As a result of the 1902 Arthur S Tuttle report commissioned by the Bishop Estate to study the feasibility of bringing water to the Hāmākua area, two major ditches were proposed – the Upper Ditch and the Lower Ditch.
“The object of the Hawaiian Irrigation Company, Limited, is in brief, the supplying of mountain water, by means of one upper and one lower irrigation canal, from the large watershed and permanent streams of the Kohala mountains, Hawaii …”
“… to the sugar estates in the Hāmākua district, where a large area, which is capable of considerable extension, is now under cultivation.” (Hawaiian Star, July 2, 1910)
The Hawaii Irrigation Company was originally known as the Hāmākua Ditch Company, Ltd., which was incorporated on February 9, 1904. Among the local bond subscribers were FA Schaefer & Co, Honokaa Sugar Co, Pacific Sugar Mill, Allen & Robinson, H Hackfeld, Mr Ahrens and Mr Jorgensen.
Sometime between August 1908 and April 1909, the Hāmākua Ditch Company changed its name to Hawaiian Irrigation Company, Ltd.
“Efforts to obtain water on a large scale for the ‘dry’ Hāmākua section of Hawaii had begun, however, prior to the active association of Mr. McCrosson with the projects. In 1884 Claus Spreckels, WG Irwin, HP Baldwin and others had surveys made and did considerable preliminary work, but the scheme was abandoned owing to the decision of Mr. Baldwin to concentrate his energies and capital upon the island of Maui.”
“In 1892 LA Thurston, then minister of the interior, made an official survey of the country (with a view to devising a scheme for taking water into Hamakua.) These several surveys formed the basis of Mr McCrosson’s later operations and the survey basis of the three great systems as they appear today.” (Hawaiian Star, July 2, 1910)
Water sources for the Upper Hāmākua Ditch were the Kawainui and the Alakahi streams, as well as general runoff from the watershed into the ditch; construction apparently commenced in April 1906. The Ditch was completed in January of 1907 and was initially able to deliver 15 MGD (million gallons per day.)
John T McCrosson oversaw the construction of the ditch. The Upper Ditch was approximately 23-miles in length and some 15 miles of it ran through Honokaa Sugar Co. and Pacific Sugar Mill land. Originally the Upper Ditch consisted of dirt ditches and galvanized flumes patched with lumber.
The Lower Ditch construction began in June 1907 (water sources were the Kawainui, Alakahi, Koeawi, and later, the Waimea streams,) but serious construction work did not start until September 1908. The ditch was opened on July 1, 1910 with a delivery of 30 MGD.
It was the occasion of two days of banquets, speeches and merry-making … “According to rumors aboard the Mauna Kea, the Hamakua Ditch opening on Friday will be the scene of an immense gathering, if the weather be favorable. It is understood that the entire population of the district will foregather there…” (Hawaiian Star, June 30, 1910)
The original length of the Lower Ditch was approximately 24 miles. Later on it was extended about 5 miles to supply water to Pauʻuilo Plantation.
“(F)rom the water head to the exit from Waipio Valley a distance of nearly nine miles, the ‘ditch’ is no ditch at all but a continuous tunnel with only three breaks where it comes out of the face of the bluff to span a narrow gorge and plunge into the face of the opposite precipice once more to bury itself in the lava depths …”
“… and that there are as yet unused possibilities for the incidental development of 8000 horsepower which can be distributed as electric energy all over the Island of Hawaii, give some conception of what the Great Ditch means.” (Hawaiian Gazette, July 5, 1910)
Japanese laborers built the ditch tunnels, the tunnel of the Lower Ditch, traveling the 8.9-miles from the Kawainui intake to the weir at Kukuihaele, was one of the longest in Hawai‘i. It was further distinguished by being quite large, approximately 10 X 12 feet in diameter. In 1920, another tunnel was constructed through Lalakea Gulch.
Apparently, three people were killed as a result of the building of the ditch. In July 1909, an engineer, Thomas F Kelly, drowned (with his horse) in Waipi`o Valley as he was returning from Kukuihaele with supplies.
A month later, a Japanese laborer was “pinned down by a large rock falling on him; he died shortly after the accident.” There is mention of a third, a Japanese workman, who, during the cutting of a trail across the face of the pali, was struck by a falling rock, “and he tumbled to death hundreds of feet below.” (EnvHawaii)
Due to various disputes , by February of 1915, Hawaiian Irrigation Co. was taken over by new management (essentially that of Honokaa Sugar Co.)
The company became involved in the growing and selling of rice. A rice mill was operated and became a source of revenue. There were also a few small independent poi factories located in the valley. The records also reflect other attempts regarding diversified agriculture in the valley.
In 1960, Honokaa Sugar Co. bought the remaining outstanding shares of the Hawaiian Irrigation Company, making Hawaiian Irrigation Company a wholly owned subsidiary of that firm.
For half a century it was the sole source for potable water for the communities along its path. The Hāmākua Ditch is woven into the history and culture of the local communities beyond its length. The ditch continues to serve the needs of the Hāmākua community.
The demise of the sugar industry, including the closure of Hāmākua Sugar in 1994, left a void in communities on the Big Island and throughout the state. At that time, the community expressed a strong desire to retain an agricultural lifestyle, which helped define the character of the community.
A movement toward growing a diversified agricultural community began with an eye on the highly desirable lower elevation lands. The Hāmākua Ditch remained a critical and important piece in this vision.
The Hamakua Ditch Work Group (comprised of local farmers and ranchers, representatives from the Hāmākua Farm Bureau and Hāmākua/North Hilo Cooperative, USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service, State Department of Agriculture, State Legislators and Kamehameha Schools) formed shortly after the 1994 closing of the plantation and has focused on maintenance and preservation of the Hāmākua Ditch system. (Takamine)
“John T McCrosson, the builder of the Hāmākua ditch, was born In Delaware, and arrived in the Islands first in March, 1880, going to Kohala plantation, where he had charge of theo traction engines. Remained there and at other plantations until 1885, when he went to San Francisco and engaged in the machinery business.”
“While at Kohala, Mr McCrosson studied deeply into the water problem of that rich country, and worked out during the years at San Francisco the great systems which are now under way there.”
“He returned to the Islands in 1895 and, with the exception of business visits to Washington, London, and other cities, has been here ever since. The Kohala ditch was the first planned and carried out by Mr. McCrosson.”
“This was completed June 11, 1906, and was the occasion of a monster ‘celebration’ in which almost the whole Island of Hawaii joined.” (Hawaiian Star, July 2, 1910) (Lots of information here is from HSPA, EnvHawaii and Takamine.)