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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, September 25, 2005

Pioneers of Palama

By Paula Rath
Advertiser Staff Writer

The Chinatown fire of 1900 left thousands of residents homeless. Those people were then moved into hastily-built tenements across the stream — in Pälama.

Palama Settlement archive photos

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  • Population in the Palama area was mainly Hawaiian and Chinese, but within half a mile of Palama Settlement, nine languages were spoken.

  • The city of Honolulu was incorporated July 1, 1905.

  • There were no shopping centers. Retailing was confined to mom-and-pop shops in an area bounded by Fort, Hotel, King and Nu'uanu streets.

  • King Street was a muddy, unpaved road traveled mainly by carriages and ox carts.

  • There were hitching posts for horses on most Honolulu streets.

  • Ala Moana and Waikiki were mainly duck ponds and swamps.

  • Women were covered from head to toe, wearing long-sleeved dresses with bustles.

  • Kapahulu was dairy farms, Manoa was vegetable farms and the area now called Hawai'i Kai was pig farms.

  • There were no bridges across Nu'uanu Stream — the only way to cross was on a wooden plank.

  • There were fewer than 100 motor cars in Honolulu.

  • The most common form of transportation was the streetcar. Honolulu Rapid Transit & Land Co. reported that nearly seven million passengers traveled by streetcar each year on 23 miles of track.

    — Paula Rath

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    James Arthur Rath (1870-1929) was born in India and educated in Massachusetts. His wife, Ragna Helsher Rath (1879-1981), was a social worker, teacher and mother of five. Together they founded Pälama Settlement in 1905.

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    The Chinatown fire began as the city's effort to eradicate bubonic plague by torching the homes of the infected, but the fire got out of control.

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    The Raths took hundreds of Pälama children to a fresh-air camp each summer to help them improve their health and offer opportunities for outdoor recreation.

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    It has been 100 years since the 1905 arrival of my grandparents James Arthur and Ragna Helsher Rath in Palama.

    They came to the neighborhood as social workers who were to become the founders of Palama Settlement. As Honolulu observes the centennial of its incorporation this year, I look back at my family's roots here and appreciate the role my grandparents played in helping shape Hawai'i's history.

    Nana and Grandfather, as we have always called them, truly made a difference in our city. Their vision for social change and undaunted courage in the face of formidable odds are legendary, marking them as pioneers in Island social work.

    They came to a city traumatized by tragic events that changed the character of the entire district.

    Palama had been a quiet cluster of taro farms and cottages with vegetable gardens and little rice paddies until it experienced a sudden and radical change on Jan. 20, 1900. Five cases of bubonic plague had been reported in Chinatown, then a crowded, rat-infested business and residential area just east of Nu'uanu stream. The city tried to eradicate the disease by setting fire to the homes of plague victims. The fires got out of control, however, and burned down the entire, densely populated neighborhood.

    The Chinatown fire altered the urban landscape and left thousands of residents and their families homeless. The city answered the need for homes by placing people in hastily-built tenements across the stream — in Palama.

    The landscape and lifestyles changed radically as people were crowded into a few ramshackle rooms.

    There was inadequate water and sewers, and no open space for children to play. In a report to the community, Grandfather wrote, "Palama is sadly in need of cleaning. I have seen most of the cities of the United States, but I have seen nothing as bad as this anywhere."

    It was a neighborhood in need: in need of healthcare, nutritious food, affordable housing, recreation, English classes and jobs.

    Warren Nishimoto, director of the Center for Oral History at the University of Hawai'i-Manoa, has written about Palama Settlement in "The Hawaiian Journal of History." He recently compared 1905 Honolulu to 2005 New Orleans: "When you think of the thousands of people who are displaced from the tragedy of Katrina, it makes me think of what happened in Honolulu when all those people were displaced after the Chinatown fire. Palama Settlement gave them some hope," he said.

    Within just a few years, the energetic couple had established an extensive public nursing program, low-cost rental cottages, youth athletic programs, day nurseries and day camps for children, a pure-milk depot and a night school in English, history, civics and geography.

    Grandfather was a tireless fundraiser who simply would not take no for an answer. He raised money to build classrooms, a gymnasium and swimming pool, tennis courts, a football field, basketball courts, two fresh-air camps, and medical clinics all over O'ahu.

