-A A +A

A public water supply system was not established for Honolulu until 1848. Prior to that time, people dwelling in the area drew water from shallow wells, surface streams, or freshwater springs. For the most part, water quality was poor, and a number of families had water delivered from the country for their domestic use. In 1848 a pipeline was constructed from a small reservoir at Pelekane in Nuuanu Valley to a tank in the Harbor Master and Pilot's Office to provide water to ships in need of replenishing their water supply. A second, four-inch line was laid in 1850 for the same purpose, running from a small masonry reservoir designed by Boston engineer William Brandon, and built on the east side of the Nuuanu stream at the area near Nuuanu Avenue and Bates Street. Drawing waters from King's Spring, it too delivered water to the waterfront. However, many surrounding residences along its course enjoyed the use of these waters by connecting to the pipeline.

The city's water system was expanded in 1860–1861 following plans prepared by William Webster, with a twelve-inch pipe running to town. This system satisfied the needs of Honolulu until the 1880s, when Palama and the arid plain between Alapai and Punahou streets were developed as residential areas. A 750,000-gallon reservoir was constructed in Makiki to help service the new residences built to the east of the city.

Fortunately, at this moment, artesian wells were developed as a reliable source of water for Hawaii. These wells tapped the freshwater basal lens which floats on the saltwater that saturates the Islands' basaltic rock foundation. During the 1880s, the government commissioned five wells, which became the primary source for water as the city expanded. In addition, many private wells were also drilled. By 1889 there were approximately one hundred wells drawing upon Oahu's aquifer, and by 1910, this number had increased to four hundred and thirty.

By 1915, rising concern that the numerous artesian wells were overtaxing the island's groundwater supply led the territorial legislature to mandate the formation of a Territorial Water Commission, and the City and County also established a Honolulu Water Commission to investigate the situation. Both commissions recommended regulating private use of Oahu's groundwaters.

No action was taken on the two commission reports until Honolulu found itself in the midst of a drought which started in May 1923. Within several years following the drought's start, water shortages became commonplace, resulting in household inconvenience and concern for fire safety. In the midst of this major water shortage, the Henry Davis Audit Company discovered in 1925 that city waterworks personnel had embezzled monies and that the department was run in an inefficient manner. As a result, the territorial legislature of 1925 gave the governor the authority to form the five-member Honolulu Sewer and Water Commission, which was directed to oversee and safeguard the watersheds and the basal lens, and insure a permanent and adequate supply of freshwater for Honolulu. The commission hired Fred Ohrt to the position of chief engineer. This commission also constructed three new pumping facilities: one on Beretania Street, another at N. King and Houghtailing streets, and a third at Harding and Kapahulu avenues, and turned these over to the City Water Works Department to operate. They also installed water meters and charged private parties for the use of water, which greatly reduced usage and provided revenues to make the system financially self-sufficient.

In 1929, Carl Grunsky, a highly respected mainland engineer, was commissioned to undertake a study of Honolulu's water situation. He recommended the city's Water Works Department be abolished and an autonomous agency be established to manage the city's water needs, independent of any elected official's control. As a result, the legislature of 1929 passed Act 96, which established the Board of Water Supply, a nonpolitical entity that both constructed and managed the city's water supply. Fred Ohrt was named the director of this new entity.

Ohrt embraced the far-sighted vision of Honolulu architect Hart Wood, who believed utilitarian public utility buildings did not have to be intrusions inflicted on the community. So Ohrt commissioned Wood in 1933 to design a number of Board of Water Supply pumping stations, and over the next twenty years, the two men worked to implement “the policy that beauty need not be sacrificed to utility and that beauty costs no more than ugliness of neglect, save, perhaps, a little more thought and planning.”

During the 1930s, thanks to Works Progress Administration funding, the Board of Water Supply constructed three new pumping stations and an aerator, all of which were designed by Wood, who worked with the landscape firm of Thompson and Thompson to produce graceful utilitarian buildings which still remain small gems within the urban landscape of Honolulu. These include the Pacific Heights Reservoir and Pumping Station 1933 which is situated on a bend approximately two-thirds the way up Pacific Heights Road, the lava-rock Kalihi-Uka Pumping Station 1935 on Kalihi Road, the Makiki Pumping Station 1935 at the intersection of Makiki and Makiki Heights roads, and the Nuuanu Aerator on Old Pali Road with its picturesque lily pond in front of the building. These structures augmented the gardenlike appearance of Honolulu and reminded the public that such an appearance was made possible by the availability of water. Wood designed several more immaculate Board of Water Supply pumping stations during the post–World War era and their administrative office building OA67.

Writing Credits

Don J. Hibbard



Don J. Hibbard, "THE HONOLULU BOARD OF WATER SUPPLY", SAH Archipedia, eds. Gabrielle Esperdy and Karen Kingsley, Charlottesville: UVaP, 2012—,

Print Source

Cover: Buildings of Hawaii

Buildings of Hawaii, Don J. Hibbard. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2011, 120-121.

If SAH Archipedia has been useful to you, please consider supporting it.

SAH Archipedia tells the story of the United States through its buildings, landscapes, and cities. This freely available resource empowers the public with authoritative knowledge that deepens their understanding and appreciation of the built environment. But the Society of Architectural Historians, which created SAH Archipedia with University of Virginia Press, needs your support to maintain the high-caliber research, writing, photography, cartography, editing, design, and programming that make SAH Archipedia a trusted online resource available to all who value the history of place, heritage tourism, and learning.