It is remarkable that while public open space in Honolulu is increasingly threatened by development, a beautiful new public park has quietly sprung up in the heart of the urban core.
This is the new Fort Ruger Pathway on the exterior backside of Diamond Head crater along Diamond Head Road.
It is very unusual to have a new public park created in the heart of Honolulu. The last time the city built a new park was 13 years ago in the Ewa suburbs. All the state’s other new parks have been on the Neighbor Islands.
Fort Ruger Pathway is not a grand park in the sense of Kapiolani or Ala Moana parks, but a shining example of what government can do to transform a stretch of unused state property into much-needed open recreation space.
The pathway cost the state $2.7 million with $650,000 of the bill kicked in by the Hawaii Tourism Authority for landscaping.
The pathway extends for 1.3 miles from the former site of the Cannon Club, continuing past Kapiolani Community College, and terminating at 22nd Avenue.
“The inside of Diamond Head crater has been pretty much taken over by tourists, but the new Fort Ruger pathway on the outside is about 90 percent used by residents,” says Yara Lamadrid-Rose, the Diamond Head State Monument coordinator.
The pathway is not officially opened but it is already awhirl with skateboarders, mothers pushing strollers, people walking their dogs and fitness seekers.
Diamond Head resident and health club tycoon Clark Hatch donated a line of outdoor exercise machines along the pathway, which are in steady use most of the day.
Kaimuki resident Steve Alegria, who was using the machines for the first time, says he is pleased to discover them.
He says, “This is so close to where I live. It gives me a reason to exercise more.”
Local residents are so appreciative of the park; they commandeered it shortly after the first phase was completed in August 2013.
They walk or jog right past signs that caution them to keep out of phase two — construction that’s expected to be completed in May with a formal celebration to follow.
Retired Honolulu Fire Department Capt. Robert Main jogs on the pathway three mornings a week after he drops his son off at Iolani School.
Main says, “ It makes a good exercise routine and the price is right.”
Hidden from the road by plants and trees, the park is much bigger than it looks from the road. More than 12 acres flank the concrete path with plantings, picnic tables, rest stops and plaques with historic information about an important era in Hawaii’s past.
The pathway runs through what was Fort Ruger, the first United States military reservation in Hawaii. U.S. officials under President Theodore Roosevelt established the fort in 1906 as a coastal artillery site to defend Honolulu from attack by enemy ships.
Fort Ruger is named for Maj. Gen. Thomas H. Ruger, a Civil War hero and later a superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. The fort is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Interpretive signs along the pathway tell the story of Fort Ruger’s construction beginning in 1906 by men and mules, to the height of the military build-up after the Pearl Harbor attack, when Fort Ruger became home to more than 50 Army officers and 1,200 enlisted men.
Most of old Fort Ruger has been demolished except for a small white chapel, the base movie theater which is now Diamond Head Theatre, and Battery Harlow, an unused mortar site on the slopes of the crater.
Other intact remnants of the fort are guard shacks, walls made of lava stones, scattered building foundations and stone stairways, which once fronted homes for soldiers and their families.
The Ruger Pathway goes over the remains of a tennis court used by soldiers stationed at the fort. Walkers on the path look down on a former Army machine shop. They also see some walls of the former military homes.
“We have the opportunity to share history that people walking on the pathway might not have known. Old photos on the interpretive plaques might spark some walkers’ interest in the history of Diamond Head,” says State Parks historian and archaeologist Martha Yent.
The late William Gaines, a prominent scholar of U.S. coastal artillery in the Pacific, considered the remains of the military’s presence at Fort Ruger extremely valuable.
In an email to me four years ago, Gaines said “Ft. Ruger serves as a full scale model of American seacoast defense in the early twentieth century.”
Parks historian Yent has taken painstaking steps to preserve the remains of the fort that are close to the pathway, including smaller features such as a grease trap from a former mess hall located near the 22nd Avenue end of the path.
When the path was under construction, Yent made sure the concrete walkway was shifted slightly so it would not obliterate the grease trap and other small archaeological features around it.
“They are important remnants to help us understand the past land use. The mess hall isn’t there any more but the features confirm it did exist just where it appears in old maps,” says Yent.
The pathway has been landscaped with native Hawaii dryland plants, thousands of them.
Diamond Head coordinator Lamadrid-Rose says “We used to plant pretty things in state parks but over the years the thinking has changed to plant what is appropriate, what might have been found in an original landscape.”
Since it began working on the Ruger pathway, Rainmaker Landscaping has planted 17,000 tufts of native aki aki grass, 4,000 uki uki plants and 76 milo and kou trees. It also installed native Hawaiian palms known as loulu.
Rainmaker’s owner Jay McGaughy says, “We get tons of compliments from people coming down the walkway. I think we did a good job. The native plants will survive better here than non-natives.”
With its native plants, interpretive plaques and space for exercising and picnicking, the Fort Ruger Pathway is to be praised for providing open space when so much of Honolulu is becoming hemmed in by concrete buildings that are “landscaped” with ritzy shops most of us can’t afford and phony water features.
Perhaps what has been done at Diamond Head can be emulated elsewhere in the city where there is unused public land.