Ka‘ākaukukui, Kukuluāe‘o and Kewalo were once the ‘ili (sub-sections of ahupuaʻa) that is now generally referred to as “Kakaʻako,” whose shoreline portions became Kakaʻako Makai.
Until fairly recently, Kaka‘ako and the surrounding area were sometimes referred to as something of a wasteland, or empty space, between the better-known locations of Kou (stretching from Nuʻuanu to Alakea Streets and from Hotel Street to the sea and now referred to as Honolulu) and Waikīkī.
Kaka‘ako and surrounding lands remained outside these two intensely populated and cultivated areas on southeastern O‘ahu, yet Hawaiians used Kakaʻako’s lowland marshes, wetlands, salt pans and coral reef flats for salt making and farming of fishponds along with some limited wetland taro agriculture, and this supported habitation sites clustered around the mauka (inland) boundary of the Kaka‘ako area near Queen and King Streets.
Salt ponds near the shore filled with salt water at high tide (ālia) then drained to smaller clay-lined or leaf-lined channels (ho‘oliu) to natural depressions in the rocks along the shore where salt formed naturally (poho kai.)
The land could probably not be used for agriculture as it was impregnated with salt. The abundance of salt led to the Kaka‘ako Salt Works in the late-nineteenth century.
The salt marshes were also excellent places to gather pili grass for the thatching of houses, which may have led to the name Kaka‘ako (prepare the thatching.)
Mo‘olelo point to the coastal marshes as the habitat of the original pueo (owl) that became one of the Hawaiians’ ‘aumākua (deified ancestors.) The mo‘olelo of Kawaiaha‘o follows a trail between Waikīkī and Honolulu to locate two freshwater springs – Kewalo Spring and Kawaiaha‘o (The Waters of Ha‘o,) which highlights its location between the two main population centers.
Kekahuna notes, Kaʻākaukukui was “a beautiful sand beach that formerly extended along Ala Moana Park to Kewalo Basin, a quarter mile long reef extended along the shore.” Kaʻākaukukui means “the right (or north) light,” and it may have previously been a maritime navigation landmark.
Kukuluāe‘o, translates literally as the “Hawaiian stilt (bird)” and means “to walk on stilts.” This helps describe the area as “formerly fronting Kewalo Basin” and “containing marshes, salt ponds and small fishponds,” an environment well suited for this type of bird.
Kewalo (the calling (as an echo)) was once associated with a spring called Kawailumalumai (drowning waters) that was used to sacrifice kauwā, or members of a lowest caste, designed for the heiau of Kānelā‘au on the slopes of Pūowaina (Punchbowl) as the first step in a drowning ritual known as Kānāwai Kaihehe‘e or Ke-kaihe‘ehe‘e (sea sliding along.)
The Kaka‘ako area continued to remain outside Waikīkī and Honolulu during the post-Contact era. It served as a place of the dying and the dead, of isolation and quarantine, of trash and wastelands, and the poor and the immigrant; however, it also represents the birth of modern Waikīkī and Honolulu.
Specifically in this area: victims of the 1853 smallpox epidemic were quarantined in a camp and those that did not survive were buried at Honuakaha Cemetery; Hansen’s Disease patients were treated in the Kaka‘ako Leper Branch Hospital; victims of the 1895 cholera epidemic were treated at the Kaka‘ako Hospital; infected patients of the 1899 bubonic plague were moved to a quarantine camp; animals were quarantined in a station in 1905; and the city’s garbage was burned in an incinerator adjoining Kewalo.
The Kaka‘ako area has been heavily modified over the last 150 years due to historic filling of the area for land reclamation and to accommodate the expanding urbanization of Honolulu. A number of land reclamation projects dredged offshore areas to deepen and create boat harbors, and used the dredged material to fill in the former swampy land.
The original foot path at the edge of the former coastline has been transformed through time to a horse path, then buggy and cart path, and finally to the widened Ala Moana Boulevard.
After the annexation of the Hawaiian Islands by the United States in 1898, the US Congress began to plan for the coastal defenses of their new islands, which included Fort Armstrong on the Ka‘ākaukukui Reef as a station for the storage of underwater mines.
In 1911, the Honolulu Rifle Association, and possibly other groups, used the flat, uninhabited Kaka‘ako land and wetlands near the coast as a rifle range.
Kewalo Basin harbor was formerly a shallow reef that enclosed a deep section of water that had been used as a canoe landing since pre-Contact times and probably was used since the early historic period as an anchorage
Dredging of the Kewalo Channel began in 1924, but by the time the concrete wharf was completed in 1926, the lumber import business had faded, so the harbor was used mainly by commercial fishermen. In 1941, the government dredged and expanded the basin to its current 22 acres. In 1955, workers placed the dredged material along the makai (seaward) side to form an eight-acre land section protected by a revetment – now the Kewalo Basin Park.
As late as 1940, Kaka‘ako’s population numbered more than 5,000-residents. But after World War II, community buildings, wood-frame camp houses, language schools, temples and churches were removed to make way for auto-body repair shops, warehouses and other small industrial businesses.
Few traces of its former residential existence remain. In the early 1950s, rezoning led to the conversion of the primarily residential and small business district into an urban industrial area.
Decades after the transition from residential to industrial, Kaka‘ako is now slated for redevelopment. Plans call for the re-establishment of a mixed residential and business community – although recent development and present plans include several high-rise developments.
It looks like the residential use is destined to return. As noted in a recent Star-Advertiser piece, resident growth in Kakaʻako is expected to more than triple, from 10,400 to 37,300, by 2035; the prediction was based on “the general consensus that Kakaʻako is ripe for development.” (Lots of information here is from reports from Cultural Surveys.)
The image shows Kakaʻako, Downtown and vicinity with an 1887 Map over a present Google Earth image (with 3D buildings.) In addition, I have added other images and maps of this area in a folder of like name in the Photos section on my Facebook page.