Star-Bulletin Features

Monday, January 25, 1999


A fast track to
Koko Crater peak

Now it can be told: While preparing to bid on the 1962 Winter Olympics, Honolulu entrepreneurs built the world's steepest, straightest luge track running right down the face of Koko Crater.

Art And if you believe that one, we'll sell you a piece of the Ford Island bridge as well!

Actually, the track that hurtles up 60 degrees or so on the crater front is what remains of a tram system laid by Army engineers to move soldiers to the top in comfort. It was cranked up the hillside by cable, and featured angled seats that leveled out as the tram moved vertically.

At the top of the 1,234-foot peak was a radar site, likely created during World War II. It's possible that the site originally housed SCR-296 directional radars to control the big guns in Oahu's coastal batteries. Later, the site was manned by the Hawaii National Guard. The site has a commanding view of southeast Oahu, including Waimanalo, where the Guard once aimed missiles at potential aerial intruders.

Satellite technology and wide-ranging AWACS platforms made these hilltops defensive radar sites obsolete. But while it was in operation, the ride up the slope was scenic, and sometimes exciting.

In 1959, the tram car started to hurtle back down the hill when it was only a few feet from the summit. Startled Guardsmen leaped out and the tram operator yanked the emergency switch. The car slammed suddenly to a halt, and Airman Eugene Malalis flipped from the back of the coach and was injured.

The inside of the crater held a Job Corps camp and just outside its lip is a well-regarded botanical garden. The City has been fairly firm about keeping the area green and has rejected all attempts to "develop" the site, ranging from a 1968 E.K. Fernandez scheme to build a restaurant atop the crater -- complete with a hanging gondola ride -- to last year's State proposal to build a prison, which Mayor Jeremy Harris termed "an outrage."

Harris has suggested rebuilding the tram, using funds from Hanauma Bay admissions.

By Burl Burlingame

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