Terraforming Maui: The Hawaiian Sugar Industry's Technological Revolution

Claus Spreckels, successful sugar refiner and capitalist, had already revolutionised the process of cubing sugar when he set about reorganising Maui's dry plains into lush tracts of cane. This is how he modernised Hawaiian sugar production and monopolised its distribution.

Spreckels's major [irrigation]ditch was the Haiku Ditch, constructed by Japanese workers using hand drills and requiring a capital outlay of $US500,000, the largest amount spent on any irrigation project in the Hawaiian Islands to date. The ditch spanned 50km and delivered 190 million litres of water daily, irrigating 20 times as much land as had previously been irrigated. In 1880, when William Hammond Hall was experimenting with debris dams along California's rivers, the San Francisco Commercial Herald reported that Maui's dry plains had become a "mine of wealth, a bonanza, pouring out its ceaseless floods of treasure". Capital, the reporter continued, "went out into the wilderness, and made the desert blossom into cultivated fields, and smiling gardens and happy homes."

The Haiku Ditch rivaled India's great undertakings and surpassed the size of any ditch that had been constructed in the American West. San Francisco city engineer Michael M. O'Shaughnessy compared Spreckels and Schussler to the Mormon settlers of Utah, who under church leadership had constructed some of the West's most sophisticated irrigation systems. "By no other people," he wrote, "has so much enterprise been displayed, and so many sacrifices made in developing a non-productive country into one of pronounced prosperity."

The Haiku Ditch formed only one component of this new enterprise. Spreckels revolutionised Hawaiian sugar production in every way. His plantation and company town, Spreckelsville, became a successful experiment in agricultural and industrial capitalism. The "largest sugar estate in the world" in 1892, Spreckelsville spread over 40,000 acres, with half of the 25,000 acres of good cane land under cultivation. Sugarcane planting started soon after the completion of the irrigation system. Steam ploughs, the first used in the Hawaiian Islands, turned the ground. Within 18 months, the crop matured and could be processed.

In anticipation of high yields, Spreckels employed two men from San Francisco's Risdon Iron Works to design a mill able to process 20 tons of sugar each 10-hour day. The mill used five rollers instead of the customary three to extract juice from the cane. Electric lighting, the first of its kind on Maui, facilitated plantation operations. Within 10 years, Spreckels added three more mills. The entire sugar production process was almost completely mechanised. Cane was hauled to the plantation mill, where a machine unloaded sugar from the cars. It then passed through a crusher, which extracted the juice and tested for sugar and juice content. The juice was then treated with milk of lime and heated, put into settling tanks and reduced to syrup in a filtering process. After being boiled and mixed with molasses, the syrup went through centrifugal machines that left grains of dried sugar in the vacuum pan. The raw sugar was then packed and shipped to Spreckels's Western Sugar Refinery in San Francisco.

Spreckels's innovations in transportation also made Hawaiian Commercial and Sugar and Spreckelsville a model plantation system. Plantation transportation had previously consisted of roads traveled by mules and oxen. To reduce the costs of transporting sugarcane to the mills, foreign labourers constructed a narrow-gauge railroad through Spreckelsville. It had two locomotives, one hauling 20 cars and the other 20. Each car could transport three thousand pounds of cane from the fields to the mills. By 1881, 30km of iron track were completed. The plantation railroad connected with the Kahului Railroad, a corporation whose stock was controlled by Hawaiian Commercial and Sugar. This rail line transported the processed sugar to Maui's major port, Kahului. There, Spreckels owned landings, storehouses and a general dry goods store. By 1885, Spreckelsville had 70km of railroad, four engines and 498 cars for hauling cane.

Although Spreckels commanded sugarcane production on the Hawaiian Islands, the refineries and markets lay elsewhere. At the end of 1881, Spreckels and his sons organized the Oceanic Steamship Company. By 1883, the Spreckels line operated two steamships and nine sailing vessels, connecting Hawaiian sugar to its markets in America, Australia and New Zealand. The 247-ton schooner Claus Spreckels could make the trip from San Francisco to Hawaii in nine days. With this rapid service, the Oceanic Steamship Company effectively monopolised Hawaiian sugar traffic throughout the world.

From ENGINEERING NATURE: WATER, DEVELOPMENT, AND THE GLOBAL SPREAD OF AMERICAN ENVIRONMENTAL EXPERTISE by Jessica B. Teisch. Copyright (c) 2011 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher. www.uncpress.unc.edu

Top art courtesy of Cyanocorax via Flickr

Jessica Teisch (Ph.D., UC-Berkeley, 2001) is an independent scholar, editor, and environmental consultant specializing in coastal and marine issues.

Engineering Nature: Water, Development and the Global Spread of American Environmental Expertise is available from the University of North Carolina Press