Ka Punahou – The New Spring (date unknown)

By Catherine Black ’94

Punahou’s beautiful campus has provided an incredibly rich iconography for the School over the years, from its Night-Blooming Cereus to the Hala Tree to the Pauahi Dome and Old School Hall. But perhaps no feature has been celebrated in metaphor, image and verse as much as the natural freshwater spring for which the School is named. Referred to by various names – Ka Punahou, The New Spring, the Lily Pond – this unusual hydrological feature has been the historical, geographical and spiritual center of the School since its founding, and also what distinguished the lands of Kapunahou in old Hawai‘i.

Mythical Origins

Punahou’s spring appears in at least three ancient Hawaiian legends: the water of Kāne; the twins known as Wa‘ahila rain and Mountain mist; and Mūkākā and Kealoha, the old couple whose dreams led to the discovery of the spring beneath a hala tree. These stories are a valuable bridge to the rich Hawaiian history that preceded the founding of Punahou as a missionary school in 1841.

In the book “Punahou, 1841 – 1941,” Mary Charlotte Alexander describes the story of Kāne and Kanaloa:

“In that remote time the brother gods Kāne and Kanaloa came to Oahu on a pointed cloud from the land of Kuaihelani, one of Kāne’s 12 islands in the heavens. As the sun went down, they set out for Mānoa Valley, on their way resting at Keapapa (now called Punahou). Kanaloa teased Kāne for water. Kāne, a kindly god, courteous in all his ways, smiled because he could hear the noise of water. He thrust his staff into the ground, and the water gushed forth in abundance. This water of Kāne was called the new spring, or Kapunahou.”

Another legend was passed down by the 19th-century intellectual and documenter of Hawaiian culture, Emma Metcalf Beckley Nakuina. It tells of two beautiful twins, Kauawa‘ahila (Wa‘ahila Rain) and Kauakiʻowao (Moutain Mist), who lived at mount Ka‘ala with their father and evil stepmother. While their father was away on a trip, the stepmother Hawea began to persecute her stepchildren so they fled to Kōnāhuanui, the mountain peak above the Nu‘uanu Pali. From there they were driven to the head of Mānoa Valley and then to Rocky Hill, where they hid in two small caves, subsisting on medicinal grass, grasshoppers and wild fowl.

One day, Kauakiʻowao complained of her desire to bathe. In his explorations of the area, her brother had discovered the pond of Kānewai (further up in Mānoa Valley, where the University of Hawai‘i lo‘i is today) and met the mo‘o god that controlled the water sources of Mānoa and Makiki valleys. This god was also an ‘aumakua to the children and agreed to help them, creating an underground passage from Kānewai to the place now known as Punahou, where it formed a large bathing pond. The siblings cultivated kalo patches below the pond and in time, a thriving community formed in the area.

Upon his return, the twins’ father, Kaha‘akea, killed their evil stepmother and himself after learning of the trials they had suffered (Rocky Hill is also known by the name Kaha‘akea). The siblings eventually returned to their childhood home at Ka‘ala, from where they would occasionally travel to Kōnāhuanui and Mānoa Valley, leaving rainbows in their wake.

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Perhaps the best-known legend was told to Professor William DeWitt Alexander at around 1861 by Ka‘uhi and his wife Martha Pohipu, who had lived for many years in the thatched hut that stood near the spring.

The story describes an aged couple, Mūkākā and Kealoha, who dwelt near the present spring during a time of drought and famine, when the people were obliged to search the mountains for ti root and wild yams for food, and to trudge to Kamo‘ili‘ili to fill their calabashes with drinking water.

One night, the old woman, Kealoha, dreamed that a man appeared, to whom she complained bitterly about having to go so far for water, whereupon he said: “He wai no” (there is water) and told her that beneath the trunk of an old hala tree nearby she would find it. She awoke her husband Mūkākā and told him of the dream, but he made light of it.

