Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Ditch and Disappeared

D is for the Ditch and for Disappeared. One of the places a team of searchers looked when our son disappeared in November of 1999 was the Ditch. The Ditch is located in the Kohala Mountains. It was built in 1905 and is a vast network of flumes and ditches, measuring 22 miles in length, and was originally used as a surface irrigation system to distribute water to the sugar cane fields.

At the turn of the last century, there were seven independent plantations cultivating approximately 10,000 acres of sugar cane in the Big Island's district of North Kohala. It takes a ton of water to produce one pound of refined sugar. Because of the drought that plagued the area at that time, some of the plantations were receiving only 15 to 25 inches of rain per year. As a result, yields were low, putting the plantations in financial jeopardy. The solution to the problem seemed simple: transport water from the verdant valleys, where rainfall averaged 150 to 300 inches a year, to the dry plains where the cane fields were located. Engineers evaluated the feasibility of such an irrigation system and recommended against it due to heavy rainfall, rough terrain and unstable soil conditions.

Nevertheless, John Hind, one of the plantation owners, decided to proceed. He found an investor in Sam Parker, the grandson of John Parker (founder of Parker Ranch), who contributed about half of the $695,000 cost of the ditch. The balance of the money came from Hind and a few other entrepreneurs.

The group hired M.M. O'Shaughnessy, a noted civil and hydraulic engineer, to design and oversee the construction of the system. O'Shaughnessy hired 600 men, most of whom were Japanese immigrants, and work began in 1905. At the 1,050-foot elevation in often cold, wet, windy conditions, the laborers used dynamite, picks, shovels, hammers, chisels and their bare hands to painstakingly dig an average of 350 feet through the mountains each 12-hour workday. They lined the tunnels' walls with hand-cut rock and grout, and stabilized the ceilings with concrete.The project took 18 months and the loss of 17 lives.

When it was completed, the Kohala Ditch was hailed as an engineering marvel and received widespread acclaim.

The Ditch was later used by ranches, farms, and homes. A section of the Kohala ditch, which diverted water from Honokane Valley to the sugar cane fields of the North Kohala district, ran along the sides of Pololu Valley. Hikes to and in the ditch were offered by a tour company. A portion of the ditch became a tourist attraction called "Flumin' Da Ditch" offering kayak tours down old Kohala Ditch water flumes, used originally by sugar plantations to transport freshly cut cane. The cane would be cut on higher elevation lands and tossed into the flumes, which would carry the cane down slope to sugar mills on the coast. The flumes fell out of use as large trucks became more prevalent and began to be used to transport cane. Flumin' Da Ditch functioned as a tourist attraction until the flumes and the Ditch were damaged by the 2006 Hawaii earthquake.

After the earthquake in October 2006, the owners of the Kohala Ditch – the Surety Kohala Corporation – finished an evaluation of the damage to, and future safety of, the “Ditch.” They determined that they could not repair the ditch to allow the flumin' the ditch tours to continue safely so the tours have been discontinued. Over 150,000 people in the 10 years prior had enjoyed this 22-mile (35 km) kayaking tour down the old irrigation ditches.

As I understand it, the Ditch was repaired sufficiently by 2008 to once again provide irrigation water for the macadamia nut orchards and other farming ventures in North Kohala. But the structural damage to the Ditch was too extensive to be able to repair it enough to make it safe for tourist ventures.

We had the opportunity in 2004 to hike along the Ditch trail that lined the sides of Pololu, the same trail our son took in 1999 when he disappeared. It was an awesome experience and we could understand why he chose to hike that trail. The breathtaking waterfalls, the jungle growth that reminded him of his home in the Amazon jungle, the stream from which the Ditch received its water, the precipices - everything was awesome.

But he disappeared - never to be seen again.

Do you know anyone who has disappeared? Or did you have the privilege of "Flumin' Da Ditch" when it was still in operation?


  1. Lovely photos and interesting history. Sorry to hear about your son...

  2. I have not had the opportunity to visit Hawaii although I would love to someday!

    I am truly sorry about your son's disappearance. It must be so hard to make peace when there are so many unanswered questions.

    I am so glad that you find comfort in the Lord.

  3. Thank you for your comments, Luana and Brianna. Our book tells the story of how we found peace and closure in spite of the circumstances. It was nothing short of miraculous.


Thank you for sharing your thoughts.