Subscribe to our newsletters & stay updated
My last column recounted the events that led up to the conflagration known as the Second Great Honolulu Chinatown Fire. To recap, concerns over a bubonic plague outbreak in Honolulu, led the government of Hawaii to give broad powers to the Board of Health (BOH) to control and eliminate it.
The Chinatown area and all its inhabitants were quarantined and cordoned off under armed guard. This is the area bounded by River Street on the west, Kukui Street on the north, Nuuanu Street on the east and Queen Street on the south at the Honolulu Harbor waterfront.
On Dec. 30, 1899 the BOH agreed that buildings of combustible construction where plague cases occurred would be burned in an effort to eradicate the disease. The first controlled burn was on Dec. 31, 1899.
On Jan. 12, 1900 the BOH implemented a policy of systematically burning entire blocks of Chinatown with the torching of Block 10.
On the morning of Jan. 19, the mauka* half of Block 11, bounded by Pauahi, Nuuanu, Hotel, and Smith Streets, was burned.
At an earlier meeting of the BOH, Block 15, the area bounded by Kukui, Nuuanu, Beretania, and River Streets and containing Kaumakapili Church, was condemned.
Plans were made to burn all of Block 15 from Kaumakapili Church to Nuuanu Street and Kukui Street on Jan. 20.
On the morning of Jan. 20, a fair northeast wind was blown across the city. For those of you not familiar with Hawaii, the prevailing winds are from the northeast; you may have heard these referred to the “trades.” The trade winds are what help make Hawaii’s weather the most pleasant in the world.
To protect against any spread caused by the wind, Engine No. 1, the pride of the Honolulu Fire Department, was positioned at a hydrant on Nuuanu Street at Beretania Street. The horses drew the engine were led away to a safe location and the burlap bag of coal in the foreground used to fuel the steam engine. Also, note that utility poles have been pitched toward the street to avoid a situation where they would collapse on buildings if damaged by fire.
The remaining three engines were deployed along Beretania Street. It was intended to protect Kaumakapili Church, as this church was very important to the native Hawaiian community; King David Kalakaua worshiped there. He was also a member of the volunteer fire department. During the First Great Chinatown Fire on April 18, 1886, King Kalakaua was credited with saving the church from destruction by fire, having personally manned a hose line. The church would not be granted reprieve on this day.
The fire was set on the mauka side of the church. It was planned for the fire to burn mauka (north) towards Kukui Street, against the wind. Unfortunately, shortly after the fire was lit, the wind rose and shifted slightly eastward, and fire was quickly spread to structures near the church. Flying brands were driven high into the air and eventually, the spire on the Waikiki (east) tower of the church ignited. The spire fire was too high for fire department hose streams to reach, and, in spite of a magnificently heroic attempt by one fire fighter to climb the tower and use a portable extinguisher to it; the spire was engulfed in flames.
Soon the entire church was ablaze. Within a short period of time, the entire Beretania Street side of Block 15 was a wall of flame. The two firefighters manning Engine No. 1 stayed until the last possible moment. When forced to retreat, they could not move the engine (the engines were horse drawn, and the horses were in a safe area) and were forced to abandon their engine as all buildings in the area burst into flames from the intense heat.
Soon Block 1 bounded by Beretania, Maunakea, Pauahi, and River Streets, was burning. At noon, the Chemical Engine Fire House on the makai side of Pauahi Street caught fire along with the remainder of the block. The fire consumed the blocks bounded by Hotel, Nuuanu, King and River Streets. By 2:30 p.m., every block from Kukui Street to Honolulu Harbor was burning. The fire department and a corps of volunteers, including sailors from the S. S. Iroquois and the Tug Eleu, were able to make a stand at the Honolulu Iron Works on Block 13 bounded by King, Nuuanu, Queen and Maunakea Streets. Their efforts were successful in stopping the spread of the fire to the east at that point.
A similar successful stand was made at the mauka side of Chinatown, keeping the fire from spreading beyond Kukui Street.
There were some tense moments with control of fleeing residents of Chinatown. Guards did not initially permit frantic residents to leave the area around the perimeter. Panic stricken people massed at two locations, at Kukui Street near River Street, and on King Street between Maunakea and Nuuanu. Eventually, the fleeing residents were permitted to evacuate east along King Street and were massed on the grounds of Kawaiahao Church.
All along King Street guardsmen and citizens were armed with axe handles and baseballs bats, intent on keeping those fleeing from the Chinatown from escaping quarantine.