The next night Mūkākā had a similar dream. The apparition directed him to go to the sea and catch some red fish, roast them in ti leaves, reserving a part as an offering to the family deities, and then to pull up the old hala tree nearby by its roots.

He awoke and realized it was a dream. But the impression it left was so strong that in the morning he carried out the instructions. When at last he pulled up the hala tree, water oozed forth from beneath its roots.

Thus was formed Kapunahou, which means “the new spring,” and it eventually irrigated a dozen or more taro patches that sustained the people of the area. From this legend, Punahou School derived its seal, which bears two taro leaves, the hala tree and water flowing beneath it.

Hawaiian History

As written in 1929 by Bishop H. B. Restarick, president of the Hawaiian Historical Society, the lands of Punahou and Moanalua were given in friendship by Kamehameha I to Kame‘eiamoku, one of his most loyal chiefs (and one of the two ali‘i depicted on the royal Hawaiian coat of arms). It passed from him to his son, Ulumaheiehi – also known as Hoapili, the name given to him by Kamehameha – who became such an intimate friend of the great king that Hoapili was charged with hiding his bones when he died. Hoapili lived at Kapunahou, and when Kamehameha was at Waikīkī, he often visited his friend. Hoapili passed the lands to his daughter, Liliha, whose husband Boki was the governor of O‘ahu from 1825 – 1829.

From earliest times the sweet water of Kapunahou was carried to other parts of Honolulu to areas where only brackish water was available. Initially the spring emptied into a pond that fed the lo‘i kalo (taro patches) on what is now Rice Field.

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After the death of Kamehameha, his wife, Ka‘ahumanu, became queen regent and co-ruler with Kamehameha II. Her interest in Christianity prompted her to suggest that the missionaries be given the lands of Kapunahou so that they would have a water-fed area to grow food and support their mission. Although Liliha opposed the gift of land, her husband and father supported Ka‘ahumanu’s decision and the land was given as a gift to Hiram Bingham by Governor Boki for the Sandwich Islands Mission in 1829. At that time, the lands of Kapunahou included more than 224 acres in Mānoa, with taro patches and canefields, and 77 acres of fish and salt ponds near present-day Kewalo Basin.

Taking a protective interest in her gift, Ka‘ahumanu built a grass hut beside the spring for herself and another one nearby for Mr. and Mrs. Bingham. Later, their hut was replaced by an old adobe home where the Binghams lived for 10 years – it is marked today by the stone tablet near the corner of Cooke Library. Ka‘ahumanu also ordered the construction of the first stretch of stone wall that now surrounds Punahou, originally built to protect the farm from grazing cattle. Hiram Bingham’s son, Hiram II, claimed to be the first missionary boy to bathe in the waters of Kapunahou.

Punahou School History

In the early years of Punahou School, the spring was a favorite resting place for students. Martha Chamberlain wrote in the 1850s about her experiences at Punahou, describing a bucolic landscape shaped by the spring’s waters:

“Below the playground is the little brook, and beyond that the boys’ farm. There was the corn field. Here the banana field. Yonder the beds of beets, carrots, turnips and radishes etc. And above the brook on this side is the mimosa grove. How often have we, the girls, eaten our dinners there, and played neath the cool shade and by the bubbling brook. Away on this side is the ditch, two and a half or three feet wide, and unladylike as it may seem, for better sport we have often ‘jumped the ditch,’ and given zest to the sport by trying who would jump the widest places, and the greatest number of times without stopping – and oh the spring, I must not forget the spring…

“In our intermission we would start with our dinner pails in hand and go to the spring stopping on the way to gather the honey from the banana blossoms or gathering the buds of the morning glory and tearing them open to see the beautiful delicate pink color, or plucking a kalo (taro) leaf, stop by the brook and put a little water in it to see the silver globules roll around the smooth surface like mercury in a saucer. At last we reach the spring. It is a very large one and deep too, deep enough to drown a child of considerable size. Here we rest. Under the hau tree or rather on it (for we used to climb trees in those days), we eat our lunch brought from home in the morning, and then for a wade into the pond into which the spring emptied itself. Off with shoes and stockings – soon we are seated on the broad flat stones by the brink and paddling our feet in the clear cool water, or perhaps wading out and collecting the soft green moss so abundant under the surface. At length we fill our pails from the spring for an afternoon supply and no we are on our way back.”

