Kohala Ditch

by Veronica S. Schweitzer

The crystalline sound of cups resonates through the rugged mountains of North Kohala. Japanese ditch-men are drinking their sake, after a grueling day of work. The year is 1905. After 18 months, and the loss of 17 lives, the engineering miracle of 22 miles of flumes and tunnels will soon make sleepy Hawi into a prosperous sugar plantation town.

Twenty-seven years earlier, Reverend Elias Bond had written the following letter: "So this was the 'Missionary Plantation', and the prophecies were many and loud that it would not live five years". But in the goodness of God we came through." Bond, once a New England hat maker and merchant, founded the Kohala Sugar Company in 1863. It was his heroic attempt to provide employment for a congregation that was leaving in large numbers for more promising futures.

From the start, the history of Kohala's sugar plantation reveals an unequaled richness in ingenuity, achievement, and technical mastery. A man, named John Hind, first conceived of an irrigation system tapping into the abundant, wild, and inaccessible rivers that ribbon the Kohala mountains. His ideas, although met with skepticism, were to evolve in the year 1904, the engineering feat that is now known as the Kohala Ditch.

The plan for the ditch, which transmitted an average of 27 gallons of water per day for sugar cane irrigation, came from no one else than the famous hydraulic engineer M. M. O'Shaughnessy, who is also responsible for the Hetch-Hetchety project in the Sierra Nevada mountains.

In June 1906, the formal ditch opening released the fertile waters into the dry sugar fields of Kohala. 17 People had died, on wages varying between 75 cents per day to $1.50 per day.

Prosperity came to Kohala. At the peak of its production, the Sugar Company counted 600 employees, 13,000 acres of land, and produced 45,000 tons of raw sugar a year. The five sugar mills, which consolidated in 1937, generated their own electricity. There was a single telephone line along the ditch trail, to enable necessary communication. The isolated farms, because of the never-ceasing flow of water, even used conventional toilets. A railway steam-train hauled the cane to the Mahukona harbor.

But then the inevitable news came: in 1971 Castle & Cooke announced the closure of the Sugar Company. Over 500 employees were threatened with immediate unemployment. Most of them had no other education than the intricate cultivation of sugar cane. With a small population of 3000, Kohala's reason for existence had ceased to be, and the quaint towns of Hawi and Kapaau, were threatened to become ghost towns with a forgotten past. In 1975 the last sugar was harvested.

Thanks to State and County funds economic transitions were made available.

Today, in 1995, Kohala, with 4400 inhabitants, flourishes once again, and treasures its magnificent history. Hawi and Kapaau have survived, while maintaining the voices of the past. Some of its finest homes and buildings date back to the plantation years. The ditch still provides water to Kohala.

Porcelain sake cups are still singing in the silence of the night, for those who dare to listen.

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Story appeared originally in Coffee Times print magazine and appears online for archival purposes only. Any use or reprinting of these stories without the expressed written consent of the author is prohibited.