Talk Story #2 – The Ala Wai Canal and the Making of Waikiki

Without the Ala Wai Canal, there would be no Waikiki


Outrigger canoes lined along the mauka (mountain side) of the canal

Visitors turning off of Kapahulu Ave. over by the Zoo and Kapiolani Park and onto “one way” Ala Wai Blvd. are startled to see a large canal of water starting from nowhere and flowing quietly along side the busy road.

Where does all this water come from, and why was this canal built? Well, originally the whole Waikiki area consisted of marshlands, a mix of ancient lava flows and old coral reefs, where three underground springs from the Manoa, Palolo and Makiki valleys of the Koolau Mountains flowed down to the ocean.


Two of the stream openings near the Kapahulu Ave. entrance

Waikiki was a place of spouting waters. Yet, in the early 1900′s it was a real concern for the President of the Territorial Board of Health, Lucious Pinkham, who considered the wet agricultural plots there unsanitary. In 1913, as the newly elected Territorial Governer, he developed a grand civil engineering scheme to construct a drainage canal. He believed that the canal would make Waikiki a viable and usable area as a tourist attraction, while also serving as a primary drainage corridor for the neighborhoods of central Honolulu.

Construction by Walter F. Dillingham’s Hawaiian Dredging Company began in 1921 and was completed in 1928. The company dug and moved 2.4 million cubic yards of coral, mud and sand, which (to his delight and company bottom line) was promptly sold to eager individuals. Landowners likewise benefited from the canal, as by law, they had to develop marsh lands above sea level. At the same time, however, property values on the new solid ground escalated, and many people, mostly Hawaiians, lost their lands as they could no longer afford the higher property taxes!

The almost two-mile long canal drained 16.3 square miles of land and captured silt from the natural waterways. The Waikiki area became a peninsula, separate from the rest of Honolulu, and three Bridges were built over the canal at McCully St., Kalakaua Ave., and Ala Moana Blvd.


Kalakaua Ave. bridge in the distance

Today, the mountain rainfall flows steadily past the Honolulu Ala Wai Golf Club, 18 hole course, and the multitudes of condominiums/apartment buildings and businesses lining each side, all while lending a serene setting away from the bustling, more commercial Waikiki beach area.


Condos and apartments lining the makai (ocean side) of canal

As the three streams end their journey to the ocean between Waikiki and Ala Moana Beach/Magic Island, they flow into the Ala Wai small boat harbor.


Waters flowing to the ocean under Ala Moana Blvd. bridge

Today there is a rich lifestyle where the mountain waters flow into the salty ocean. Residents enjoy races, fishing, yacht sailing, and a weekly fireworks display on the Hilton Hawaiian Village Beach.


Mountain waters finally arrive to blend with the ocean

TALK STORY with Jeanne E Buboltz, RB: In Hawaii, there is often a gathering of family and friends, and in a casual way stories are told of that day’s happenings or past events. We call it “talk story.” My continued series will be about different places in Oahu with their history and many opportunities for enjoyment today.

I would love to hear about your personal Hawaii memories as well.

Hawaii is a special place and so are the people. Follow me as we discover the lifestyle best suited for YOU. Whether you seek a casual beach house, a downsized retirement home, a high rise condo, or a golf course-fronted resort home, contact me with your interest, needs, and desires, or let’s just “talk story”!

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9 Responses to “Talk Story #2 – The Ala Wai Canal and the Making of Waikiki”

  1. David Buck
    October 11, 2010 at 9:47 am #

    Great info. Jeanne. I heard the original design called for more of a “U Shape” vs. “L Shape” where the other end of the “U” would lead out where Kapahulu Ave. is providing for more circulation/filtration of the waters.


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