University of Hawaii Marine Option Program divers, led by NOAA’s Maritime Heritage Program staff, are spending 10 days surveying the wreck site of the old Inter-Island Steam Navigation Co. vessel SS Kauai at Mahukona. (West Hawaii Today file art
University of Hawaii Marine Option Program divers, led by NOAA’s Maritime Heritage Program staff, are spending 10 days surveying the wreck site of the old Inter Island Navigation Co. vessel SS Kauai at Mahukona. (West Hawaii Today File Art)
WAIMEA — Nearly 99 years ago, an Inter-Island Steam Navigation Co. steamboat foundered on the reef at Mahukona, one of four official ports of entry for the Kingdom of Hawaii.
The wooden-hulled SS Kauai was declared a total loss in late December 1913 and most likely everything salvageable was removed from its more than 25-year-old decks, said Hans Van Tilburg, maritime heritage coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
At the turn of the 20th century, steamboats such as the SS Kauai were used for interisland transport of cargo, passengers, sugar and cattle.
With the Hawaiian Railroad’s completion in 1882, Mahukona, which had an impressive boat house, was the primary transshipment point for surrounding plantations.
The SS Kauai served at least six plantations, Van Tilburg said during Thursday’s ReefTalk in Waimea.
Built in 1887 in San Francisco, the SS Kauai was 154 feet long, 32 feet wide, weighed 340 tons, and was capable of carrying 28 cabin and 145 deck passengers.
The vessel, contracted to the Kohala Sugar Co., stopped at many ports and landings islandwide.
According to historical records, it stopped as many as 35 times in Honokaa and 17 times in Hilo, but only once in Mahukona, Van Tilburg said.
Traveling from Puako to Hilo, the SS Kauai was carrying heavy sugar mill equipment for Nuilii Plantation on Dec. 25, 1913, when she hit the Mahukona reef.
In January 1914, there were reports of a heavy swell bringing ship parts ashore, and a photograph shows something that
resembles a bow, Van Tilburg said.
Today, the shipwreck is the focus of the 10-day-long Marine Archaeological Surveying Techniques summer field school. It’s a collaboration between NOAA’s Maritime Heritage Program and the University of Hawaii’s Marine Option Program.
The shipwreck lies within the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, Van
The field school ends Saturday, Van Tilburg said.
Using noninvasive and nondestructive underwater surveying techniques, students from the UH-Manoa and UH-Hilo campuses documented and interpreted the wreck site, which hasn’t been done for 19 years.
The investigators are hoping the wreck of SS Kauai — a sort of time capsule — will provide insight into the past, specifically
the plantation period that shaped Hawaii Island, Van Tilburg said.
Roughly 30 people attended Thursday’s presentation in Waimea’s Thelma Parker Memorial Library, where Van Tilburg explained how the survey provides a snapshot of how shipwrecks change over time as they are impacted by storms, currents and corrosion.
It also serves as a training course in the methods of underwater archaeology for the students, who are earning credits toward a certificate.
For several years, Van Tilburg headed the graduate certificate program in maritime archaeology and history at UH, teaching a number of field schools in Hawaii.
This year’s investigators will also produce a map showing the resources found at the degraded, scattered site.
They have already discovered more than what the 1993 field school, led by Bradley Rodgers of East Carolina University, came up in its initial site survey, Van Tilburg said.
So far, the team has concluded lots of salvaging occurred after the sinking because there’s hardly any ship at this site.
They did find the ship’s main steam engine, propeller and shaft, a boiler, mooring chains and a wagon, he said.
Since the 1993 study, movement of artifacts has occurred resulting in “interesting shapes and structures,” he said.
The team noted a significant amount of coral growth on several artifacts, some of which seemed to need a master of cryptography to find, Van Tilburg joked.
The teams also counted eight less rail wheels than were discovered 19 years ago.
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