    Unfortunately, I never knew my grandfather, as he died when my father was just 13, of complications caused by years of suffering from malaria (he contracted it while being raised in India, where it was a common disease). At that point, after 25 years at the Settlement, my grandmother and my father, Robert Helsher Rath, born in 1915, the only one of her five children still at home, had to move out. It was the Great Depression, and Nana worked as a teacher in Kaka'ako, while my father worked his way through Punahou School and UH-Manoa.


    When my grandmother was in her 80s, she wrote a 500-page book about my grandfather and Palama Settlement. This book remains a family treasure and is the source for much of the information in this story.

    The cliche is that "behind every great man stands a woman." With my grandparents, a more apt description would be that Nana stood beside Grandfather, not behind him. Although she was busy raising their five children at the Settlement, she also taught English night classes, ran the mauka fresh-air camp and taught Palama girls everything from sewing and cooking to hygiene and cleaning.

    I was fortunate to have known Nana well, as she lived with us throughout my youth. During middle and high school, I walked over to her cottage after school. For several hours, she would teach me to sew and cook and enjoy poetry and literature until it was time for me to head home on the bus.


    The newlyweds, who had been living in Massachusetts, were recruited by Dr. Doremus Scudder of the Hawaiian Board of Missions and P.C. Jones, a banker and philanthropist. Jones had built a little chapel in the Pälama neighborhood under the auspices of Central Union Church as part of an outreach program that they hoped would grow to better serve the needy community.

    My haole grandparents, of course, must have stood out in the Pälama community. At that time, the population was predominantly Chinese, Japanese and Hawaiian.

    Grandfather stood 6 feet 3, wore suits, played golf and cricket, was balding and mustachioed and spoke with an English accent. He loved poetry, especially Rudyard Kipling.

    Nana was less than 5 feet tall with the prim and proper appearance, and accent, of a New England schoolteacher.

    Grandfather wrote about their arrival in the Islands:
    “With his ever happy faculty of making the most difficult task appear pleasant and worthwhile, (Scudder) induced my wife and me to leave our home in Massachusetts and come to Hawaii to work in the Palama neighborhood. Those early days … now appear to belong to a previous Reincarnation, and at that time was somewhat discouraging.

    “Our neighbors were suspicious of us and on all sides we heard the word ‘Malihini’ (newcomer). This was so often repeated that, at times, we wondered whether it would be possible for a ‘Malihini’ to do anything in Hawaii; however, this feeling soon gave way to one of friendliness and confidence, and it was not long before we heard the more encouraging title ‘Kamaaina’ (longtime resident).”

    My father, Robert Helsher Rath, was the youngest of the five Rath children, born in 1915. Now 90, he recalls: “We were the only haoles from Nuuanu Avenue over. But nobody looked at us like haoles. I went to Punahou School, so it was sort of two different worlds. At Punahou, we couldn’t speak pidgin. When you got off the streetcar at Palama, you started talking pidgin, or else everybody thought you were being highfalutin.”


    Like so many Island families, my grandparents’ roots sprung from diverse cultures on opposite sides of the earth.

    James Arthur Rath was born and raised in India, where his father was a British civil servant working as a surgeon. Three prior generations of his family had lived and served in India.

    He appeared stern at first but was known as a fair man without an inkling of prejudice. He was an austere disciplinarian, but this side of him was tempered with tender compassion. He commanded respect from all who met him, young and old.

    Grandfather had always wanted to be a social worker. (He and Nana made it clear that they were social workers, not missionaries.) He came to the United States to study at Springfield College in Massachusetts, an institution that specialized in training men to manage Young Men’s Christian Associations.

    Nana was Norwegian. Her father, a farmer, essentially was a draft dodger. Unwilling to spend two years in the Norwegian military (conscription was, in the late 19th century, a requirement for all men in that country) he took his family to America to begin a new life on a New England farm.

    Nana was born in Concord, Mass. Always an excellent student she dreamed of being a teacher, one of the few professions available to women of that time.

