An old sugar mill on the island of Kauai – check out the drone footage

Bojan Ivanov
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The remains of the Old Sugar Mill of Kōloa are situated in a field, hidden by a small, dense wood near the center of the town of Kōloa on the island of Kauai (the 4th largest island in the Hawaiian archipelago).

Parts of the massive square stone foundations can be seen, as well as a 30-foot-high brick chimney. Additionally, the streams in the area house the remains of sluices – small water reservoirs and channels that were made for use by the mill.

The mill was owned by Ladd & Company and was renowned for being the first commercially successful sugarcane plantation in the Hawaiian Islands. It began what was to be a highly successful industry for the islands.

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In 1965, the site was designated a Registered National Historic Landmark by the U.S. Department of the Interior National Park Service.

The brick chimney of the Old Sugar Mill of Kōloa.

Sugarcane is likely to have been cultivated on the Hawaiian Islands for centuries. Even Captain Cook noticed and registered a small piece of land planted with sugarcane when he first landed in Kauai in 1778. It is documented that, in 1825, John Wilkinson from England planted sugarcane in Manoa Valley. At the time of his death in 1827, he had nearly 100 acres planted with sugarcane.

Wilkinson’s efforts are widely accepted as the first sugarcane plantation in the Hawaiian Islands, even though he did not have any considerable commercial success.

The early beginnings of sugar production in the Hawaiian Islands.

In 1833, three businessmen from the United States – Peter William Ladd, Allan Brinsmade, and William Hooper – came to Honolulu, on the Island of Oahu, and established a trading business which they named Ladd & Company.

The influence of Ladd & Company on the local economy was enormous. At first, they built a wharf and a large stone warehouse in Honolulu. Their appetites were not satisfied and they started to invest in other businesses. In 1835, during the reign of King Kamehameha III, they leased 980 acres of land in the southern parts of the island of Kauai from Kaikioʻewa, the royal governor of Kauai, with the intention of growing and processing sugar.

The area was specifically chosen for this purpose as it had conditions that were excellent for sugar production: the Muilili pool with its waterfall was ideal for powering the mill, the soil was of a high quality, and it was close to a good port. They were the first company to introduce successful methods of large-scale organized agricultural production on the Hawaiian islands especially for sugar, and their example was followed by many.

Portrait of King Kamehameha III by an unknown artist, painted in Boston from a daguerreotype. It is now in the Bishop Museum in Honolulu.

Initially, they planted 12 acres of sugarcane. Because of some technical difficulties, only a small quantity of molasses was produced in 1836 at a small mill at Maulili pool. The wooden grinding rollers very quickly broke down and became useless, but soon they were replaced with iron rollers, and production increased immediately. In 1837, the mill produced 2,700 gallons of molasses and 4,286 pounds of sugar.

A few years later, the three investors realized that the mill at Maulili pool was not profitable enough and decided to change the location. Between 1839 and 1941, a new sugar mill was erected on Waihohonu stream (now the town of Kōloa). What is left of this mill is now known as the Old Sugar Mill of Kōloa.

National Historic Landmark plaque.

In 1841, the sugar plantation of Ladd & Company in Kōloa was the scene of the first general strike by native workers in the Hawaiian Islands.

The strikers demanded an increase of their daily salary (from 12.5 cents to 25 cents), but the management of the plantation refused, saying that in addition to their salary they were receiving fish, housing, and land for taro patches. The plantation workers were also exempt from paying taxes to the native chiefs. In less than two weeks, the strike was broken.

This was one of the many general strikes that happened on the sugar plantations of the Hawaiian Islands during the 19th and 20th centuries.

Bronze sculpture by Jan Gordon Fisher.

Debts and a lack of the money that was needed for the improvement of production, as well the unpredictable political climate in the Kingdom of Hawaii, caused Ladd & Company to cease production in 1844/1845.

Even though Ladd & Company ceased to be, the sugar mill continued production. The Hawaiian government retook possession of the plantation, and it was sold to Robert Wood (William Hooper’s brother in law). He was in charge of it until 1874. Sugar production continued on the Waihohonu stream until 1912.

Later Kōloa Sugar Mill/ Author: Jhofman

The success story of sugar production on the island of Kauai does not stop at the beginning of the 20th century. In 1912, the original mill was replaced by a mill located on the east edge of the town of Kōloa. This mill was much larger and was used until 1996.

Unfortunately, soon after it closed it was abandoned and started to collapse. Although derelict, rusting, and partly overgrown with vegetation, the huge metal structures still stand proudly in their picturesque surroundings, serving as a reminder of a bygone era.

There is also a certain post-apocalyptic atmosphere that surrounds the location, and this is heightened by the presence of a few rusty, abandoned tractors and trucks. The Old Sugar Mill of Kōloa is easily accessible and open to the public, but its larger successor is on a private fenced-off property and can be viewed only from a distance, from the haul roads near it. At the right spot, a portion of the ocean behind the mill can be seen.