Article: Old Honolulu, "The Reef"


In the mid-1850s, Honolulu had approximately 10,000-residents. Foreigners made up about 6% of that (excluding visiting sailors.) Laws at the time allowed naturalization of foreigners to become subjects of the King (by about that time, about 440 foreigners exercised that right.)

The majority of houses were made of grass (hale pili,) there were about 875 of them; there were also 345 adobe houses, 49 stone houses, 49 wooden houses and 29 combination (adobe below, wood above.)

The city was regularly laid out with major streets typically crossing at right angles – they were dirt (Fort Street had to wait until 1881 for pavement, the first to be paved.)

Sidewalks were constructed, usually of wood (as early as 1838;) by 1857, the first sidewalk made of brick was laid down on Merchant Street.

At the time, “Broadway” was the main street (we now call it King Street;) it was the widest and longest – about 2-3 miles long from the river (Nuʻuanu River on the west) out to the “plains” (to Mānoa.) What is now known as Queen Street was actually the water’s edge.

To get around people walked, or rode horses or used personal carts/buggies. It wasn’t until 1868, that horse-drawn carts became the first public transit service in the Hawaiian Islands.

Honolulu Harbor was bustling at that time. Over the prior twenty years, the Pacific whaling fleet nearly quadrupled in size and in the record year of 1846; 736-whaling ships arrived in Hawai‘i.

At the time, Honolulu Harbor was not as it is today and many of the visiting ships would anchor two to three miles off-shore – cargo and people were ferried to the land.

To accommodate the growing commerce, from 1856 to 1860, the work of filling in the reef to create an area known as the “Esplanade” (where Aloha Tower is now situated) and building up a water-front and dredging the harbor was underway.

The legislature adopted a resolution directing the minister of the interior to remove Fort Kekuanohu (Fort Honolulu – then serving as a prison) and use the material obtained thereby “in the construction of prisons, and the filling up of the reef.”

However, it could not be removed until a new prison was built; construction for the new prison began in 1855, but not entirely completed until more than two years later. The Fort was then removed in 1857. (Kuykendall)

Prisoners from Molokai (“nearly every man in the village”) who were implicated in a cattle-stealing program; they were tried and sentenced to jail. These, along with other prisoners, cut the coral blocks and constructed the prison. (Cooke)

On the opposite side (ʻEwa) of Nuʻuanu stream was a fishpond, identified as “Kawa” or the “King’s fish pond.” Iwilei at that time was a small, narrow peninsula, less populated than the Honolulu-side of Nuʻuanu stream.

The new prison was on a marshy no-man’s land almost completely cut off from the main island by two immense fishponds. The causeway road (initially called “Prison Road,” later “Iwilei Street”) split Kawa Pond into Kawa and Kūwili fishponds.

Sometimes called the “Oʻahu Prison,” “King’s Prison,” “Kawa Prison” or, simply, “The Reef,” it was a coral block fortress built upon coral fill at the end of a coral built road over the coral reefs and mudflats of Iwilei.

“As one enters the heavy front gates one stands in a long, but narrow, inclosure that forms the front yard of the prison proper. Here a few of the prisoners are sometimes allowed to take their exercise.”

When one enters the prison building the first thing that strikes one is the absolute cleanliness of everything. The cells are all whitewashed and look as though they did not know the meaning of the word dirt, and a meal could be eaten off the floors without offending one.”

“Each cell is mosquito proof, and the doors of most of them open into a big court yard that reminds one of the patio of a Mexican rancho, with its immense banyan tree, the largest in the islands and its sanded floors.”

“Each male prisoner is supplied with a canvas hammock and two blankets. During the day the hammock must be tightly rolled up and hung in its place in a corner of the little cell. The blankets and hammock are washed once a month, and a new coat of whitewash given the cells at the same time. … The prisoners get up about 4 o’clock. They go to bed about 5:30 in the afternoon.”

“There are at present only three women prisoners … The women occupy, during the day, a good-size d room in one end of the building, which is used as their workroom. Here they make all the prisoners’ clothes.”

“The only difference in the cells occupied by the women is that they have a mattress on the floor instead of a hammock to sleep on. They wear blue denim dresses, while the men wear a combination of brown and blue.” (Pacific Commercial Advertiser, March 15, 1894)

In 1886, Mark Twain visited the prison and wrote: “… we presently arrived at a massive coral edifice which I took for a fortress at first, but found out directly that it was the government prison.”

“A soldier at the great gate admitted us without further authority than my countenance, and I supposed he thought he was paying me a handsome compliment when he did so; and so did I until I reflected that the place was a penitentiary”. (Twain)

“When I was at Honolulu, I had occasion to visit the reef. That is, the island prison of Oahu, where all classes of offenders, murderers, felons, and misdemeanants are confined at hard labor.”

“While I was there my attention was drawn to thirty-seven Galicians, subjects of Austria, who were confined because they had refused to fulfil their contracts to labor for the Oʻahu plantation. They were dressed in stripes like the other prisoners.”

“They were made to do the same labor in the quarries and on the roads. They were conveyed about the islands in a public vehicle, accompanied by armed guards.” (Dr Levy; Atkinson, 1899)

The Reef was about where the Love’s Bakery was in Iwilei, now the Salvation Army Building, next to K-Mart. The Prison was later relocated to Kalihi (1916) and renamed O‘ahu Jail; this is now known as O‘ahu Community Correctional Facility.

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