Memories of Waikīkī before hotels and shopping malls replaced wetlands
Several bills were introduced this legislative session dealing with coastal erosion. None have survived, but the issue remains — around the state.
On Oʻahu, the Waikīkī and Ala Moana areas are especially vulnerable to coastal erosion and flooding linked to sea level rise. That’s because they were once wetlands, ponds and waterways — until they were drained for the Ala Wai Canal.
Our partners at the UH Mānoa Center for Oral History have some firsthand memories — introduced by ethnic studies professor Ty Kāwika Tengan.
Eugene Kennedy, born in 1913, grew up near the Royal Hawaiian Hotel and lived in Waikīkī for most of his life. He describes how Dillingham’s Hawaiian Dredging Construction Company moved the tons of coral fill that they dug up to create the Ala Wai Canal to fill in the wetlands that became the ground upon which the Ala Moana Shopping Center now stands.
He was interviewed by Warren Nishimoto and Michi Kodama-Nishimoto in Hawaiʻi Kai in 1986.
NISHIMOTO: So the area across Kalākaua from Lewers Road, you said was swampland?
KENNEDY: Swampland, yeah. And when they dredged, they backfilled all of that. Where Kapiʻolani Boulevard is in through there, that was all swampland. McCully section, that was all swampland. Practically all of that area came in for fill. When you get around Sheridan Street in through that on the mauka side, it was rice fields.
NISHIMOTO: Do you remember what the differences were from before the time the canal was built as compared to after it was built?
KENNEDY: Well, actually it was filled from the coral. Dillingham actually got the contract to build that and he started from the Ala Wai coming in with the dredge and he had a problem, oh, up to Kalākaua or a little farther, with where to store the stuff. So he took and he worked a deal with the Kahanamoku family, the Paoas and that gang. They owned the land at Atkinson Drive and Ala Moana where Ala Moana Shopping Center is, not all of it but most of it. But most of the big portion of that was owned by them and it was swamp. We'd go over there and watch because there was a lot of — water had to drain out to the sea and it was all mucky stuff that was in it.
Mary Ellen Kealohapauʻole Paoa Clarke was born and raised on the Paoa family estate in Waikīkī from 1902 until the family leased the land to Henry J. Kaiser in 1955 and he built the Hilton Hawaiian Village. She describes how marine life was abundant in the ocean along Waikīkī until the Ala Wai Canal was constructed.
She was interviewed by Warren Nishimoto in Kailua-Kona in 1985.
CLARKE: Louis Cain was a supervisor, and he told my father that they were going to build a bridge and a canal because of the drainage. And the canal in front of ʻIlikai. We used to go right across, eh? We used to swim way out. Lot of fish, squidding. That place was loaded with squid, you know. But after the canal, no more. And the menpachi, akule. All that whole area. And out Waikīki by the Moana was kala. The rough skin. That fish used to eat only līpoa, that very strong smelling seaweed. They used to catch that.
NISHIMOTO: So after the canal was built, the fishing wasn't as good?
CLARKE: No. Wasn't too good. And by Kaiser's, we used to get clams all along the beach there, and seaweed, green, long, just like hair, green. That's all gone after the canal. No more crabs. Terrible.
This oral history project is supported by the SHARP initiative of the National Endowment for the Humanities through the American Council of Learned Societies.