Ask anyone, and they’ll tell you how beautiful WCC is. However, few realize the dark history of our cozy campus.
Long before WCC was established in 1972, these were the grounds of the Territorial Hospital, which later became the Hawai‘i State Hospital.
The mental hospital dates back to the mid-1800s, however its Kāne‘ohe campus was constructed from 1929-1935 to ease congestion at the then dilapidated Kalihi Insane Asylum. Kāne‘ohe was chosen for its isolation as it was farmland and pasture and the surrounding area was covered in jungle and thick vegetation.
According to the Context Study for the Hawai‘i State Hospital prepared for the state Department of Health in 2018, the hospital employed hundreds of workers and held up to as many as 3,500 patients at its peak during the 1930s and 1940s.
The facility was equipped with its own power, water and even farming and livestock programs. Though it didn’t have the reputation of the dreaded Kalihi Insane Asylum or the old Lanakila Mental Hospital, admission was rarely voluntary. The majority of patients were there by court or doctors’ orders.
Just as it is today, there were criminals who claimed legal insanity to serve their time at a mental institution as opposed to prison. Many though didn’t realize that by being incarcerated at the facility, they might be putting their own sanity at risk.
Medical treatment for mental illness used to be primitive and experimental. Electroshock therapy and experimental brain surgeries took place in the building known today as Hale ‘Iolani. When patients died, their bodies were moved to Eckerdt Hall, now Hale Alaka‘i, where autopsies were performed.
Since many passed away at the hospital, the facility was equipped with its own crematorium. It is said many lost spirits from those times still roam the grounds.
During the 1960s and 70s, conditions worsened as the facility grew older and patient suicides became a problem. WCC political science professor Roy Fujimoto, who has been at WCC since 1974, recalled hearing the story of a patient who hanged himself from the banyan tree behind Judd Hall, now Hale Na‘auao.
In the 1970s, the federal government took control of the facility. New structures were added as old ones were left derelict or demolished. With WCC’s arrival in 1972, some of the older buildings were renovated and cleaned out–sometimes by the teachers and faculty themselves–for use by the college.
Fujimoto said he sometimes had to mop and scrub his own room. He also said the campus was eerie then. Streetlights weren’t up yet, so it was pitch black at night. During full moons, the alcohol and drug abuse patients housed in what today is TRiO would howl loudly at the moon, sometimes all night long.
“I used to always be one of the only ones on campus, so one night I went to turn off a light that was left on at the building next to ‘Iolani,” Fujimoto said. “Within 10 seconds of turning off this light, it flipped itself back on. I never bothered with that light after that.”
Fujimoto said that he still sees that light on some nights. Though he has he never witnessed anything resembling a spirit or ghost, he said he’s heard footsteps in the halls when nobody was around and felt the presence of others when he knew he was completely alone.
Other faculty and staff have had similar experiences. WCC interim safety and security manager Faye Chambers shared an incident in which two of her guards smelled cigarette smoke in a hallway. It was a specific scent of hand-rolled cut cigarettes. The guards then felt as if something wooshed between them, followed by the strong cigarette scent again.
“It was like someone had blown a cigarette right in their faces,” Chambers said.
Other incidents on campus include unexplained sounds, shadows, televisions going on and off, and lights flickering. One incident was even caught on camera.
At about 4 a.m. in a building once used as a doctor’s residence, surveillance footage was taken of an electrically locked door opening itself. A cat then approached the door and made a hasty retreat after glancing inside. The door then closed and locked itself.
“There are incidents such as these that cannot be explained or confirmed,” Chambers said. “My staff and I alike are aware of this, and for this reason we approach these incidents with great respect and maintain that respect for the mana surrounding us as we go about our duties here.”
By the mid 1980s, the state hospital and WCC campus were separated due to rising safety concerns. However, the remnants of the hospital, some of which are now protected as historical landmarks, are a constant reminder of the past. And the current Hawai‘i State Hospital remains just a fence away.
By Rick Oania-Elam, Ka ‘Ohana Staff Reporter