WATER! When foreign ships first sailed into the sheltered harbor at Honolulu, they were drawn to land by this single, most welcome sight. It was the same for every vessel that navigated the seas and visited uncharted lands.
As soon as foreign ships began appearing in Hawaiian waters, they tacked and coasted close, yet kept safe distances from both shore and shoal in hope of locating this one, precious resource. Once it was sighted, the captain set about obtaining depth soundings and brought his ship to anchor. He then called out orders for the crew to prepare to remain at anchor for days or weeks while they restocked this essential item of the ship’s supplies now that water was available.
Honolulu had no verdant fields of yam or sweet potato vines as the other islands had in abundance. There weren’t even herds of well-fattened hogs to slaughter, “corn” (to brine or salt) and cask for the long voyage ahead. In the decade before 1800, the meager fishing village of Honolulu, or Kou as it was then called, boasted no resident courts of high chiefs with whom to barter, groves of trees for wood to stoke the ship’s fires or tender grass to feed the livestock in the ship’s hold.
Honolulu had sprung out of heat and dust, a hamlet of simple grass houses surrounding a sizeable temple to an ancient god worshipped several months out of the year. Though it offered little of the starch and protein foods valued by seafarers, Honolulu did possess one major provision—bubbling, fresh water from a crystal stream nearby. Water was one reason Capt. James Cook’s first landfall in 1778 was Waimea, at the mouth of a stream on the island of Kauai. As a result of their rivers and streams, water brought ships to Lahaina on Maui and Hilo on Hawaii Island. Thus, the abundance of water that flowed from Nuuanu Stream became Honolulu’s greatest asset. Every worthy sea captain was aware of it.
Collecting sufficient water to satisfy a ship’s needs often required that a small boat be rowed a distance up Nuuanu Stream to fill wooden barrels and casks made watertight by the ship’s cooper. The waterfalls of Waikahalulu presented a physical obstacle that likely discouraged travel further upstream; thus, the falls may have become the inland boundary for water collection by boat. Acquiring fresh water this way was both time-consuming and laborious, considering the increasing number of vessels arriving in Honolulu to refit once or twice a year. Alternative water sources were tapped for the sake of efficiency. As early as the 1820s, shallow wells were dug, but the water obtained was poor and brackish.
In 1838, a system of lead piping was proposed to transport water from upper Nuuanu to the harbor. The project was not well received and was only partially implemented. Then, in 1851, iron pipes were successfully installed, and this system provided sufficient water both for ships and for a growing population of Honolulu residents and businesses. Stream and spring water from high up in Nuuanu coursed into a masonry reservoir located mid-valley. Pipes brought pure water down Nuuanu Avenue to serve the bustling community, which attached smaller-gauge pipes to the main water line for private use. A decade later, the system was upgraded with the additions of reservoirs and larger pipes.
The city of Honolulu prospered, sprawling beyond the harbor as shipyard services expanded and the resident population increased. By the 1880s, piped water was no longer adequate to support the needs of the city and harbor. Artesian wells were dug and a great new source of water was tapped.
It was artesian water that was used to put out the 1886 Chinatown fire, which threatened homes and businesses. Water from the artesian well at Thomas Square also saved Honolulu from a series of severe droughts at the turn of the 20th century. Although harbor activity brought growth and prosperity to Honolulu, it was essentially the city’s water that germinated the seeds of urban and economic development.
(Photo by Hawaii State Archives)
Read more of Carol Silva’s fascinating, unique histories of the Hawaiian Islands:
Riding the Old Oahu Railway
Oh, We’re Going to a Hukilau
Guardian of the Bones
The Significance of Hawaiian Names
The Sweet Side of Hawaii
Dining with the Royals
Tourists of Old
Land of the Menehune