The coastal road from Honolulu Harbor to Waikīkī, formerly called the “Beach Road” and renamed “Ala Moana” in 1899, hugged the shoreline with extensive reefs out into the ocean; mauka of the road were wetlands and aquaculture with fishponds, kalo (taro) and, later, rice.
This stretch of coastline was described by missionary Hiram Bingham, as he stood atop “Punchbowl Hill” looking toward Waikīkī to the south, as the “plain of Honolulu” with its “fishponds and salt making pools along the seashore”. (Bingham)
Another visitor to Honolulu in the 1820s, Capt. Jacobus Boelen, gives similar insight to the possible pre-contact character of the area: “It would be difficult to say much about Honoruru (Honolulu.) On its southern side is the harbor or the basin of that name.”
“The landlocked side in the northwest consists mostly of tarro (kalo, taro) fields. … From the north toward the east, where the beach forms the bight of Whytetee (Waikīkī,) the soil around the village is less fertile, or at least not greatly cultivated.” (Cultural Surveys)
At the beginning of the twentieth-century, this stretch of coast makai of Ala Moana Boulevard was the site of the Honolulu garbage dump, which burned almost continually. The residue from burned rubbish was used to reclaim neighboring wetlands (which later were more commonly referred to as “swamp lands.”)
After the turn of the century and over the next several decades, channels and basins were dredged in the fringing reefs to obtain fill material, for navigation, for small craft harbors and for swimming and sea bathing.
“Nature, situation and human circumstance fix world-wide prominence and importance on certain strategic points in commerce, navigation and defense. Human events have moved slowly, but are becoming intensely accelerated, and it would seem Honolulu is now beginning to fulfil her destiny.” So said Mr. LE Pinkham, President of the Board of Health in 1906.
With his report, he recommended filling in the wetlands from downtown Honolulu to Waikīkī and noted, “To install an adequate sewer system and proper surface drainage … (the area) under consideration, requires to be raised to a grade ranging from five to seven feet above sea level. Neither the hills mauka nor the beach can physically or economically furnish the material.”
Shortly thereafter (1912,) the Sanitary Commission in its report to Governor Frear noted, “The low lands along the sea front of six miles are largely swamps. Wherever profitable they are used for wet agriculture, and the area of wet land has been enlarged until it is difficult now to distinguish between them, nor can the source of water in the swamps be determined except by survey; much of it is water from irrigation. The total area of wet land is 36 per cent, of the land below the foothills.”
Like Pinkham, the Sanitary Commission stated, “It is obvious that all swamps and low lands which may become swamps should be filled or otherwise reclaimed, in order that their ever-present menace to health shall be entirely and finally removed.” This led to a variety of projects that changed the look, nature and use of the region.
The first efforts were concentrated at Kakaʻako – it was then more generally referred to as “Kewalo.” The Kewalo Reclamation District included the area bounded by South Street, King Street, Ward Avenue and Ala Moana Boulevard.
In 1899, the first traditional Japanese sailing vessel, called a sampan, came to Hawai‘i. The Japanese technique of catching tuna with pole-and-line and live bait resembled the aku fishing method traditionally used by Hawaiians. The pole-and-line vessels mainly targeted skipjack tuna (aku.)
Initially, most sampans docked in Honolulu Harbor. In the 1920s, Kewalo Basin was constructed and by the 1930s was the main berthing area for the sampan fleet and also the site of the tuna cannery, fish auction, shipyard, ice plant, fuel dock and other shore-side facilities.
Later in the 1920s, a channel parallel to the coast was dredged through the coral reef to connect Kewalo Basin and Ala Wai Boat Harbor, so boats could travel between the two. Part of the dredge material helped to reclaim swampland on the ʻEwa end of Waikīki that was filled in with dredged coral.
The City and County of Honolulu started cleaning up the Ala Moana area in 1931. Using funds from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal Project a city park was created – filling in the swamp and garbage dump with coral rubble, topping it with sand. President Roosevelt participated in the dedication of the new 76-acre “Moana Park” in 1934 (it was later renamed Ala Moana Park in 1947.)
In 1944 the Territorial Department of Public Works proposed that an airport for private flying be created by a combined coral dredging and fill project on the reef between downtown Honolulu and the Waikīkī section of the city. A Master Plan for Ala Moana Airport was approved by the federal agencies as part of the 1947 National Airport Plan. The runway was to be located makai of Ala Moana Park on the fringing reef and consist of a single runway 3,000 feet by 75 feet.
In the mid-1950s, reef rubble was dredged to fill in the old navigation channel (between Kewalo and the Ala Wai); it was topped with sand brought from Keawaʻula Beach (Yokohama Beach (locally known as ‘Pray for Sex’)) in Waianae. At the same time, a new swimming channel was dredged parallel to the new beach, extending about 400-feet offshore.
In 1958, a 20-page booklet was sent to Congress to encourage them to turn back Ala Moana Reef to the Territory of Hawaiʻi for the construction of a “Magic Island.” Local businessmen and firms paid half the cost and the Territory paid half, through the Economic Planning & Coordination Authority. (Honolulu Record, February 13, 1958)
The booklet put forth the argument that “Tourist development is our most important immediate potential for economic expansion,” and displays pictures of the crowded Waikīkī area to show the lack of room for expansion. Then it directs the reader’s attention to land that can be reclaimed from the sea by utilizing reefs, especially the 300-acre area of Ala Moana reef. (Honolulu Record, February 13, 1958)
With statehood (1959,) some considered the makai-most portion of filled-in area of Kakaʻako peninsula for the location for a new State capitol. They settled on the present location, mauka of ʻIolani Palace.
In the early 1960s, substantial changes were made from the more extensive original plan for the Ala Moana reef; rather than multiple islands for several resort hotels built on the reef flat off of Ala Moana Park, a 30-acre peninsula, with “inner” and “outer” beaches for protected swimming, was constructed adjoining the Ala Wai Small Boat Harbor and Ala Wai Canal outlet.
The Magic Island peninsula was converted into a public park. In 1972 the State officially renamed Magic Island to ‘Āina Moana, or “land [from the] sea,” to recognize that the park is made from dredged coral fill. The peninsula was turned over the city in a land exchange and is formally known as the ‘Āina Moana Section of Ala Moana Beach Park, but local residents still call it Magic Island.