Second Great Honolulu Chinatown Fire: Part 1

﷯Disaster of epic proportions presents long-term implications.

The story of the Second Great Honolulu Chinatown Fire is a tale of many tales. It is about political intrigue, a dangerous disease, racial tension and a big fire all set in paradise.  

Conflagrations are big fires that spread beyond control to destroy cities or large areas of built-up property. Common characteristics of conflagrations are the destruction of large numbers of buildings with a diversity of ownership, fire spread across streets and/or open spaces, and fire sizes of a magnitude beyond the capabilities of fire fighting forces. 

Great conflagrations played a major role in shaping America’s cities, leading to the development of modern building codes, improving construction and water supplies in the cities, strengthening the fire service and the development of the property insurance industry. 

The Great Chinatown Fire of Jan. 20,1900 was the second great conflagration experienced in Honolulu. The first conflagration was also in Chinatown and occurred on April 18, 1886. The Chinatown fires share many common contributing factors with other great conflagrations, including: extensive combustible construction, wood shingle roofs, high winds, inadequate fire protection water supply and lack of exposure protection. 

There is one feature, however, that the Second Great Chinatown Fire does not share with other conflagrations; the fire was set by the fire department.

Plague hits Honolulu 

Bubonic plague outbreaks were occurring in several Asian countries. As a first port of call for many Asian ships, Honolulu was very concerned about the plague and had been very successful in avoiding its establishment on its shores. That all changed on Dec. 13, 1899 with the death of You Chong, a 22-year-old bookkeeper at the Wing Wo Tai general merchandise store on Nuuanu St. The death was determined to be from the bubonic plague. It was also later determined that a man on Maunakea St., who had taken ill the previous week, died of the plague. All-in-all, five deaths from the plague were identified on this day. 

President Sanford Dole (brother James was the president of Dole Pineapple) gave the Board of Health (BOH) responsibility for dealing with the developing crisis. This was tantamount to giving the BOH absolute authority. Under the leadership of Henry E. Cooper, the BOH met at noon that day. Cooper was also the attorney general. The BOH placed a strict quarantine on the Chinatown district bounded by Kukui St., Nuuanu St., Queen St. and River St. (see the map of Chinatown). The National Guard was ordered out to cordon-off the area and enforce the quarantine at bayonet point. No one was permitted to enter or leave the area without permission. 

Also, a quarantine was placed on homes, outside of this area, where the plague occurred. No Chinese or Japanese person was permitted to leave Honolulu; plans were made for a crematory on Quarantine Island (with use of the Honolulu Iron Works furnaces in the meantime); ships were not permitted to enter port, ships in port were ordered out and quarantined for seven days; rat guards (devices to prevent rats from leaving the ship by running downing rope lines) were placed on ships; and all goods leaving the city were fumigated. 

There being no further reported cases during the next few days, the BOH lifted the quarantine at noon on Dec. 19. The guards were withdrawn, and people in an out of Chinatown were granted free movement. 

On Dec. 21, newspapers reported that the plague had died out. 

They were wrong; Three more plague deaths occurred between Dec. 23 and Dec. 25, 1899. The BOH met Christmas evening and decided to re-impose the quarantine on Dec. 26. 

The quarantine of Chinatown was a very sensitive issue. The population of Chinatown was almost entirely non-white. In addition to Chinese and Japanese people, there were many Hawaiians. Some questioned why quarantine was imposed on Chinatown, but was not imposed on predominately white neighborhoods where a case occurred.

They also approved a set of regulations concerning the quarantine, which together with other orders, gave the board, and its resident broad, powers to deal with the plague crisis. 

At its Dec. 20 meeting, the BOH appointed a three-person sanitary commission, consisting of businessman George R. Carter, architect C. B. Ripley and F. B. Edwards, a sanitary engineer. The commission was tasked with reporting on conditions in Chinatown and recommending improvements deemed necessary for the “betterment of the city from a sanitary point of view.” On Dec. 29, 1899, the Commission of Three documented extremely unsanitary conditions in Chinatown, reporting such things as “... fresh meat is exposed for sale in shops within a few feet of which are cesspools reeking with filth and vermin, from which come clouds of flies.” The commission made ten major recommendations, including grading to prevent surface water accumulation, extension of sewers and the drafting of plumbing and building regulations. 

Fighting plague with fire 

On Dec. 30, the BOH met to discuss the question of condemning infected parts of Chinatown and removing sections by fire. Present at the meeting was Lorrin A. Thurston, businessman and close advisor of Hawaii President Sanford Dole. He was there to recommend “more vigorous measures be taken” by the board. BOH President Cooper made reference to outside criticism of the board for indecisive action and neglecting to destroy buildings where infections had occurred. Mr. Thurston strongly urged the board to implement a policy of burning, infected buildings as soon as possible. 