In those early decades, when Punahou raised its own produce to feed students and faculty, the spring irrigated extensive areas under cultivation. Several channels carried the water to feed agricultural fields, taro patches, the garden by the former Bingham house and a little vineyard behind it. One channel ran through the pantry of the earliest “E” building, about 800 feet away, to keep it cool. In 1861 the school obtained 3-inch pipe to carry water from Ka Punahou to a tap in each court of the “E” building, providing irrigation for the gardens and clearer water than had previously come through the channels.

Levi Chamberlain described the site in 1854 as “a washing place…and the rendezvous of the Honolulu boys, after passing through the tortures, hardships, trials and arduous duties of the forenoon. Here those patient, persecuted boys might be seen eating their luncheon, and endeavoring to comfort and console each other. Here, too, might be seen the girls wading after moss. Below this spring was the fish pond, and as this pond was springy ground, it also was included under the name of the spring. The spring was lower than the ground around it. The east side was noted as a sliding ground and we were accustomed to spend the time, while the Punahou boys were bathing, in sliding here.”

It is worth noting that, while the terms “spring” and “pond” are used interchangeably today, early references to Ka Punahou often distinguish between the water source itself, where it issued from the ground, and the pooling “fish pond” or “Lily Pond” that had formed below it.

Arthur C. Alexander (1883) notes that his father and former president of Oahu College, William DeWitt Alexander (1849), acquired a tiered fountain from Dr. Judd. It was erected in 1868 in the area by Old School Hall, with water piped down from the spring. In 1908 or 1909, the fountain was transferred to the Lily Pond, where it remained for many years and appears in a number of photos.

The spring water also made possible Punahou’s earliest swimming pools. In the 1870s, Mary Haven, a new teacher to Punahou, recalled bathing behind the “E” building in a high wooden tub with rounded edges. The tub was replaced in 1888 by a 47-foot cement-walled “tank,” one of the first swimming pools in Honolulu, with waters diverted from Ka Punahou. In 1922 the tank was replaced by the original Elizabeth P. Waterhouse Memorial Swimming Pool.

In the 1880s, Superintendent of Grounds Frank Barwick stocked the pond with carp to be used at lu‘au celebrations. The area around the spring was described as “wild” until the turn of the century, when the pond below the spring was cleared out and enlarged. Pink and blue water lilies replaced the tangled growth of the old pool, though the pale lotus flowers that originally graced its waters disappeared. In 1900, an artesian well at the head of Alexander Street became the main source of water for indoor use, though the spring continued to provide irrigation for the grounds. In 1908 the Punahou Alumni Association donated funds to build “sanitary walls” on one side of the spring, and a pergola with lava rock pillars to support beams on which a bougainvillea arbor would grow.

As a reminder of the underground labyrinth of fresh water below the School, three new springs appeared on Punahou grounds in 1916, the occasion of Punahou’s 75th anniversary. At the 100th anniversary, two new springs appeared above Bishop Hall (the building was eventually demolished because the underground water was compromising its structural integrity). At the 125th anniversary, new springs appeared underneath the newly built Thurston Memorial Chapel. An Oral History documenting the construction of Thurston Memorial Chapel in the 1960s notes that:

“We learned quite a few interesting things about that Punahou spring. Its flow varies from just above a trickle – we’ll say a few thousand gallons a day – up to 300,000 gallons a day. …Evidently that water runs fairly close to the surface, runs under Alexander Field, which is one of the reasons why we have so much trouble with the track. It runs and comes out at the Lily Pond; it flows underneath the Lily Pond, down through where the basketball – outdoor basketball – courts were for the Elementary School and underneath Bishop Hall.”

