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Monday, November 15, 1999


Star-Bulletin file photo
Pearl Harbor drydock was built without a proper
blessing ceremony which was remedied after it
suffered extreme structural damage in 1913.

Dry dock disaster
started blessings


Logo The U.S. Navy began its official presence here about a hundred years ago. On Nov. 17, 1899, the title of the little coaling depot built to service Navy ships downtown was changed to "U.S. Naval Station, Honolulu, T.H." under the command of Cmdr. John F. Merry.

Merry, an energetic planner, recognized that Pearl Harbor would be a better place to safeguard the Navy's ships and blanketed Washington with proposals. Which brings us to the subject of this WatDat, the gigantic drydock that forms the heart of the shipyard.

Excavation started 90 years ago this month, under the supervision of David Kanakeawe Richards. Construction was expected to take three years but the ground proved to have uneven soil and underground streams. Older Hawaiian folks living in the area also kept warning Richards about properly blessing the site.

When the drydock was pumped out in February 1913, external water pressure caused the drydock to implode dramatically. Years of work and millions of dollars were wiped out in seconds. Luckily, no one was hurt. After a couple of years of litigation, work began anew with a beefier design.

Eighty years ago, in the fall of 1919, the drydock was pumped out again and everyone held their breath. But the ground moved only 3/16 of an inch.

What had changed? In 1917, Richards had approached his boss, Francis Smith, and suggested that an offering be made to Hawaiian spirits. Smith told Richards he was crazy and dropped the matter. Gov. Walter Frear thought it a good idea, however, and Richards arranged for a kahuna to bless the site. And that night Smith was badly injured in a traffic accident.

Since then, it's been considered bad luck to open any large construction project without a Hawaiian blessing.

By Burl Burlingame

Curious about something you've seen? Ask us: WatDat?, Honolulu Star-Bulletin, P.O. Box 3080, Honolulu, Hi, fax at 523-7863 or e-mail at

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