Honolulu's Early Sewage System

Honolulu's sewage system in the early 1900s decreased deaths from water-borne illnesses and raised life expectancy.

In ancient Hawaii, kapu prohibited defecating and urinating in natural water sources, including streams, wetlands, and the ocean. However, when the foreigners arrived in Hawaii in the early 1800s, people stopped following the kapu, and trash and sewage went into cesspools, rivers, the Honolulu Harbor, and the surrounding ocean. Thus, Honolulu reeked of sewage, and the resulting spread of water-borne diseases killed Native Hawaiians at an alarming rate.

The first mention of a sewer in Honolulu showed up in a 1857 news brief in The Pacific Commercial Advertiser:

“Public sewer--We notice the construction of a drain or sewer, the first attempt at anything of the kind here, near the foot of Kaahumanu street. It will no doubt prove a great benefit to business men on Queen street and the public generally, on rainy days.”

However, even after numerous epidemics (smallpox, thyphus, and cholera), Honolulu did not develop a sewage system for the next three decades. Somebody finally suggested constructing one in 1890, which the Board of Health urged for years. In a letter, W. O. Smith, the board's president and attorney general, told the Minister Interior that "While the cost [of building the sewage system] may seem large, it would not equal the cost to the country of two or three epidemics of infectious diseases to say nothing of the loss of life."

In August 1899, the sewage system's construction started, first on Likelike Street (now a side street by the Hawaii State Public Library). Hundreds of mostly Portuguese and Native Hawaiian men dug up dirt and laid pipes in the streets of downtown Honolulu: Hotel, Miller, Alapai, Mission Lane, Kawaihao Lane, Queen, and Mililani.

The sewage system grew from thirty-four miles in 1901 to over fifty miles in 1905. However, the growth of the sewage system could not meet the demands of metropolitan Honolulu's rapid growth for the next fifty years. People still continued to use cesspools, and Honolulu still reeked of sewage. The sewage system would also face issues regarding its poor design and the sewer department's budget deficit.

Read about the development of Honolulu's sewer system in the articles below.

- Alice Kim

Articles from Chronicling America

"The Sewage Disposal: Dr. N. B. Emerson's Views Expressed"
The Pacific commercial advertiser., March 06, 1896, Page 5, Image 5

"The Sewer System" (last column)
The Pacific commercial advertiser., August 04, 1899, Image 1

"Work on Sewers: List of Streets Already Completed"
The Pacific commercial advertiser., August 19, 1899, Page 14, Image 14

"Must Await the Sewer: No Buildings on Plague Spots"
The Pacific commercial advertiser., June 28, 1900, Page 10, Image 10

"Beretania Storm Sewer: Opened and Pound Clogged with Earth"
The Hawaiian star., January 30, 1901, Image 1

"Good Work of Officer Tracy: Through his Efforts the New Aala Sewer Was Installed"
The Pacific commercial advertiser., July 11, 1901, Page 6, Image 6

"Sanitation of City for Month of June: Progress Reported in Sewer Connections and Making Tributaries"
The Honolulu republican., July 11, 1901, Page THREE, Image 3

"The Sewerage System of Honolulu: By Martson Campbell, Assistant Superintendent of Public Works"
The Pacific commercial advertiser., January 01, 1902, Page 17, Image 17

"Kewalo Is Sewered: Ditch Completed and Street Begun"
The Pacific commercial advertiser., August 01, 1902, Page 5, Image 5

"Sanitation Is Better: Tracy Reports on Health of City"
The Pacific commercial advertiser., August 07, 1902, Page 11, Image 11

"Will Make New Rates: Garbage Law Soon to Go Into Effect"
The Pacific commercial advertiser., May 11, 1904, Page 2, Image 2

"Honolulu Sewer System and the Law of Sewers"
The Pacific commercial advertiser., November 04, 1905, Page 6, Image 6

"Water Works and Sewers Accounting"
The Hawaiian star., December 17, 1909, SECOND EDITION, Page THREE, Image 3

"Sewer Defects Cost Honolulu Big Sum--Wall: Civil Engineer Says Thousands Have Been Wasted in Construction of Poor System"
Honolulu star-bulletin., January 14, 1915, 3:30 Edition, Image 1

"Suggests Special Tax to Overcome Sewer Deficit: City Engineer Declares Department Cannot Sustain Itself with Present Rates"
The Hawaiian gazette., April 13, 1915, Page 8, Image 8

"Honolulu's Pressing Problems: Water and Sewer Improvements"
Honolulu star-bulletin., February 10, 1917, 3:30 Edition, SCHOOL GARDEN SECTION, Page FIVE, Image 29