The Centennial Class of 1941 honored the site of the new spring with the gift of a plaque created in the James B. Castle School of Manual Arts, commemorating the gift of land with a brief version of the legend of the spring. The School newspaper “Ka Punahou” reported that, “The modeling of the lettering on the plaque was done by Masajie, one of the shop staff and is said to be the finest example of hand-sculptured lettering in the territory.” The large pōhaku (stone) in which the plaque is set comes from the campus of Kamehameha School.

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The Lily Pond has always been the site of play and mischief for students – from catching tadpoles and crayfish to leaping between the rocks and islands in the water, to the inevitable immersion in its waters. Seniors were ceremonially dunking freshman boys in the earliest years, both in the pond and in the cement tank. The official “dunking ceremony” involving a parade and costumes was terminated in 1915, but the return to Punahou campus after 1944 saw a revival of this ritual. In 1951 “Ka Punahou” headlined “Pond Dunking Discontinued,” with Academy Principal Walter Curtis elaborating on the dangers of dunking linked to class rivalries. However “Oahuan” and “Ka Punahou” issues from 1950 through 1961 consistently published photographs of the “Punahou Swing,” such as an image from the 1958 Oahuan captioned “Underclassmen” depicting a crowd of laughing Academy students gathered on the shores of the Lily Pond as one of them – evidently an underclassman – flies through the air on his way into the water.

In a 1996 issue of the Punahou Bulletin, Sally Corboy ’62 Kurtzman remembers that, “Seniors, long giving up their pollywog fascination, would be giving the old ‘Punahou swing’ across the pond to happy victims. Cheering high school pals would chant as ‘one, two, three’ the person was swung in the air flailing, only to drop crashing into the innocent water. We elementary school children would huddle in awe watching. The cheerleaders – they of the coifed fame and great outfits – would be perfect targets on game days. Those being swung would struggle to take off watches or shoes before they were tossed into the murky waters.”

A set of “Rules for Using the Lily Pond” published in “Ka Punahou” in 1955 were as follows:

Anyone desiring to throw a person into the Lily Pond must first contact the president of the student body. The president will call a quick meeting of any three members of the Executive Council to decide on the action to be taken.

If one or more members of this “Kangaroo Court” should be opposed to the “dunking,” the matter shall have to wait until the following Monday when the entire Executive Council shall meet and decide the case.

But, if the “Kangaroo Court” unanimously approves the proposal, the PASA president shall appoint two of the victim’s classmates to perform the ceremony, which shall take place anytime after school, depending on the situation. These “dunkers” shall be chosen for their cool-headedness, bodily coordination, and strength.

The following list of offenses shall be a guide to the Court members:

  1. Breaking Punahou tradition (not wearing colors on color day, etc.)
  2. Not upholding Punahou standards (bad conduct at football games, canteens, and other school activities, fighting or unauthorized use of paint.)
  3. Repeated school offenses (not wearing shoes, chewing gum, etc.)
  4. The Executive Council will send a representative to the Junior School Representative Assembly to explain that the privilege of dunking is reserved for members of the Senior Academy.
  5. The privilege is not to be used merely to initiate new students.
  6. Those who abuse the privilege of dunking and do not seek permission or otherwise do not follow the rules, shall have to appear before the Executive Council at its regular meeting and shall be punished according to the decision of that body. The council can sentence the guilty one to a trial by the Student Court or an official dunking.
  7. All persons designated to carry out the dunking penalty on offenders will be properly instructed in the art, so that no bodily harm will come to the offender.
  8. In cases where underclassmen are caught on Rocky Hill by seniors, the case has to go through the same procedure s other offenses.

