What happened to the sugar? The history of the sugar industry on the Big Island of Hawaii

Hamakua Coast Sugar
Photo credit: hawaiilife.com

Wild sugar cane still grows on the Big Island but the sugar industry was once a big part of the state’s economy, supplying sugar to the mainland and employing large numbers of people.

History

The first sugar mill in the state was built on Lanai in 1802 and the first sugar plantation was established a year later. By the American Civil War the demand for sugar was high. The industry was controlled by five main companies – C. Brewer & Co., Theo H. Davies & Co., Amfac, Castle & Cooke and Alexander & Baldwin. People were brought in to work on the new sugar plantations from a number of different countries including China, Japan, Korea, Portugal and the Philippines.

Hawaii sugar plantation
Sugar cane. Photo credit: hawaiiplantationmuseum.org

But it was the Reciprocity Treaty of 1875 between the US and the Kingdom of Hawaii that allowed Hawaii unconditional access to the US market and further fueled the booming sugar economy in the islands. Import tariffs were removed and what had previously been small scale sugar production now exploded. By the end of the 19th century hand milling was replaced by mechanical milling. The raw sugar was then shipped to the California & Hawaiian Sugar Refining Corporation on the mainland.

Sugar on the Kona Coast

The first sugar plantation in Kona was built by Judge C.F. Hart in 1869. By the beginning of the 20th century sugar was seen as a lucrative opportunity in the islands and Kona was no exception. At one point a railway line extending over 10 miles was built to bring sugar cane to a mill near Kona. The Kona Sugar Company was established in 1899, and the first sugar mill built above Kailua-Kona village a few years later.

Kona Sugar Plantation
The Kona Sugar Company mill. Photo credit: konahistorical.org

Sugar cane grew well at the 500 ft. elevation but the requirement for large volumes of fresh water meant it needed to be located near the Wai’aha Stream. The stream would eventually prove unable to provide the amount of water needed by the mill throughout the year and the company went broke in 1903. Over the next two decades other investors tried their luck with the mill but by 1926 producing sugar on the Kona Coast was no longer viable and the mill closed.

Interested in seeing the remnants of the sugar industry? The remains of the old sugar mill can be seen from the top of Nani Kailua and Aloha Kona neighborhoods. Along Hualalai Road, near the intersection with Hienaloli Road, large stone embankments are still visible, all built by hand for the railroad bed. The abandoned stone trestle of the railroad can also be seen in this area. The railbed itself can even be hiked!

Kona Sugar Mill ruins
Remnants of the old Sugar Mill in Kona. Photo credit: Donnie MacGowan
Kona Sugar Mill ruins
Abandoned stone trestle of the railroad. Photo credit: Donnie MacGowan

Sugar on the Hamakua Coast

The Hamakua Coast was perfect for the production of sugar cane. The area’s climate meant sugar cane could flourish without intensive irrigation. Large tracts of land were cleared in order to plant the sugar cane and it was often the native forest that was used as fuel for the sugar mills. Honoka’a and Laupahoehoe sprung up around the newly created sugar mills and plantations.

Along with the sugar cane plantations came great infrastructure investment. The Hilo Railroad Company laid railroad tracks at huge expense. There were over 3,000 feet of tunnels and it was this cost that eventually bankrupted the company.

3 Sugar-Cane Hawaii
Sugar cane. Photo credit: pandaonline.com

There was declining demand for sugar during the Depression in the 1930s but a spike in demand did occur briefly in the 1940s. The very end of the sugar industry in the area came after the tsunami in 1946. The wave effectively destroyed the railroad and marked the end of the industry.

Once used for sugarcane production, the land is now utilized by other agricultural products, such as macadamia nuts and tropical flowers.

Recent past

Sugar production continued on the other islands and as recently as 1980 there were 14 plantations and over 500 independent sugar growers throughout the state, producing a total of about 1 million tonnes of raw sugar each year. At this time the state of Hawaii was supplying roughly 10% of the sugar consumed by the United States.

The last sugar mill – Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Company's Pu'unene mill on Maui. Photo credit: Joanna Orpia

By the 90s much of the sugar production had ceased as sugar became cheaper to produce elsewhere. Ka’u Sugar, the last on the Big Island, closed its doors in 1996. The last sugar operation in the state finally closed in 2016 on Maui.

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