Message in a bottle
Archaeological surveys being done before Kakaako adds another layer of development have yielded intriguing signs of the area's previous lives
By William Cole
September 15, 2013--Before Kamehameha Schools can build a new high-rise Kakaako, it must dig into its past. Archaeological surveys are required for redevelopment, and trenches dug in what’s known as “Block B” off Keawe Street — where low-rise residential and ground floor commercial units are planned — have unearthed some interesting finds from life in 1800s Kakaako.
It’s a history that wasn’t always pretty. Or healthy.
One narrow round bottle pulled out of the ground in Block B contained “Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup,” which originated in the 1840s for teething babies.
Its soothing effect — sometimes too soothing — came from 65 milligrams of morphine sulphate per fluid ounce. The American Medical Association later labeled it a “baby killer.”
In one past incarnation, marshy and low-lying Kakaako was used for fishponds and the production of salt, rice and taro.
In the mid- to late 19th century, it was also a center for cemeteries and the quarantine of smallpox, bubonic plague and Hansen’s disease (leprosy) patients.
Heading into the 20th century, Kakaako was a sewage treatment and garbage dump and burning site before it evolved again, becoming a place of cheap housing and commercial industry.
As Kamehameha Schools proceeds with ambitious housing and commercial redevelopment plans spread over 29 acres and nine blocks, including seven high-rise towers, archaeological digs into the already heavily developed area are bringing the past back to life.
Another underground find was a bottle for Vapo-Cresolene, a company established in 1879 selling a coal tar solution that was vaporized by a lamp and inhaled for the treatment of “whooping cough, spasmodic croup and certain inflammatory throat diseases,” according to an old advertisement.
The bottle has rows of bumps denoting the contents were poisonous, a common practice at the time.
Excavations in Block B, bounded by South, Auahi, Keawe and Pohukaina streets — part of the old Honolulu Iron Works site — yielded hundreds of late-1800s glass and stoneware beer, liquor and soda bottles, as well as sake bottles and cups and other household items of the day.
A post-1850 rectangular blue and white china box was used for seal paste.
“If you want to keep your beauty, put on seal paste,” joked Hallett Hammatt, president of Cultural Surveys Hawai‘i, which conducted the archaeological inventory survey for the Block B site and others.
An old Chinese stoneware shoyu jug with a spout was found, and so was a small, clear bottle that held sperm-whale oil — possibly for sewing machine use. Tiny Chinese medicine bottles could have held morphine solutions.
Jon Tulchin, an archaeologist with Cultural Surveys who worked on the Block B site, said coral bedrock is down about 6 feet, the pre-contact Hawaiian era is 3 to 4 feet below the surface, and a layer of crushed coral fill is about a foot below ground level.
“The goal is to look at it all,” Hammatt said, adding that in this case, the sprawling Honolulu Iron Works had a major impact on what was found in the ground.
“In this latest one, this Block B one, we’re focusing on the post-contact and the bottles and the fill layers because with the Honolulu Iron Works and all the disturbance that took place in that area, all those earlier layers get moved,” Hammatt said.
Kamehameha Schools said no iwi were found in Block B digs. Cultural Surveys also said no traditional Hawaii artifacts were identified.
HONOLULU IRON WORKS, near the intersection of South Street and Ala Moana Boulevard, provided machinery for sugar mills and ship repairs.
A 1921 account of business operations by foundry superintendent F.J. McGrail said the iron works was established in 1852.
“The original small workshop has expanded into an immense plant of steel, brick and concrete construction, covering about 10 acres, in which are employed more than 500 men,” McGrail reported at the time.
Tulchin, the archaeologist, said Kakaako, with all its trash dumps, is known to have a lot of old bottles and other household items buried in the ground because the rubbish was used as fill.
But Block B “was kind of the exception” with the hundreds of bottles found, Hammatt said. “The other (areas) are not to the extent of this.”
Tulchin’s theory is that as Honolulu Iron Works expanded toward Diamond Head from what is now Waterfront Plaza, it might have used locally dumped trash for fill in the Block B area, which could have seen construction in the 1920s.
In the late 19th century and into the 20th, crushed coral dredged from the Ala Wai Canal and Honolulu Harbor was deposited in Kakaako to build up the low-lying ground, he said.
The bottles in Block B were below that fill, Tulchin said.
“So based on the stratigraphy, they have to be probably closer to the 1880s time period, because they would have been put down before they filled the area,” he said.
Metal objects rust, and Tulchin said the bottles in Block B were found in what looked like “pulverized rusted dust” and were among structural debris from old buildings.
Some of the bottles are partially melted, likely indicating they were part of trash that was burned first before it became landfill.
Cultural Surveys collects samples of what it finds — which belong to the property owner, Kamehameha Schools — and reburies the rest.
Trenches were dug in parking lots and even through building interior floors in some cases for the archaeological study, which will be reviewed by the State Historic Preservation Division.
Old bottles are highly collectible and potentially valuable, and the company has to take steps to safeguard dig sites from bottle hunters, Hammatt said.
“We’ve had situations where people have come in at night,” he said. “They’ve disturbed the project not only from a construction point of view, but more importantly, archaeologically — messed up what we are doing just to steal bottles. And they are taking their life in their hands because they are in the bottom of a deep trench.”
The company tries to fill in an archaeology trench as quickly as possible, or post a guard overnight.
KEKOA PAULSEN, a Kamehameha Schools spokesman, said in an email that the trust’s lands were originally received during the Great Mahele, or land division, by Victoria Kamamalu, granddaughter of Kamehameha, and passed down through inheritance to Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop, founder of Kamehameha Schools.
Hammatt said with Kakaako’s mottled history, archaeologists never know what they’ll find.
The land beneath what is now Waterfront Plaza was a cemetery from the 1700s or earlier up to the early 1800s, according to a Cultural Surveys report.
During the 1853 smallpox epidemic, patients were quarantined at a camp and hospital in Kakaako, and more than 1,000 smallpox victims were buried in Honuakaha Cemetery near the junction of South Street and Quinn Lane, the company’s research shows.
A branch hospital and detention center for Hansen’s disease patients opened in 1881 in Kakaako, and was described by a Franciscan sister as being like a prison. After bubonic plague swept through Chinatown near the turn of the century, infected patients were moved to quarantine camps at Kakaako, Cultural Surveys reported.
A 1927 aerial map showed Kakaako still having fishponds, salt pans and loi, with homes spreading into the area from downtown.
“It’s a mosaic landscape because there were the fishponds, there were home sites, there were little sand dunes, there were salt pans,” Hammatt said. “There was a lot of stuff going on, and it was all kind of mixed up. And so you dig one trench here and you dig another trench 20 feet away, and it can be totally different. It’s not a uniform buried landscape.”
The Block B residential and commercial space is expected to be completed by 2016, Kamehameha Schools said.
Another project Diamond Head of Block B is dubbed “Salt” in deference to the salt pans and at least one aspect of the myriad history that the trust is adding to in Kakaako.
“These lands have long played an integral role in the growth and vitality of Honolulu, and the community we see emerging in Our Kakaako today is true to that heritage — active, innovative, diverse, interesting,” Paulsen said.
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