Herbert Murayama wrote recently to ask whether anyone knew the origin story of Sand Island.
“It used to be called Quarantine Island before World War II,” Murayama says. “People would come into Honolulu by ship from overseas. Anyone who was sick was transferred to the Quarantine Station to get well before they were allowed into the city.
“But there’s no record of when the name of the island was changed to Sand Island or who picked the name. So I’m wondering if anyone knows when, why and how they came up with the name.”
I didn’t know, either, so I thought I’d put it in my rearview mirror and see what I could learn. What I found is that it’s had many names, and there was even a naming contest in 1965 that generated over 500 entries. One was selected by the governor’s office, but the Legislature declined to act on it. Here’s some of its history.
What we call Sand Island today has evolved tremendously over the last 200 years from two small, muddy islets comprising less than 15 acres at high tide to one large island that’s over 500 acres today.
Sediment from Nuuanu and Kalihi streams built up on Kaholaloa Reef over the centuries, while their fresh water cut channels in the reef.
Over time this created the Honolulu Harbor we know today: a place of protection for ships as well as a way in from the ocean.
In ancient times fishermen could walk across the mud flats, relax and eat their lunch on the dry islet called Kamokuakulikuli (the akulikuli plant island).
In 1840 King Kamehameha III granted William Sumner “and his Sandwich Island born heirs forever” a land grant to the islets and surrounding fishery. Locals called it Sumner’s Island.
By 1869 the government saw a need to segregate sailors and immigrants who were sick, and a station was built on one of the islets. It was called Quarantine Island or Mauliola (a god of health).
The Marine Hospital Service built a facility in this isolated but convenient spot. After annexation in 1898, the U.S Public Health Service took over the 28-acre island.
Ruth James Lord of Kaimuki spent her childhood and teen years on Quarantine Island. Her father, Dr. William James, was a medical officer there from 1903 to 1928. He examined many of the immigrants and sailors coming to Hawaii in that period.
“It was our home … a Shangri-La,” she said in a 1965 interview. “It was a beautiful, peaceful paradise, the most interesting place in the Islands.”
She and her brothers shared the island with the immigrants, who typically stayed one to two weeks until her father could see they were not sick.
The Army Corps of Engineers expanded the harbor over time and deepened it so larger vessels could enter. The sand and coral dredgings expanded the island, and by 1906 officials began referring to it as Sand Island for the first time.
In the early 1920s the wharves on the Kalihi side of the harbor were created to handle the anticipated 150,000 tons of fresh pineapple soon to be shipped from Lanai and Molokai.
By 1924 Quarantine and Sand Island had been joined with sand and coral dredgings from wharf development, and the one entity was called Sand Island.
Coconut trees were planted on the previously barren island by Boy Scouts and other children to beautify the first scene that tourists saw when entering the harbor. They would lend a tropical aspect to the harbor and make tourists fully aware they had entered Honolulu and not the Sahara desert, botanist Gerrit Wilder said.
In 1926 the old lighthouse on Sand Island was taken down and replaced with a higher and stronger, 5,000-candlepower light that would be visible from 19 miles away, from Diamond Head to Barbers Point.
The new lighthouse was 184 feet high, making it the tallest building in Hawaii. Various names were considered, but the harbormaster, Capt. William Foster, suggested it be called Aloha Tower.
The old lighthouse had served on the Diamond Head/harbor side of Sand Island since 1870.
“The present light on Sand Island is often confused with the hundreds of lights of the city behind it,” said Ralph Tinkham of the U.S. Lighthouse Service.
Development of seaplane landing strips cut off the western end of Sand Island in the late 1930s, and its shape has been pretty much set since then.
During World War II the military used the island to hold thousands of Italian and Japanese prisoners of war. It also held about 450 local Japanese internees, many of whom were American citizens.
The Army used Sand Island to supply food and vital war materials to troops in the Pacific. An average of over 15,000 metric tons of cargo passed through the harbor every day, making it one of the busiest ports in the world.
During the war the military doubled the size of the island and built Sand Island Access Road in 1943. After the war the Army returned the area to the state, but most goods coming into Honolulu now pass through Sand Island’s container facilities.
In 1965 the Honolulu Star-Bulletin and state of Hawaii co-sponsored a contest to come up with a better name than Sand Island. The Star-Bulletin wanted something Honolulu could be proud of, something more elegant than “sand.”
The Star-Bulletin pointed out that Roy Fitzgerald was a more successful actor under the name Rock Hudson and Ethel Gumm did better with the name Judy Garland. Couldn’t Sand Island benefit from a similar face-lift?
Over 500 suggestions came in. Some of the entries:
>> Aloha Island
>> Brotherhood Island
>> Crossroad Island
>> Dream Island
>> Everybody’s Island
>> Enchanted Island
>> Guava Isle
>> Peace Island
Christine and Frank Castro suggested Rainbow Island, and it was the winner of a $25 savings bond. Gov. John Burns said the name signified joy, hope and prosperity.
The Star-Bulletin pointed out that Mark Twain, in “Roughing it,” wondered why Capt. Cook didn’t suggest Rainbow Island instead of Sandwich Islands. “These charming spectacles are present to you at every turn; they are common to all the islands; and visible every day.”
So Rainbow Island was selected. The Legislature debated and decided not to act. The bill would have created a formal ceremony led by Burns.
House floor leader Fred Rohlfing asked, “Why should we give the governor a buildup? If it hadn’t been for that, the name change might have slipped through.”
Sand Island State Park
In the 1970s the state contributed $6 million to build a 180-acre park. The Save Our Surf Foundation led hundreds of volunteers in cleaning up the island and developing Sand Island State Park.
Development of the park, the Star-Bulletin said, is “transforming an area of junk, kiawe brush, World War II relics and squatter’s shacks into a scenic and recreational area within view of modern Honolulu.”
So that’s what I learned, Mr. Murayama. I never found out who suggested the Sand Island name, but, as you can see, there’s a lot to the story of what became of a few islets on a Honolulu Harbor reef.
Bob Sigall’s “The Companies We Keep 5” book contains stories from the last three years of Rearview Mirror. “The Companies We Keep 1 and 2” are also back in print. Email Sigall at Sigall@yahoo.com.