Rainforests and Sugar Plantations

Article by Linda Nagata

What is Maui's climate like? That depends where on the island you are. On the north and east sides, the high mountains trap moisture-laden clouds borne in upon the trade winds. The resulting high rainfall nourishes the windward rainforests, and the many streams and spectacular waterfalls that can be seen on the drive to Hana. Yet in the lee of the mountains and on the central isthmus rain is scarce. Outside the resort areas on the south and west coasts, the landscape is one of arid beauty: black cliffs softened by dry scrub and a few hearty trees. Rainfall is almost as rare on the central isthmus that links the two high mountains, yet here green fields of sugar cane thrive: for they grow on water brought to the lowlands by the ditches and flumes of the East Maui Irrigation Company.

The company had its start in 1876 when Samuel Alexander and Henry Baldwin decided to pursue a new and more reliable water source for their sugar plantation in the central lowlands. Together they took on the task of bringing the abundant water of east Maui to the arid central plain.

Mr. Alexander was the planner. Though not an engineer, he devised a system of ditches and flumes that would bring water over seventeen miles of rugged terrain – through rainforest and over deep gulches – to where the thirsty sugar cane grew. He arranged financing, and after negotiations he was able to obtain a lease from the government – but with a catch. If water was not flowing within two years, he would lose his lease, and any work he had completed would revert to the government – in those days, the Kingdom of Hawaii.

Mr. Baldwin directed the construction: the digging of ditches and tunnels, the building of flumes, and the laying of pipes. He had lost his right arm in an accident only a few months before construction began, but the injury did not shake his resolve to finish the project. His greatest challenge came as construction was nearing completion. His workers were faced with bringing the irrigation line across Maliko Gulch, a chasm 450 feet deep. It's said Mr. Baldwin seized a rope and descended to the bottom of the gulch, climbing with the use of only his legs and his one arm. This display of courage inspired his reluctant workers to continue, and construction was completed just before the two year deadline.

Nine more ditches were built over the next forty-five years, creating a system that is still in use today. In 2003, the East Maui Irrigation System was honored as a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark.

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