History of ‘Aiea
Ke awa lau o Pu‘uloa (The Many Harbors of Pu‘uloa)
The coastal zone of ‘Aiea is part of Keawalau-o-Pu‘uloa, “the many harbored-sea of Pu‘uloa”, or known today as Pearl Harbor. Pu‘uloa means “long hill” and it specifically refers to “the rounded area projecting into the sea at the long narrow entrance of the harbor”.
Early 19th century visitors often referred to Pu‘uloa as the “Pearl” or the “Pearl River” in reference to the pearl oysters which were so abundant there. Another Hawaiian reference to the area is Awawa Lei or “garland of harbors.”
It is said that its English name came from the name Waimomi, or “water of the pearl,” an alternate name for the Pearl River (Pearl Harbor). The harbor was named Pearl Harbor after the pearl oysters which were once abundant on the harbor reefs, but were later decimated by over-harvesting. This oyster was supposedly brought from Kahiki, the Hawaiian ancestral lands, by a mo‘o (lizard or water spirit) named Kanekua‘ana.
Kanekua‘ana was the kia‘i (food guardian) for ‘Ewa. When food was scarce, the descendants of Kua‘ana built waihau heiau (a heiau for mo‘o) for her and lit fires to plead for her blessings. For ‘Ewa the main i‘a (marine food) blessing was the famous pipi, or pearl oyster.
The pipi, was sometimes called “the silent fish,” or, i‘a hamau leo o ‘Ewa, ‘Ewa’s silent sea creature, since the collectors were supposed to stay quiet while harvesting the shells.
In Hawaiian lore, Pu‘uloa is where humans are said to have landed first on the island of O‘ahu. Pu‘uloa is also the home of the shark goddess, Ka‘ahupahau, who is said to live in an underwater cave at the entrance to Pu‘uloa Harbor.
Pohaku o Ki‘i (Stone of Ki‘i)
According to kumu John Ka‘imikaua, the mo‘olelo of Pohaku o Ki‘i tells of a beautiful woman of chiefly rank named La‘a, who fell in love with a handsome commoner named Ki‘i. Her father, a high chief, forbade the marriage, but would relent if Ki‘i could fulfill his wish.
The high chief instructed Ki‘i to go into the Ko‘olau mountains and make a lei from the rare white lehua blossoms. If he returned before sunrise on the third day with the lei he could marry La‘a. Ki‘i gathered the lehua blossoms and rushed down to the high chief’s home near a sacred bathing pond on the third day.
He was within sight of the pond when the first rays of the sun rose over the Ko‘olau mountains. He was turned to stone just above the pond, Pohaku o Ki‘i.
La‘a never married. She became the mo‘o wahine (demigoddess) of the pond, which was named Waiola‘a, or the waters of La‘a. She would pull down and drown any commoner who swam in the waters — only male chiefs could use the sacred pond, including Kakuhihewa and Kuali‘i, as well as the god Kamapua‘a.
The last chief to bathe here was David Kalakaua while on his way to Honouliuli. Two palms were planted in historic times to mark the sacred pond, which now mark the entrance to the post office in ‘Aiea.
The ‘Ewa Moku
Archaeological and traditional sources suggest that the whole moku of ‘Ewa, including ‘Aiea, was prosperous, productive and heavily populated. ‘Ewa is depicted as an abundant and populated land where chiefs of distinguished lineages were born and resided.
The land was fertile and well-fed by mountain streams that helped sustain the agricultural lifestyle needed to support the chiefs, their households and their people.
In fact, six of the twelve ahupua‘a names in ‘Ewa begin with wai, the Hawaiian word for water (Waikele, Waipi‘o, Waiawa, Waimano, Waiau, and Waimalu).
An early description of the agricultural area of ‘Aiea states:
…The adjoining low country is overflowed both naturally and by artificial means, and is well stocked with tarrow plantations, bananas, etc. The land belongs to many different proprietors; and on every estate there is a fish-pond surrounded by a stone wall…The neighborhood of the Pearl River is very extensive, rising backwards with a gentle slope toward the woods, but is without cultivation, except around the outskirts to about half a mile from the water. The country is divided into separate farms or allotments belonging to the chiefs, and enclosed with walls from 4 to 6 feet high, made of a mixture of mud and stone.
Fishponds were more numerous along the shore of Pu‘uloa than any other location on O‘ahu. Most of these ponds have since been destroyed.
‘Ewa was also known for a special and tasty variety of kalo (taro) called kai which was native to the district. There were four documented varieties; the kai ‘ula‘ula (red kai), kai koi (kai that pierces), kai kea or kai ke‘oke‘o (white kai), and kai uliuli (dark kai).
A kama‘aina (native) of ‘Ewa described the kai kea as being very fragrant. The kai ke‘oke‘o made an exceptionally good poi and was said to be reserved for the ali‘i (chiefs). An 1899 newspaper account says of the kai koi, “That is the taro that visitors gnaw on and find it so good that they want to live until they die in ‘Ewa. The poi of kai koi is so delicious”. So famous was the kai variety that ‘Ewa was sometimes affectionately called Kai o ‘Ewa.
Photo: Honolulu Plantation, ‘Aiea, Oahu – Williams, J. J. (c1915) via Hawaii State Archives Digital Collections
1821 Subsistence Farming
Prior to the entrenchment of sugar plantations in ‘Aiea, the area is described as belonging to many different people and being filled with taro and banana plantations along with a fish pond.
1887 Navy Leases Pearl Harbor
On January 20, 1887, the United States Senate allows the Navy to lease Pearl Harbor as a naval base. In 1908, the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard is established.
1899 ‘Aiea Sugar Mill Built
The Honolulu Sugar Company builds a sugar mill in ‘Aiea. It becomes the Honolulu Plantation Company in 1900 and has an active refinery in operation next to the mill by 1905.
1920 Sugar Production Peaks
By the mid-1930s, the Honolulu Plantation Company has more than 23,000 acres of land leased in and around ‘Aiea. Sugar cane planting also extends seaward and a sugar plantation community develops at Pu’uloa Camp.
1941 Attack on Pearl Harbor
Overall, nine ships of the U.S. fleet are sunk and 21 ships are severely damaged. The death toll reaches 2,350, including 68 civilians, and 1,178 injured.
1946 The Great Hawai‘i Sugar Strike
Under the leadership of the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU) about 26,000 sugar workers and their families, 76,000 people in all, hold a 79-day strike that completely shuts down 33 of the 34 sugar plantations in the islands.
1947 Honolulu Plantation Co. Shuts Down
Plantation operations end after the company loses a significant portion of their prime sugar cane fields to military operations, roads, and commercial and housing developments.
1960’s Residential & Industrial Re-zoning
Oahu Sugar Company continues production through the 1950s and early 1960s. Lower portions of agricultural land are re-zoned for residential housing and industrial use, allowing for fee-simple purchase.
1962 Kamehameha Drive-In Opens
The single-screen Kamehameha Drive-In opens on January 30, 1962 with Doris Day in “Lover Come Back”. The drive-in is later “twinned” in the 70’s.
Late 1960’s H-1 Interstate Construction
As a result of the 1960 Statehood Act, the H-1 Interstate is authorized. When completed the freeway splits ‘Aiea in half.
1972 Pearlridge Center Opens
While developers extend the town into the former sugarcane fields, the state’s second largest shopping center opens. It is expanded in 1976.
1996 Sugar Refinery Closes
Operations at the refinery end after nearly 100 years. The mill is demolished two years later.
1998 Kamehameha Drive-In Closes
The drive-in’s two large screens are demolished in 2001, however the swap meet continues to operate, as it has for over three decades.