Honolulu’s public water system is one of the oldest, if not the oldest, under the American flag west of the Mississippi River. The first unit, installed, paid for and operated by the government, was in service on March 31, 1848. (Nellist)
At that time, whale products were in high demand; whale oil was used for heating, lamps and in industrial machinery; whale bone was used in corsets, skirt hoops, umbrellas and buggy whips. Rich whaling waters were discovered near Japan and soon hundreds of ships headed for the area.
The central location of the Hawaiian Islands between America and Japan brought many whaling ships to the Islands. Whalers needed food and the islands supplied this need from its fertile lands. Another thing the early whalers wanted was water.
The first ships to visit Honolulu obtained their fresh water by sending small boats with casks up Nuʻuanu stream above the salt water tidal area.
With the threat of competition from California and Mexico, it is quite clear that it was a desire to serve and hold the trade of the whaling ships that caused Honolulu to initiate its water system. (Nellist)
Then, in 1848, in his annual report to King Kamehameha III and the Legislature of Hawaii, Keoni Ana (John Young), Minister of the Interior, made this notation:
“A water tank, for the convenience of the shipping (New England whaling ships,) is placed in the basement story of the new Master and Pilots’ Office, near the wharf (Nuʻuanu Street.) And it was supplied through a leaden pipe from a reservoir at ‘Pelekane’ …” (Schmitt)
After the completion of the Bates Street reservoir in 1851, nearby businesses and homes were connected with the main. The system was further expanded in 1860-1861, eventually covering most of the city. (Schmitt)
Over the years, the fledgling water system expanded. Then, on April 29, 1925, Governor Wallace Rider Farrington formed and appointed members to the original Honolulu Sewer and Water Commission.
Their first meeting was held May 14, 1925 and the organization was completed on July 1 with the appointment of Frederick C Ohrt as Chief Engineer (Ohrt resigned from Libby, McNeill & Libby to take the position.) (Nellist)
In his report to the Commission, Chief Engineer Ohrt added this observation: “… the first duty of whomever may be held responsible for correct solution of the water problem is to insist upon an aggressive policy of conservation and reasonable use of Honolulu’s most valuable resource. Most valuable, because the measure of value is necessity; and the growth of every city is rigidly conditioned by its water supply.”
Then, on July 1, 1929, Governor Farrington appointed members to the first Board of Water Supply (BWS;) they immediately appointed Ohrt Manager and Chief Engineer.
Ohrt established the principle that the construction necessary to support a utility need not spoil the landscape. Many examples of this can still be found around Oahu such as the pumping stations, which were designed by the respected architect CW Dickey. (Engineers & Architects of Hawaiʻi)
The semi-autonomous Board of Water Supply (BWS,) under the administration of Frederick Ohrt, had been established in 1930 to replace the mismanaged and scandal-ridden City Waterworks Department, which had brought the city to the verge of a water shortage.
Flush with federal funds flowing from the Works Projects Administration (WPA) during the Great Depression, the Board assigned four projects to architect Hart Wood during the period 1933-1936. (Historic Hawaiʻi)
Some of these lasting legacies under Ohrt’s leadership include the Pacific Heights Reservoir (1933,) the Makiki–Mānoa Pumping Station (1935,) the Kalihi Uka Pumping Station (1935) and the Nuʻuanu Aerator (1936, its purpose was to purify surface waters drawn from Nuʻuanu stream.)
Perhaps the crowning achievement of Board of Water Supply designs is the Administration Building fronting Beretania Street. Wood began the design of this project in 1947 and completed the design by about 1951, but the building was not completed until after 1952 (the year Frederick Ohrt retired from the Board of Water Supply.) (Historic Hawaiʻi)
One of the early facilities of the fledgling Water Department (before Ohrt’s involvement there) was the Kalihi Pumping Station, on the corner of Waiakamilo and North King Street.
The initial building was constructed in 1899 (it has since been replaced.) The pump in the plant was an EP Allis Vertical Triple Expansion Triplex Single Acting Pump.
There are three wells at Kalihi Pumping Station. Two of these wells were bored in 1899 and the third in 1900. The wells are cased with steel casing 3/8” thick. These wells are of 12” bore. (Hawaiʻi Dept. of Public Works, 1913)
It is now home to the Water Department’s Fred Ohrt Water Museum, named in honor of BWS’s first Manager and Chief Engineer. The museum is located at the Kalihi Pumping Station, 1381 North King Street.
Tours their include an introduction to our island’s water cycle, discussion on water conservation, and walking tour of the museum showcasing “The Old Man of Kalihi”, the original 1899 steam pump, and history of the BWS.
The Honolulu BWS is the largest municipal water utility in the state, serving one-million customers on O‘ahu with 55-billion gallons of water every year, which includes 95-active drinking water facilities, 166-storage tanks and more than 2,000-miles of pipeline servicing nearly every community on O‘ahu.
Another Wood design was Fred Ohrt’s residence on Pali Highway. In 1987, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places as representative of the Tudor–French Norman Cottages Thematic Group of homes in Honolulu (between Hānaiakamālama (Queen Emma Summer Palace) and Oʻahu Country Club; on the golf course side of the highway.)