A Dead Issue?
By Jeff Livingston, Historian
12 July 2009

Until the publication of "Next Stop Honolulu" I had no idea that the OR&L carried corpses to any cemetery or the possibility that the company may have had a funeral car. The "Corpse" ticket illustrated in the book clearly indicated that the OR&L provided some kind of funeral transportation services but what? Using the "Roster of OR&L's Rolling Stock" from "Next Stop Honolulu" which was developed using the OR&L Annual Reports, I noted that a funeral car first appeared in 1900.

Searching the newspaper archives I found that on October 2, 1900 the Hawaiian Gazette reported that a new "Pearl City Cemetery" was to open at Pearl Harbor. The article quoted Mr. F.J. Berry, head of the Hui that developed the cemetery, as saying "We have obtained excellent terms from the railroad company. They are to supply two fine funeral cars and run a funeral train each day. Their charges will be but a dollar for each corpse and fifty cents for each of the live passengers. That will make the cost of funerals less than at the present time when the funerals are held in the city".

Wow! Not one but two funeral cars were planned. On November 27, 1900 the Hawaiian Gazette reported "A handsome funeral car is almost completed in the shops of the Oahu Railway and Land Company and will, when finished be a work of art and beauty. The car is being constructed from designs made by J. A. Hughes, the master car builder.

The compartment for the corpse takes up one-third of the length of the car. The walls of this compartment are upholstered in black crepe with gold trimmings. A bier will stand in the middle upholstered appropriately. Situated at the other end of the car are reversible seats for the accommodation of thirty passengers". Here we have a basic description of the first funeral car, but wait! There's more! A little over a year later on December 27, 1901 another report from the Hawaiian Gazette states "The Oahu Railway and Land Company has just completed a funeral car which will take the place of the present car "Charon." The new car was built under the direction of the master mechanic, and is a model of its kind. One end will be fitted so that three coffins can be carried at once. Instead of putting coffins on board the car through a sliding doorway, as at present, an arrangement has been made whereby they can be rolled into the car sideways, under the sill. The fittings of the car will designate the use to which it will be put". The 1901 Annual Report also indicates another funeral car. Now we're getting somewhere.

We now know the following about the funeral cars.

  1. The first funeral car was named "Charon".
  2. The first funeral car had a sliding door.
  3. The first funeral car had a separate compartment for the corpse.
  4. The first funeral car carried 30 passengers in addition to the corpse.
  5. The second funeral car did not have a sliding door but carried up to three coffins which were loaded onto the car under the sill.

Since I've located no other hard information about these cars this is all we currently have to work with so what follows is speculation supported by empirical evidence.

The first funeral car "Charon" was likely built as a combination baggage/passenger car as evidenced by the "sliding door" referenced above. Thirty passengers seated in two rows of double seats would indicate eight windows per side. While 16 windows would allow for 32 passengers, the likely inclusion in the design of a water closet would reduce the available seating to 30. The 1900 article states the compartment for the corpse was upholstered in black crepe with gold trim and "Charon" was likely also painted black with gold trim in a style appropriate with 1900 fashion.

We know far less about the second funeral car except the method of loading corpses. I suspect the car looked like a combination baggage/passenger car without the baggage door and corpses were loaded in a method similar to that used by the Loa Angles Street Railway funeral car "Descanso" as pictures below.

The funeral cars disappear from the Annual Reports by 1905-6 without explanation. So what happened to them? Without a shred of hard evidence I suggest the following. Both funeral cars were converted to regular combination baggage/passenger cars. In support of this theory there are these facts. In 1906, the same year the funeral cars disappear from the annual reports the OR&L came under the reporting requirements of the Interstate Commerce Commission.

The office/working copies of the ICC reports are located at Bishop Museum and the official copies are archived in the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. The first ICC report submitted by the OR&L for the year ending June 30, 1907 indicates two "Combination Cars" and four "Parlor" cars in service.

The ICC report form has no designation for "Funeral Car" and I believe the two funeral cars were grouped with "Pearl" and the observation car we now know as No. 64 as "Parlor Cars" which would total four. The OR&L apparently had some trouble with the ICC reports as their numbers and descriptions don't always add up. The 1908 ICC report indicates three combination cars in service as of June 30, 1907 vice the two reported in 1907 and the addition of one combination car in 1908 for a total of four combination cars as of June 30, 1908. The "Parlor Car" count for 1908 is two, "Pearl" and No. 64.

Based on the above, I believe "Charon" was quickly placed in service sometime in 1906 as a combination baggage/ passenger car after removal of her funeral car fittings and being repainted with the second funeral car following shortly after the addition of a baggage door and paint job. So, which combines did they become you ask? I don't know. The currently available information is not only insufficient but quite confusing regarding the early OR&L equipment and research is continuing at Bishop Museum. Stay tuned.

Jeff Livingston
12 July 2009