By Liz Nakayama, Special to West Hawaii Today.
For tourists, floating down the Kohala Ditch is a unique Hawaiian eco-tourism experience. But for locals, it has a rich history that connects the past and the present and provides hope for a sustainable future in Kohala. Efforts are now underway to ensure a long-term future operator for the ditch.
When the first North Kohala sugar plantation was founded in1864, there was a struggle to find enough water to grow the thirsty sugarcane. Inconsistent rain and withering trade winds often threatened the very existence of the six plantations operating in Kohala at the turn of the 20th century.
Hawi Plantation was particularly susceptible. Its owner, John Hind, spent years seeking a solution to the problem, finally finding an answer in the inaccessible canyons of Kohala Mountain. In 1904, Hind and his partners, J.T. McCrossan and Parker Ranch owner Sam Parker, incorporated the Kohala Ditch Company and hired the best engineers and surveyors of the day, along with hundreds of skilled laborers from Japan, to build the Kohala Ditch system.
Beginning in January 1905 with a starting budget of $600,000, multiple crews worked 24-hour days for 18 months to build it. Crews hand drilled through solid rock, blasted with dynamite and carved trails sometimes more than a thousand feet up the cliffs in Kohala, while fighting harsh terrain, bone-numbing chill, heavy rain, flooding, landslides and utter isolation in the remote wilderness. Seventeen men lost their lives in the effort.
Completed in June 1906, the system eventually expanded to 16 miles of tunnels, six miles of open ditches and 29 flumes. The irrigation doubled sugarcane production, increasing demand for employees, many who came from all over the world. Some families still on the island are descendants of those who originally came to Kohala to take part in the success brought by the ditch.
Although the last sugar plantation closed in 1975, the Kohala Ditch still supplies vital agricultural water to several dozen users in North Kohala, including a variety of farms, orchards, ranches, one of the largest dairies remaining in the state and even a small hydro-electric facility that sells renewable power to HELCO.
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