Fun and games aside, the New Spring has always been a source of reflection and inspiration for Punahou School. In 1860 Samuel C. Damon wrote in “The Friend”:

“Its endowment must be secured. There must not be one backward step. Punahou (new spring) must continue to send forth its pure mountain stream! The noble and generous spring that gushes from its soil, sending forth its perennial current to freshmen, gladden and fertilize the broad plain, happily typifies that intellectual, moral and spiritual stream which, we trust, may never cease flowing from that collegiate institution so long as our islands remain the cherished and happy abode of human beings.”

On the School’s 50th anniversary in 1891, W.D. Alexander wrote:

“Indeed, the waters of the Punahou spring seem to have the same virtue that is ascribed to the fountain of Trevi of Rome; vis. That those who have drunk of it once are sure to return, sooner or later, to drink of it again.”

The Spring’s Rebirth
By the 1990s, the spring had been reduced in its size and visual impact, in part because of the construction of Thurston Memorial Chapel in 1967. The cement lining that had been installed in 1941 had begun to disintegrate, and the shores of the Lily Pond were often muddy. In 1993, Jeanne Paty ’41 wrote a letter to President Rod McPhee imploring him to consider a “drain and fill” approach to making her dream of “the Lily Pond becoming a showcase for the Punahou campus… All of Punahou will thank you for getting this project underway.”

Another letter from an “angry gardener” in 1992 described the state of the Lily Pond: “The disgusting, brown water had seeped through the soil, or over the crumbling cement blocks surrounding the pond. It was forming puddles in the dirt or the little bit of grass surrounding the pond. The island in the lily pond was in a state of disrepair. The cement blocks around the island, that might once have kept the soil on the island, were falling into the toxic water. The grass on the island was almost as bad as middle field’s. There were small scars covering the tree, probably from kids throwing rocks at it, that had not been treated. In some cases, the cuts had become infected, giving the tree the appearance of being old and gnarled.”

In 1996 the School undertook “Ho‘āla i Ka Punahou,” a major project to restore the Lily Pond’s water quality and repair its deteriorating walls, with a significant portion of the $170,000 expenses raised from reunioning classes. The turtles and fish were removed to an aquatic “hotel” in the Physical Plant shop and water lilies were carefully transplanted to large holding trays under the direction of Betsy Sakata of the International Water Lily Society and Lyon Arboretum. A number of the flowers were also sold to help raise funds for the renovation.

Before the inauguration of the newly cleaned and renovated pond, an eerie omen was experienced the campus crew. On the morning of June 5, 1996, Assistant Director of Physical Plant Steve Piper was alerted to a Hawaiian Owl, or pueo, that had been spotted at the edge of Ka Punahou. Physical Plant worker Mack Kalahiki, who had prior experiences with pueo, also responded to the call. By the time Piper, Kalahiki and his partner Randal Morgado arrived at the Lily Pond, the pueo was floating in the water and a small crowd had gathered around. The workers watched as the pueo spread its wings and dipped its head in the water several times. At this point, Kalahiki decided to try to save the bird. He followed the pueo around the pond to help it, but it kept moving away. Finally, the owl lowered its face into the pond and did not surface.

Fearing the worst, Kalahiki reached the bird with a net and picked it up. The pueo opened its eyes and looked up at him for several moments, then died in his arms. Within a few minutes of the bird’s death, a light mist began to fall and a double rainbow appeared in the skies above Mānoa Valley. Kalahiki buried the bird on Rocky Hill. That same afternoon, Piper decided to introduce back into the Lily Pond the fish that had been removed before the renovation, despite the fact that many other tasks needed to be finished for the Alumni Lū‘au.

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The next morning, when Piper and Kalahiki arrived at work, the Lily Pond was bubbling and frothing with spawning fish. According to legend, Rocky Hill used to be the home of the pueo that guarded Mānoa Valley. Kalahiki, who finds special meaning in the story because the pueo is his father’s ‘aumakua, believes “the owl was sent to bring new life to the Lily Pond; it represents a rebirth of the School.” Indeed, varieties of lilies that hadn’t been seen in the pond for over 80 years began to grow again. Hawaiian cultural expert kumu John Lake later interpreted the pueo’s appearance as a good omen, representing the spring’s rebirth.

