Oahu Island/Honolulu Co., Hawai’i
Hawai’i is generally overlooked when folks start looking for ghost towns. Yet due to its interesting history between the mid 19th Century to just before World War II is not only interesting, but quite controversial. Here on paradise in the mid-Pacific, cultures clashed. Because of its strategic location, aggressive American entrepreneurship saw a way to make money and the laid-back island culture didn’t fight back too hard. The deep, rich soil and plentiful sunshine and rain created an agricultural paradise conductive to the raising of big-money crops such as pineapples and sugar - especially sugar cane.
Beginning in the mid-1800s, up through the early 20th Century, sugar plantations with their mills and supporting “company” towns, were scattered all over the islands, each pouring their white gold into the economy. On the island of O’ahu, there are at least nine old plantation towns that I’ve been able to research.
During the timeframe mentioned above, the Hawaiian economy was driven by sugar. As the importance of this white gold grew, many of the smaller operations were squeezed out, and big money interests capitalized and five major companies ended up controlling the industry. Because of their economic power, much of the islands and their laid-back politics also fell under their control. Cheap labor was needed, so over 350,000 workers were brought in from Asia, especially from Japan, the Philippines, China and Korea. The money rolled in, power grew, and in 1893, the Kingdom of Hawai’i was overthrown with aggressive help from the American companies, which owned as much as 75% of the privately-held land in the kingdom. In 1898, Hawai’i became an American Territory and in 1959, the 50th state.
Sugar growing and processing was inefficient and environmentally invasive. Even though growing conditions were generally ideal, the human toll was staggering. It wasn’t dangerous like mining, but was due more to the cramped, near slavery conditions in the plantations. In addition, increasing competition from abroad took an economic toll. Even though production continued full-bore, by the 1930s, eighty years of plantation culture was quickly fading.
Because the island is fairly small, much of the land is used in one form or another, and as a result, physical remnants of the plantation culture are scarce. One site has been preserved at the Hawaiian Plantation Village in Waipahu, just west of Honolulu. At the time of our visit in 2011 we missed it, but the museum has an interesting website that is worth looking at.
In addition to sugar, and due to the strategic location of the archipelago, ever since the islands have become an American territory, the military has had a high presence here, especially during and shortly after World War II. In fact, the US Navy base at Pearl Harbor, and the Army airfield on Ford Island there were attacked by Japanese forces in December 1941, forcing the US into the war.
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We spent our limited exploring time in the back country, exploring a pair of former sugar milling towns and several abandoned military bases. The first site we visited was the Kualoa Sugar Mill, which is located on private land (Kualoa Ranch) along the west side of Kamehameha Highway - SH 83, about 2.5 miles south of Ka’a’awa and just north of Kualoa Regional Park, in the island’s eastern (windward) shore. It is impossible to miss, as the smokestack, roofless walls and tumbled rock piles of the old mill sit only 20 feet or off the highway. The brick and dark stone ruins are just behind an open white fence BUT are posted against trespass. Please abide by the signs and view the ruins from the street side of the fence.
This was the first of the sugar mills on the island, but today is nearly forgotten. It was originally established in 1863 by Charles Hastings Judd, the son of missionary doctor Dr. Gerritt P. Judd, who had arrived in Hawai’i in 1828 and purchased the land here from King Kamehameha in 1850. His partner was and Samuel Wilder. They brought in machinery for their mill from Scotland and built the structures from local lava stone. A few sources wrongfully call it coral, but it is lava.
Sugarcane was planted and production began, but a year later, the Wilder’s son fell into a vat of boiling syrup and was burned so severely he died a few days later. Wilder’s wife couldn’t stay at the site any longer so she moved away shortly afterward. In 1870, Samuel Wilder sold his share in the company back to Mr. Judd and concentrated and prospered due to his efforts on building up railroads and inter-island shipping. However climatic conditions weren’t favorable and a lack of rainfall hampered production of the sugarcane. A year later Judd shut the mill down, but held on to the property. It is still in the family and is now a working cattle ranch and a tourist destination for back country tours to places where television shows and movies were, and still are, filmed.
Extending to the south, to the north side of Kane’ohe Bay, is a large flat area that once played host to a WW II era landing field called Kualoa Air Field. It served as a training field for Bellows Field (now called Bellows Air Force Station), which is located just north of Waimanalo on the southeastern end of the island, about 12 miles east-northeast of Honolulu. Here on the sandy flat, a portable, perforated steel, planking Marsten Mat runway ran 6500’ north-south and was bisected by the highway. Whenever planes would take off or land, vehicle traffic on the road had to be stopped for the planes.
Along the west side of the north end of the runway, open-topped, soil revetments were built to protect the airplanes from any prying enemy eyes off shore. Artillery batteries were built on the nearby hillsides to protect the landing field. The point is backed by a near vertical ridge and the ocean abuts the runway on the other side, so a lot of nervous pilots using this windy, zero-margin for error field were relieved to either be airborne or safely landed. After the war ended, the field closed and the land reverted to the original owners.
The landing field is completely gone, but it was located at what is now Kualoa Regional Park. The south end has been paved and is now a parking lot for the park. North of the highway, the runway is said to be visible, but we didn’t see it, the revetments and bunkers, or the artillery emplacements as that area is part of the private Kualoa Ranch, and there is extensive greenery everywhere. However, just knowing the history of the place made for an enjoyable visit and proved that there are ghost towns in the Aloha State!
· SUGAR MILL RUINS
· Latitude: 21.5224914
· Longitude: -157.8353351
· AIR FIELD
· Latitude: 21.5123106
· Longitude: -157.8370571
This was our featured Ghost Town of the Month for July 2012.
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FIRST POSTED: July 16, 2012
LAST UPDATED: August 17, 2012
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