7 Iconic Sugar Mill Smokestacks That Still Stand Tall in Hawai‘i
The landmark smokestacks serve as daily reminders of these communities’ rich plantation history.
Some of us can remember a time when sugar mill smokestacks towered over our communities, symbolizing a bygone era when sugar cane was king. You may be surprised to hear that there are still some sugar mill smokestacks in Hawai‘i that escaped the fate of many that were demolished after the decline of sugar decades ago. (There were once 27 sugar plantations in the Islands.) Here are a few stacks that still stand tall.
1. O‘ahu Sugar Co., O‘ahu
PHOTO: AARON K. YOSHINO
After O‘ahu Sugar Co. closed in 1995, most of the Waipahu mill was torn down, but one 175-foot smokestack remained, along with the plantation’s generator building.
The YMCA bought 2 acres of the property in 1997 to build its Leeward branch, and O‘ahu Sugar donated 2 more acres with the condition that the nonprofit preserve and maintain the remaining smokestack. Fast forward 120 years after the mill was built, the iconic smokestack still towers over the community, with the help of a major restoration effort completed in April by the Leeward YMCA.
2. Waialua Sugar Co., O‘ahu
PHOTO: COURTESY OF TAYLOR COCHRAN
The once-bustling Waialua Sugar Co. mill on the North Shore closed in 1996 after nearly a century of operations. The property is now home to several local businesses, including the North Shore Soap Factory, Island X Hawai‘i and Waialua Surf Shop. A smokestack remains on site.
3. Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co., Maui
PHOTO: AARON K. YOSHINO
Hawai‘i’s last sugar mill, built in 1901, closed in 2016 after owner Alexander & Baldwin said operations at its Pu‘unēnē facility were no longer feasible. The 36,000-acre plantation produced as much as 7,000 tons of sugar each day and employed about 700 workers.
At the time the facility closed, A&B had committed to keeping the land in agriculture and was considering diversified agriculture, such as energy crops and biofuel.
4. Pioneer Mill Co., Maui
PHOTO: COURTESY OF LAHAINA RESTORATION FOUNDATION
As the first plantation to grow sugar commercially in Lahaina, Pioneer Mill Co. processed 60,000 tons of sugar each year at its peak in the 1960s. In 1928, nearly 70 years after the company was established, a 225-foot brick-and-concrete smokestack was erected, becoming a landmark for residents.
After the company shuttered its doors in 1999, most of the mill was torn down. When there was talk of demolishing the smokestack, the Lahaina Restoration Foundation and the community stepped in to save it. They raised $600,000 for a 4-month smokestack restoration project, the bulk of contributions coming from residents and former employees.
5. ‘Ulupalakua Ranch, Maui
From 1856 to 1886, ‘Ulupalakua Ranch grew sugar cane and other crops. The land changed hands a few times since then but has been owned and operated by the Erdman family since 1963.
Three of the mill’s smokestacks still remain on the 18,000-acre property. The ranch now operates 16,000 acres of land as fee simple, with the remaining 2,000 acres leased from the state and others, with the goal to preserve and protect the area’s native habitat. It is also home to 2,300 cows and a winery.
6. Puna Sugar Co., Big Island
Formerly known as the ‘Ōla‘a Sugar Co., Puna Sugar began operations in 1899 on about 34,000 acres of land. The company leased land to laborers to grow sugar cane and would later purchase their crops. In 1900, a 2,000-ton mill was erected.
A $4.5-million power plant was later built on the property, using bagasse (residue left over after removing juice from cane) and trash fuel to generate electricity. Hilo Electrical Light Co. purchased 12,500 kilowatts from the plant. In 1982, the company announced it would begin to close over a two-year period because of high operating costs.
Hawaiian Electric Co. has owned the property since 1989, with a smokestack still standing tall on site.
7. Ladd & Co., Kaua‘i
PHOTO: COURTESY OF ADA KOENE
Located in the quaint town of Kōloa (about 14 miles from the Līhu‘e Airport) are the remnants of the Old Sugar Mill of Kōloa, including the base of a stone smokestack. The mill was part of the Ladd & Co. sugar plantation, founded in 1835. The company started out with 12 acres of sugar cane and produced nearly 4,300 pounds of sugar and 2,700 gallons of molasses in 1837. It shut down in 1845 due to debt and a lack of funds.
The property is home to a monument built in 1985 featuring a sculpture of people from the ethnic groups that worked on plantations in the Islands. The community’s rich plantation history also lives on with the annual Kōloa Plantation Days festival, which celebrates the immigrants and ethnic groups that helped fuel Hawai‘i’s prosperous sugar era.