On November 16, 1889, the Oahu Railway and Land Company (OR&L) began operating on Hawai`i’s third largest island, Oahu. The brainchild of Massachusetts native Benjamin Franklin Dillingham, the railroad made it possible to move agricultural products from inland to port, stimulating the local economy and providing a valuable transportation route for decades.
Dillingham arrived in Hawai`i in 1865 as first mate of the sailing ship Whistler. Prevented by a fractured leg from returning to sea, Dillingham made Oahu his home and began investing in its future. Within four years, he was a partner in a local hardware company supplying goods for the growing sugar industry. Dillingham also invested in a dairy business. He was interested in real estate, but failed to raise the money to purchase the land for speculation. In 1888, Dillingham obtained a concession from the Hawai`i legislature to build the OR&L and succeeded in raising the money to build this venture. He scheduled the opening of the short line-railway, which originally ran nine miles, to coincide with the birthday of Hawaiian King Kalakaua.
Early revenues for the OR&L were meager, but as Dillingham had foreseen, the railway’s presence stimulated land sales and new agricultural ventures, including pineapple and sugar plantations. By the early 1900s, the expanded 160-mile railway cut across the island, serving several sugar plantations, pineapple farms, and the popular Haleiwa Hotel. As Oahu’s pineapple, sugar, and tourism industries grew, profits for Dillingham’s railway followed suit.
An additional, and significant, source of revenue for the OR&L came from passenger fares to and from the U.S. Army’s Schofield Barracks near the center of the island. From 1909 until the late 1930s, and again during World War II, the OR&L transported troops across Oahu, which had few cars and often shoddy roads. After World War II, the railway’s fortunes changed as passenger revenues plummeted and trucks began taking over the agricultural business. The OR&L abandoned service outside Honolulu and its harbor in 1947. In 1972, it closed its remaining service to the Iwilei canneries and docks. The OR&L right-of-way and terminal are on the state and National Register of Historic Places.
Learn more about the Oahu Railway and Land Company in Chronicling America, Historic American Newspapers. Search on Oahu Railway to find items such as “Railway Systems of the Hawaiian Islands.” Evening bulletin. (Honolulu [Oahu], Hawaii) 1895-1912, November 30, 1901, Evening Bulletin Industrial Edition.
- Search Today in History on railroad to find features, such as the first regularly scheduled passenger train, the first train robbery, the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, the Florida East Coast Railway, and the railways’ influence on the standardization of time.
- Read the History of Railroads and Maps feature in Railroad Maps, 1828 to 1900. Find railroad maps from a state by checking out the collection’s Geographic Location map, or by searching on a state name.
The digital collections contain rich resources on Hawaii:
- Search on Hawaii in the collection Making of America: Books External to find several books on Hawaii, formerly known as the Sandwich Islands. Examples include several works by missionaries on the evangelization of the islanders, travel and description, such as Mrs. E. M. Wills Parker’s The Sandwich Islands As They Are, Not As They Should Be External (circa 1852) and Samuel Bowles’ The Pacific Railroad—Open. How To Go: What To See. Guide For Travel To and Through Western AmericaExternal (1869).
- Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record/Historic American Landscapes Survey has images of architectural surveys of Schofield Barracks. Also search pictorial collections on Schofield Barracks for additional images including one of the cactus, the regimental insignia of the 35th Infantry, 1933.
- View the three award-winning Hawaii’an quilts in Quilts and Quiltmaking in America, 1978 to 1996. In addition to patchwork quilting, Hawaiian quilters developed a unique style of appliqué quilting which involves stitching single piece symmetrical designs onto a background material.
- The collection American Environmental Photographs, 1891-1936: Images from the University of Chicago Library External documents natural environments, ecologies, and plant communities in the United States. Search on the terms Hawaii, Maui, Oahu, Kauai, or Molokai to see images of these islands in the Hawaiian chain.
- For more photographs of Hawai`i, search the pictorial collections on Hawaii. Note that the spelling in the catalog records uses the earlier convention of Hawaii. Among the many images of the fiftieth state are photographs of an early baseball team and Waikiki Beach in 1902.
- Broadcast over the Public Broadcasting System (PBS), Hawaii’s Last Queen External tells the story of Queen Lili`uokalani and the history of Hawai`i.
- Read the Today in History feature on Hawai`i.