By 4 p.m., the work of the fire was essentially done. The Second Great Chinatown Fire destroyed a 38-acre area, covering 11 full blocks and portions of three houses in the quarantined district.
Remarkably, no fire deaths were reported. There were reports of 4,000 to 7,000 homeless. Direct property damage was estimated at $2.5 million.
In his report, Chief Hunt recommended improvements to the water supply including additional fire hydrants with spacing of 500 feet between hydrants and a minimum of 15-inch diameter water mains in the distribution system. According to the chief’s statements, the existing water mains in Honolulu were four to eight inches in diameter. He blamed the lack of a nearby fire hydrant to the rear of the church as the reason the fire grew out of control. He reported that Engine No. 1 was repairable and would be returned to service.
It is interesting to note that on Jan. 5, prior to the fire, Andrew Brown, superintendent of the Honolulu Water Supply responded to reports of inadequate supply at the Pauahi Street fire, saying that these reports were wrong, and “We have plenty of water.” Superintendent Brown also carried the title of fire commissioner.
Plans were announced to extend Maunakea Street and Smith Streets from Beretania to Kukui Street; Smith Street down to the waterfront at Queen Street; and Pauahi Street down to Fort Street. On Jan. 30, the BOH issued a set of regulations that essentially comprised a health and sanitation code. It included requirements for site drainage, light and ventilation of dwellings, air space under buildings, watertight floors and a whole series of regulations concerning cesspools and privy-vaults.
One regulation related to building fire safety, and that was a requirement that prohibited building within five feet of a property line adjoining property that can be built upon.
Fire was used at least 20 more times in the fight against the plague.
Was it necessary to use fire in Chinatown to eliminate the plague? Through Jan. 25 (five days after the fire) there were 53 deaths from the plague. A total of 13 more deaths would occur. Of the 71 plague cases reported, 41 occurred in residents of the quarantined Chinatown district. Of the 61 reported deaths, 33 were Chinese, 8 were Japanese, 15 were Hawaiian, and 4 were Caucasian.
Would fire have been the solution if the plague area had not been populated predominately by minorities? Mrs. George Boardman was the first Caucasian to die from the plague. After her death on Jan. 16, the Boardman house was condemned and torched. On Jan. 6, the editor of the Pacific Commercial Advertiser wrote, “If the Chinamen will fire fewer crackers to scare away the devils of disease and do more cleaning up in and about their homes, they will reach the end of the quarantine sooner.”
Was Chinatown burned to remove the competition created by a thriving Asian business community?
Lorrin Thurston, who urged “more vigorous action” by the BOH, would, within a year, become the owner of the Pacific Commercial Advertiser (PCA), one of the major newspaper dailies in Honolulu. The PCA provided consistent strong support for the Board’s actions. The PCA later became the Honolulu Advertiser, and later merged with the only other news daily in Honolulu to become the Star-Advertiser. Mr. Thurston also belonged to investors involved with the developing Honolulu rail system, which ran through Chinatown.
The destruction of Chinatown contributed to a form of racial desegregation in Honolulu. Displaced residents relocated to the “suburbs” of Honolulu.
Just the other day I walked the short walk from my office to City Mill, a local hardware store (which, by the way is adjacent to a Home Depot and a Lowes). This store replaced the original City Mill built by Chung Kun Ai in 1899, which was lost to the fire.
Kaumakapili Church was rebuilt on Vineyard Blvd. in Palama, a few blocks away from the original site. Ironically, current conditions in nearby residential areas are reminiscent of the congested combustible construction of old Chinatown. Perhaps that is why Kaumakapili Church was rebuilt with only one spire; there is no Waikiki spire to catch flaming embers.
Thus is the tale of the Second Great Chinatown Fire of 1900.
* For all you all malihini out there, the Hawaiian compass directions, relative to downtown Honolulu, are:
Mauka – toward the mountains
Makai – toward the sea
Ewa – west (toward the Ewa plain)
Diamond Head or Waikiki (toward Diamond Head crater or Waikiki)
Samuel S. Dannaway, P.E., FSFPE, is a licensed fire protection engineer and mechanical engineer with bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Maryland Department of Fire Protection Engineering. He is a past president and fellow of the Society of Fire Protection Engineers. He is vice president of Fire Protection Technology at Coffman Engineers Inc., a multi-discipline engineering firm with more than 360 employees across eight offices. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.