each time I read for pieces. I look forward to the next one!!

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