A 1996 issue of “The Spring” described the inauguration of the site: “The first gathering at the completed pond with its new shady arbor reminiscent of the old pergola occurred just before school ended in June, 1996. Kindergartners and third graders sang three compositions written for or about Ka Punahou and representatives from each grade level reintroduced fish and turtles back into the pond.”

Just prior to the Alumni Lū‘au, several hundred alumni celebrated the renewal they had made possible. The Lily Pond was rededicated, with performances by members of the Class of 2005 of “The Legend of Ka Punahou” by R. Alexander Anderson (1912) and “Eia Ka Punahou” by Mary Kawena Pukui on the small island in the Lily Pond. “Ka Lei o Punahou” by Pukui and Irmgard Farden Aluli was presented by the Class of 2008. A new pergola, designed after the original from 1908 that was removed for the construction of Thurston Memorial Chapel, was erected with support from the Class of 19__ and 90-year old bougainvillea trees were replanted to provide shade for new generations of children who would come to enjoy the waters of Ka Punahou.

In more recent years, Ka Punahou has been intentionally incorporated into facility planning – including the use of water from the spring to storage tanks and landscape sprinklers in Case Middle School, to the new neighborhood for grades 2 – 5, whose design is anchored by Ka Punahou and will include spring-fed lo‘i kalo for students to gain hand-on learning about Hawaiian culture and environment.

Although it was written 80 years before the rededication, this verse by “A.J.F.” is a lyrical celebration of the spring that uncannily echoes much the historic arc above.

“Punahou, a Ballad” by A.J.F., published in the Oahuan, February 1916

From out Mānoa’s wooded heights
A merry stream once made a sally;
It skipped along a secret path,
And issued from the valley.

Below a rocky hill it paused,
Then gaily leaped up into view.
“O ho!” quoth man, when he beheld,
“This sparling spring is something new.”

“The gods have sent it for a sign
Of favors large and very kindly;
To pass it by without a thought
Would be to act quite blindly.”

“To show our thanks and gratitude,
This spot must have a worthy name;
We’ll call it Punahou, forsooth,
And give its story lasting fame.”

Then came a school and camped near by,
And straightaway teachers saw the truth;
“This spring a symbol plainly is
Of learning bubbling forth for youth.”

“We’ll take its name to be our own,
We’ll be ourselves the Punahou
From which young minds may quaff
So children shall to wisdom grow.”

But boys and girls are sometimes dull,
And oftener still are merely lazy;
About the lore of ancient sages,
Their brains persist in being hazy.

The spring of gurgling water held
A charm that learning surely lacked;
For through the pasture truant boys–
And girls – were very often tracked.

There gathered they to fish for carp.
Or stolen fowl in secret stew,
Or suckling pig to roast with skill,
Or taste of fruit that nearby grew.

What if they sometimes were dismayed,
By teachers prying out their fun!
They only seized what hands could hold,
And over walls and fields did run.

But stolen sweets were not confined
To students who were wild and gay;
To walk by moonlight lovingly
The teachers often crept away;

And near the verge of that same pond
They lingered long in blissful joys,
As dear to them, you may be sure,
As were the feasts to hungry boys.

Some years passed by and knowledge spread;
The school outstripped the spring in fact.
With rushing life it overflowed,
And sought more space in which to act.

New buildings sprang up all around,
And pushed their way to the very brink
Of the little pool of water clear,
Where cattle once had come to drink.

The pasture now fled up the hill,
Where fences marked its utmost limit;
The spring became a garden lake
With palms and lilies pink to trim it.

The students old now thought with love
Of all the sunny truant hours
That once they spent in idleness;
So built a pergola hung with flowers.

To dedicate this gracious gift,
With puffing pride, they speeches made;
For merry, playful girls and boys
With age become alumni staid.

Soon just beneath that pergola,
Another generation played
Some classic scenes in flowing garb,
And quite a hit they surely made.

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