The Real Salt Lake

This area has a flavorful past.

Today, it’s just another Honolulu suburb. A hundred years ago, though, Salt Lake’s moniker was completely literal.

Before microwaves or motorcars, the area was an extinct volcanic crater that held a real lake. Hawaiians called it aliapa‘akai, or salt-encrusted. The name referred to the salt-loaded soil around the water, which produced white, crystallized blocks along the shore and at the lake bottom, a delicate sight praised by one Western visitor as “the principal natural curiosity that this island affords,” according to George Cooper and Gavan Daws, in their book Land and Power in Hawai‘i. Two missionary visitors in 1822 described “plants, sticks, and tufts of grass, scattered on the beach … delicately frosted with spangles of salt.”

The view of Salt Lake, circa 1900. photo: Ferdinand J.H. Schnack/Bishop Museum archives

The exceptionally fine salt became a coveted commodity, and Hawaiians mined it to sell to sea captains and others. By the mid-19th century, the salt’s popularity as an ingredient for incense in China left the lake depleted.

The water also shrunk away. Runoff from nearby sugar plantations plugged the natural spring and filled the lake with silt. An artesian well built in 1910 brought the lake new, fresh water, but, by the mid-1960s, development activity spoiled the water quality, with sewage from Aliamanu Crater piped into the pool. In 1966, after muddy political scuffles, the state decided to fill most of the lake. All that’s left is a pond on the golf course at the Honolulu Country Club.