Patients would be removed to hospital or morgue and other occupants would be removed, disinfected and quarantined. Brick or stone buildings would be spared but had to be disinfected. 

These policies were approved by vote of the board. Within a week, President Cooper submitted his resignation and Dr. C. B. Wood, a strong advocate of decisive action to systematically destroy the plague (and Chinatown) by fire, was elected to replace him. 

Three more plague deaths occurred on Dec. 31, 1899, and the board took immediate action to condemn the buildings. 

The 82 people displaced were taken to barracks at the Kakaako Rifle Range for quarantine. At 2 p.m., the Honolulu Fire Department began preparations for the first control burn. Numbers 325, 326 and 327 on Nuunanu St. were doused with kerosene and at 3:27 p.m., Fire Chief James H. Hunt gave the order to start the fire in No. 327. The fire burned quickly through the combustible structure. The fire department placed hose streams on the structures adjoining the fire building and exposed structures across the street. 

Though a hose stream was placed to protect a large two-story concrete structure at the rear of the fire building, it fell prey to the fire and was accidentally destroyed. The newspaper lamented the loss of an extremely valuable shipment of sake in this fire. The strong south wind also carried hot brands, which ignited the roofs of the Mossman house on Beretania and the Orpheum Theatre, but these fires were quickly extinguished. 

The second control burn occurred on New Year’s Day. Wong Hing, a 27-year-old Chinese male, was found dead from the plague at 7 a.m. at his residence over the store at 215 Maunakea St. near the corner of Pauahi St. This was just across the street from Fire Department Engine No. 2 House. The occupants were quarantined, the building was quickly condemned, and torched shortly before noon. During this fire, Chief Hunt was injured as he attempted to pass through an alleyway on Maunakea St. leading to the rear of the burning building. A porch projecting from the burning building collapsed and momentarily trapped the Chief. He freed himself from the debris and had to direct firefighting operations from his fire buggy having seriously injured his left foot. 

The BOH meeting that day had the purpose of briefing Dole and his cabinet and ensuring their support for the BOH “undertaking a great responsibility in the destruction of buildings in Chinatown.” President Dole asked “if the whole of Chinatown had to be destroyed.” 

The board’s response was, “it was their opinion that it should be entirely wiped out.”  Limiting how quickly this would be accomplished was how quickly quarantine facilities could be established to contain the displaced residents. 

Three more sets of buildings were condemned to fire on Jan. 4. The first was the Japanese candy and cold drink store on Merchant St. near Nuuanu St. in back of Fire Department Engine No. 1 House. The second fire was set at the Chinese Joss House on Pauahi St. where a Chinese man had earlier been removed to a hospital as a plague suspect. The third fire was a half-block area of Kekaulike St. between King St. and Queen St. All three of the fires were managed without major incident. 

The next fire was set at an old restaurant located on Nuuanu St. between Marin St. and Queen St. on Jan. 6. This fire also did its job without incident. 

On Jan. 11, six cottages on the makai side of Kukui Ln. near Nuuanu St. were set afire. Block 10, the block bounded by Nuuanu, Beretania, Pauahi, and Smith Streets was next condemned and scheduled for the torch on Jan. 12. This marked the second decisive change in board action, as an entire block rather than individual buildings were condemned to the torch. Despite “the high winds which seemingly blew from all directions,” Fire Chief Hunt refused to delay the firing of the block and at 8:30 a.m. the fire was set. A fire started on the roof of the Smith St. School but was extinguished. The new Japanese Hotel at the corner of Smith and Pauahi, which was intended to be spared, was not so lucky. It lost to the fire due to the fierce wind. The Holt Building, a brick structure with windows protected by iron shutters, was in the middle of this block and was spared due to the efforts of the firefighters, the building’s fire resistant construction and the opening protection. The shutters were not all closed on Jan. 20, and the Holt Building would not be spared on that day. 

On Jan. 16, Block 9, bounded by Beretania, Smith, Pauahi, and Maunakea Streets, was burned. There was a report of high winds carrying burning embers onto surrounding buildings, but no serious damage occurred. 

At the BOH meeting, Block 15, the area bounded by Kukui, Nuuanu, Beretania, and River Streets and containing Kaumakapili Church was condemned. 

On the morning of Jan. 19, the mauka half of Block 11, bounded by Pauahi, Nuuanu, Hotel, and Smith Streets, was burned. 

Plans were made to burn all of Block 15 from Kaumakapili Church to Nuuanu Street and Kukui Street the following day. 

Next month, Part II of this column will look at the events of Jan. 20 and the aftermath of the second Great Chinatown Fire. 

Author’s note: Where quotations appear, they represent quotes from the Pacific Commercial Advertiser newspaper. 

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 over 360 employees across eight offices. Dannaway can be reached at dannaway@coffman.com.

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