POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Jul 24, 2011
The ride along 2,000 feet of historic track takes just a few minutes, even with the locomotive puffing along at a speed slower than a walk. There isn't much to see in the tangle of trees except the faint suggestions of what used to be. But those moments spent riding the train — a real train with a smokestack and a whistle and an engine fueled by firewood — transcend time. The passengers step off the wooden cars with far-away looks in their eyes and whisper to each other, "I wanna do that again!"
Once a month, Kauai's Grove Farm museum holds "train day" for the public. Engineer Scotty Johnson fires up one of four 19th-century steam locomotives and gives rides along a stretch of old track near Lihue's Haleko Road. The rides are free and reservations are not required, though large groups should call ahead.
Last week, the people who came to the dirt parking lot across from the old sugar mill to ride the train were a mix of tourists and locals.
"I got off work and was driving past and I thought, ‘Hey, I'm gonna ride that train today!'" one lady said.
"Me, too!" said another woman.
Just looking at Paulo makes people giddy. The chance to ride her moves some to tears.
Paulo is a 10-ton, wood-burning engine built in Dusseldorf in 1887 that ran in Koloa until 1920. She is the oldest surviving sugar plantation locomotive in Hawaii. Some of the old-timers remember her parked like a statue in the Koloa Plantation office yard in the 1940s, when kids would climb her as she rusted away. Now restored, Paulo is exactly what comes to mind when you think of a classic train, with steam sighing and the sweet smell of wood burning and a high-pitched optimistic whistle that sounds like a call to adventure.
Johnson, 55, is a charismatic host: welcoming everyone on board, running between cars to serve as brakeman and narrating the tour with stories he's gathered over 30 years of working with Grove Farm museum's train collection.
He speaks without amplification, which makes the experience all the more authentic and less touristy. His enthusiasm is enough to carry his voice over the chug-chug of the train. He gleefully talks about the science of locomotives, the history of plantations and the provenance of the locomotive. He shares anecdotes from old-timers like it's the first time he's taken anyone on this train ride, though he's been doing it since the mid-1980s.
Pointing down a gulch to the ruins of a plantation house in the long-gone Kilipaki camp, Johnson relays the story of a lady who came on the train ride a few years back and told him that was the house where she lived as a child. She told him where the kitchen used to be in the house and described how she spent many happy hours catching swordtail fish in the nearby stream.
Many of Johnson's stories have been collected this way over the years, from people who come to him and share their memories. "The lady said I could tell her story, but she didn't want me to use her name," Johnson said. "But she said I could say, ‘Art Fuji's auntie used to live in that house.'"
Paulo is currently in need of repairs, so while she's out of service, Johnson will bring out Wainiha, a steam engine that last hauled cane in 1957. The next train day is scheduled for Aug. 11. Johnson will be there, bursting with train stories to share.
"I can give this tour all day and never tell the same story twice. There's just so much good stuff," he said. "Besides, how could I not be excited by my job? I get to play with trains!"
For more information, go to www.kauaitrains.com or call 808-245-3202.