In October 2009, when Bill Wong saw water trickling down the three-quarter mile section of the Kohala Ditch that borders his family’s ranch just outside of Hawi, he recalled, “I was thrilled, ecstatic! It was like seeing gold slowly rolling toward me — water is that precious to our ranching and agricultural community in North Kohala.”
That part of the ditch had been bone dry ever since Oct. 15, 2006, when an earthquake measuring 6.6 on the Richter scale had rocked Hawaii. The resulting landslide destroyed several flumes, a dam-intake structure and trails that provided access to the ditch in remote Pololu and Honokane valleys.
“It was like somebody turned off the faucet,” said Wong, who owns and operates Kapaau-based ATV Outfitters Hawaii with his wife, Sandie. “For the first time in a century, no water was flowing in the ditch.”
To get through the crisis, farms and ranches that depended on the ditch had to haul water by truck from emergency fill sites. Sadly, Flumin’ Da Ditch, a popular activity that had carried visitors along the ditch via kayaks for a decade, shut down.
It took two years and more than $5 million in state, federal and private funds to repair the historic aqueduct.
IF YOU GO
Kohala Ditch Adventures
• Meet at: Kohala Ditch Adventures, on Highway 270 between mile markers 24 and 25 in Kapaau, Hawaii County
• Tours: 9 and 9:30 a.m., and 1 and 1:30 p.m. daily except Sunday
• Cost: $129 per person, $65 for children ages 5 through 12. Price includes bottled water, fruit juice and macadamia nuts. Kamaaina rates are $99 and $49, respectively.
• Phone: 889-6000 on the Big Island or toll-free 888-288-7288
• E-mail: email@example.com
• Website: www.kohaladitchadventures.com
• Notes: A maximum of 10 people is allowed per tour. Tours are not available to pregnant women, children under 5 years old, and those who have had recent neck or back injuries or surgeries. Maximum weight for each participant is 300 pounds. Wear clothes that you won’t mind getting wet.
“When we heard that, Sandie and I considered doing it,” Wong said. “We were already really busy with our ATV company, but we knew how important the ditch is to North Kohala.
“During the walk, they see a waterfall and get their first glimpse of a tunnel,” Wong said. “Our guides talk about the history of the ditch and the heroic efforts to rebuild it after the earthquake. They also point out plants in the rainforest, including awapuhi (ginger), guava and kukui, Hawaii’s state tree. Once in a while, people spot ring-necked pheasants, peacocks and wild pigs, too.” Tour goers then board kayaks for a 2-mile ride down the ditch that glides past two waterfalls, over seven flumes and through 10 tunnels ranging from 100 to 1,800 feet in length. At the end of the ride, six-passenger ATVs whisk them through a macadamia nut orchard back to Kohala Ditch Adventures’ office.
“Many Kohala residents have ties to the sugar plantations and fond memories about the ditch,” Wong said. “Sandie and I feel blessed and happy that we can provide jobs that give them the opportunity to talk about their experiences living and growing up in Kohala.
“It’s natural for them, and it instills a sense of pride about their roots and way of life. Both literally and figuratively, the Kohala Ditch is the lifeblood of our community.”
Building of ditch an arduous endeavor
At the turn of the last century, seven plantations were cultivating about 10,000 acres of sugarcane in the Big Island’s North Kohala district. The plantations relied primarily on rain to water their fields, but because of drought conditions at that time, yields were low, putting them in financial jeopardy.
John Hind, owner of Hawi Mill and Plantation, had heard about the success Maui plantations had experienced diverting water from upland rainforests to dry leeward plains, and he hoped to do the same in North Kohala.
He sought the advice of Michael O’Shaughnessy, a noted civil and hydraulic engineer, who spent a year surveying the land, gulches and streams there.
O’Shaughnessy determined that because of the rough terrain and unstable soil conditions, machinery couldn’t be used to build an irrigation system.
Manual labor would be required, and the cost would be high — $695,000 ($120 million in today’s money).
Undaunted, Hind decided to proceed. He convinced Sam Parker, the grandson of John Parker (founder of Parker Ranch), to contribute about half of the funding for the project. Hind and a few other entrepreneurs came up with the rest.
They retained O’Shaughnessy to design and oversee the construction of the Kohala Ditch, hired 600 workers from Japan at wages of between 75 cents and $1.50 per day, and purchased about 100 mules to carry supplies and equipment up the steep trails. Construction began in late 1904.
The men used dynamite, picks, shovels, hoes, chisels and their bare hands to painstakingly dig through the mountains.
They lined tunnel walls with hand-cut rocks, stabilized the ceilings with concrete, and built 19 5-foot-wide, 4-foot-deep flumes made of redwood and concrete over ravines.
It was arduous, dangerous work, and over the 18-month course of construction, 17 laborers died. When the Kohala Ditch was completed, it stretched 23 miles, including seven miles of open ditch and 57 tunnels totaling 16 miles.
Dedicated in June 1906, it was hailed as an engineering marvel that kept the sugar industry alive in North Kohala for 70 more years.
Only 14.5 miles of the original system are now being used.
Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi is a Honolulu-based freelance writer whose travel features for the Star-Advertiser have won multiple Society of American Travel Writers awards.