    Ragna and James met when they were both teaching in Massachusetts. Although his goal had been to direct a YMCA in India, when Grandfather graduated from Springfield College, he found there were no such jobs available. He stayed in Massachusetts while looking for jobs abroad. In the meantime he courted, and married, Nana.

    That’s when Scudder and Jones recruited him with the idea of turning Pälama chapel into a settlement.


    The settlement movement began in England in 1884 with Toynbee Hall and was at its peak at the turn of the 20th century. Today, there are only three settlements left in the United States: Henry House in New York, Hull-House in Chicago and Pälama Settlement.

    A settlement was an institution based on the premise that social workers could better serve their constituents if they lived among them.
    Upon their arrival in 1905, my grandparents moved into a little cottage on Desha Lane and began their work in earnest.

    Their priority was to learn what was most needed in the Pälama area. To this end, Nana knocked on doors to see firsthand how her new neighbors were living. Did they have enough food? Did they live in hygienic conditions? Did the children have a place to play? How was their English? Were they job-ready? Did they know how to clean house, do laundry, cook, sew and care for their infants?

    She was horrified by the conditions, especially in the tenements.
    In the meantime, Grandfather was spending time “across the river” trying to raise awareness of the plight of the Pälama people.

    He spoke of a city divided at River Street into the haves and have-nots. Fundraising became a crucial responsibility for him and remained one his entire life.

    He later wrote, “Our first job was to become acquainted with our cosmopolitan neighborhood, representing Europe, Asia and Hawaii, not an easy task for two young people, one of whom had never been outside of New England prior to coming to Hawaii. Our neighbors, however, were most kind and considerate and in spite of the many discrepancies in methods of expressing ourselves, we became friends with those among whom we lived. The first feeling of suspicion gave way to one of curiosity, which in turn lost itself in confidence and friendship. In spite of supposed racial difficulties, we found the boys and girls of the various races among whom we lived much the same as the children in other lands.”


    Decades after Nana’s arrival in Hawaiçi, complaints about the high-rise boom in Waikïkï in the early ’60s came up in conversation. She said, “Oh, but it’s much more beautiful now than it was in 1905. I remember when Waikiki was swampy … and there was hardly any beach.”

    She loved to tell the story of going over the Pali, with its endless rise and steep decline, in a horse-drawn carriage. Her eyes widened and she exclaimed, “Oh, my, I was so terrified that I never went to the Windward side again — until we had cars to drive us over.”

    Nana’s book is filled with odd little tidbits of neighborhood life, such as the mysterious turtle that lived on Pua Lane. No one knew where it came from, and everyone treated it like a pet. It roamed free and the friendly creature allowed children to ride on its back.

    The Rath family of Pälama was raised in the formal, proper way of the British. The children were required to wear jackets to dinner. In a nod to their neighborhood, however, shoes were optional.

    My father wasn’t like most of his Pälama peers in that he had a “formal” family and attended Punahou. That occasionally made him the target of some scorn. He always covered his textbooks when taking the streetcar to school.

    It was a tough neighborhood, so by necessity, his older brothers taught him to box. He grew up feisty and always ready for a fight. He also grew up playing golf left-handed because he couldn’t afford golf clubs, so he borrowed someone else’s. He learned to roller-skate with only one skate, to share the cost of a pair with a friend.

    An excellent swimmer (and later a coach), my father earned pocket money diving for coins in Honolulu Harbor on Boat Days.


    There is no denying that James Rath was a visionary. His courage and undaunted loyalty to the neighborhood is the stuff of legends. For him it was all so simple: Live among the people, learn their needs and find a way to meet them.

    If the mothers didn’t have enough milk, he asked the dairies for assistance. If new immigrants needed to learn English, Nana would hold night classes in their home.

    Grandfather sent renowned nurse Mabel Smythe to Massachusetts for special training so she could establish a public nursing program to serve the health needs of the community. Pälama built an indoor swimming pool, tennis and basketball courts, pool hall, gym and bowling alley to keep the youths off the streets and out of trouble.

    If you ask a kama‘äina from nearly any part of Honolulu about Pälama Settlement, there’s a good chance that a memory will surface. Over the years, hundreds of thousands have learned to swim in the pool, improved their English in the classrooms, played barefoot football on the field, volleyball in the gym or got their teeth fixed at the Strong Carter Clinic.

