The Island of Oʻahu has three of the State’s nine commercial harbors – Kalaeloa Barbers Point, Kewalo Basin and Honolulu Harbor.
Kalaeloa Barbers Point Harbor, on the leeward, westerly side of the island, is in the vicinity of the growing city of Kapolei, while Kewalo Basin and Honolulu Harbor are located on the leeward, south shore, in the only well-sheltered area available for commercial purposes.
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.
In 1899, Gorokichi Nakasugi, a Japanese shipbuilder, brought a traditional Japanese sailing vessel (called a sampan) to Hawai‘i, and this led to a unique class of vessels and distinctive maritime culture associated with the rise of the commercial fishing industry in Hawai‘i.
Japanese-trained shipwrights adapted the original sampan design to the rough waters of the Hawaiian Islands. The fishermen used a traditional live bait, pole-and-line method of fishing and unloaded their catches of aku (bonito, skipjack) and ahi (yellow-fin tuna) at Kewalo Basin. (It’s interesting that the Japanese aku boat fishing closely resembles the traditional Hawaiian technique.)
The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were a time of intense development of the coasts of Honolulu, Kaka‘ako, and Waikīkī.
In 1919, the Hawai‘i Government appropriated funds to improve the small harbor of Kewalo for the aim of “harbor extension, in that it will be made to serve the fishing and other small craft, to the relief of Honolulu harbor proper”.
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. Kaka‘ako became a prime spot for large industrial complexes, such as iron works, lumber yards and draying companies.
Since the area chosen for the harbor was adjacent to several lumber yards, such as the Lewers and Cooke yards, the basin was initially made to provide docking for lumber schooners.
Dredging of the Kewalo Channel began in 1924 (the harbor is approximately 55-acres including ocean acreage;) ; but by the time the wharf was completed in 1926, the lumber import business had faded, so the harbor was used mainly by commercial fishermen.
Half of the bulkhead along the mauka side of Kewalo Basin was built in 1928. The remainder of Kewalo Basin’s mauka bulkhead was constructed in 1934.
During the 1920s (before Ala Moana Park,) a channel was dredged through the coral reef to connecting Kewalo Basin to the Ala Wai Boat Harbor, so boats could travel between the two (later, the channel extended to Fort DeRussy.)
Part of the dredge material helped to reclaim swampland on the ʻEwa end of Waikīki (filled in with the dredged coral.)
Later, when it became a very popular swimming beach, the parallel coastal channel was closed to boat traffic.
The sampan aku fleet relocated to Kewalo Basin by 1930, and the McFarlane Tuna Company (later known as Hawaiian Tuna Packers) built a shipyard there in 1929 and a new tuna cannery at the basin in 1933.
Kewalo Basin’s Waikiki bulkhead was constructed in 1951. 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.