    Photographer and makeup artist Mary Ann Changg of Waikïkï spent a great deal of her small-kid time at the Settlement. As a child she felt she straddled two worlds.

    Her mother was Japanese from Japan and her father was “military, and he spoke good English. It was a pretty rough area I grew up in, and at Pälama I learned to be a tita,” she said. “It was a good thing to learn to speak pidgin — definitely a plus for me.”

    Changg credits the Settlement with teaching her “How to be like one of the local kids. I learned a lot about everything. I made friendships with a lot of different people. It was like a refuge for us to hang out there. It taught us good values.” She later served on the board of trustees, where she was “proud to give back to a place that was part of my legacy.”

    With a pragmatic and humanitarian approach and an unstoppable social conscience, my grandparents courageously went “across the river” to find funds to meet the needs of their neighbors.

    If the children would benefit from an outdoor camping experience, my grandfather would talk a landowner into loaning the settlement a piece of land by the ocean, as well as one in the mountains, where two “fresh-air camps” provided relief and education for those who felt trapped in the tenements.

    Neighborhood parents asked Grandfather to keep an eye on their truant children, often putting him in the position of being a substitute probation officer.

    State Sen. Donna Kim of Moanalua Gardens gets quite emotional when asked to describe her days at the Settlement: “It was a safe haven for me. I learned so many things there: hula, swimming, chess, cooking, wood shop, arts and crafts. My mother used to complain that I was never home — I was always at Pälama. I later worked as a junior counselor for the camp at Pälama Uka. I sent my son there to study ‘ukulele with Brother Noland and play basketball on Pälama’s team. I was trying to give him a sense of what the Settlement is like.”

    In his 1921 report, Grandfather wrote, “What (Pälama Settlement) has meant to hundreds of boys and girls is almost impossible of telling; it will have to be judged by its results in the lives of those it has touched.”

    If Nana and Grandfather were living today, they would find that their visions and mission for the Settlement have remained unchanged for more than a century. The Settlement’s current mission statement reads: “The purpose of Pälama Settlement is the improvement of the physical, social, educational, emotional and cultural aspects of individual, family and community life in the Pälama area of Honolulu.”
    The population served by the Settlement has changed. The predominant ethnic groups are now Samoans, Micronesians, Filipinos, Hawaiians, Vietnamese and Laotians, according to Pälama Settlement’s executive director, Robert Omura.

    The work of the Settlement continues under his leadership. While he does not live on the institution’s grounds, he daily oversees a wide variety of activities for about 130,000 people each year.

    Those who use the services of the Settlement represent all ages and ethnic groups. Seniors crowd into the gym for line dancing, language classes, ‘ukulele lessons (with Brother Noland, no less) and social meals and gatherings. At-risk youth meet to study in the classrooms. The computer lab teems with students at all hours. Keiki play football, basketball, volleyball and learn to swim. Groups of Samoan teens meet to dance and share their culture. Kids spend their after-school hours playing games in the Leland Blackfield Center. The Settlement now provides outreach programs in the center of its neighborhood’s public-housing projects. No gang activity or violence of any kind is tolerated in this oasis.

    My unassuming grandmother had difficulty accepting any personal praise, but UH-Mänoa will honor her accomplishments at a private luncheon tomorrow. UH has included her in a multimedia DVD-ROM called “Values for a Democratic Society,” to be used by classroom teachers throughout the public schools to help develop civic character in high school students.

    Ragna Rath was selected, they wrote in a letter dated Aug. 10, because of her compassion and civic virtue and “because her story exemplified particular universal values such as integrity, initiative, justice, perseverance, respect, humility, courage, citizenship, appreciation, honesty, responsibility, self-discipline and compassion.”
    Nana was a generous, giving woman right up until the day she died in 1981 at the age of 102. She is remembered by the folks at Arcadia Retirement Residence as the woman who visited every resident of the third-floor nursing facility, all of whom were younger than she, every day, to say hello and ask if they needed anything.

    Once a social worker, always a social worker.

    This is my heritage. I could not be more proud of it.

    Reach Paula Rath at prath@honoluluadvertiser.com.