Before European contact, ‘Iao Stream served to irrigate lo’i in terraces that extended well up into ‘Iao Valley. Nearby is Kanaha Fishpond, which is said to have been built by Chief Kiha-Piʻilani, son of Piʻilani and brother-in-law of ʻUmi, (in about the 16th century.)
After contact, the port and town of Lāhainā was the first trading location to become established on Maui. As early as 1819, whaling lured thousands of sailors to Lāhainā. Meanwhile, even by 1837, Kahului was described as a settlement of 26-pili grass houses.
During King Kamehameha’s campaign to unify the Hawaiian Islands, the principal military encounter on Maui took place within Kahului Bay. For two days, there was constant fighting between the two sides until Kamehameha conquered them with the help of the western military expertise and firearms of his western advisors, John Young and Isaac Davis.
It was a bloody battle and by the time it was over, the beach between Kahului and Pāʻia was covered with the canoes and bodies of fallen warriors.
With the success of the first oil wells in Titusville, Pennsylvania, the whaling trade began to decline in the 1860s. It was about at this time when Maui turned to the emerging sugar industry to fill its economic void.
The isthmus between Haleakala and West Maui contained rich soils ideal for crop cultivation. Within a few short years, the region soon supported one of the largest sugar plantations in the world.
In 1876, following the Reciprocity Treaty, other Westerners gained interest in Maui’s agriculture potential, including Claus Spreckels (who came to Hawaiʻi from San Francisco.)
Spreckels leased land from the government and obtained the water rights needed to build a large irrigation ditch that provided water for crops. These events set the stage for the establishment of Maui’s first railroad system.
Rail transported cane from the fields to the harbor. Passenger cars were added to the rail system and in 1879 Thomas Hobron founded the Kahului Railroad Company, the first railroad in Hawaiʻi that provided passenger service between the population centers at Wailuku and Kahului Harbor.
Early development at Kahului Bay started in 1863 with the construction of the first western building, a warehouse near the beach.
In 1879, to facilitate the loading and unloading of goods and passengers, the first small landing was constructed in Kahului Bay. By the turn of the 19th century, Kahului supported a new customhouse, a saloon, a Chinese restaurant, and a small but growing population. (DOT)
When Bubonic Plague was noted in Kahului on February 10, 1900, “we found that the inhabitants of Chinatown, where the disease was discovered, had been moved to a detention camp some distance from the town, Chinatown destroyed by fire”. (Carmichael) The rebuilding of Kahului town coincided with the evolution of Kahului Bay into a full-scale commercial harbor. (Noda; DOT)
Kahului Commercial Harbor is a man-made port, dredged from naturally occurring Kahului Bay. As a harbor, its chief advantage was a narrow break in the coral caused by the fresh water from the Waikapu River, which emptied into Kahului Bay at one time. The break allowed ships to anchor inside the protecting reef.
The anchorage was less than ideal. It was exposed to the full force of the trade winds, there was very little deep water and a heavy surge as well. The harbor has a long history of development, including construction of breakwaters and harbor dredging dating back to the early 1900s. (DOT)
The development of the harbor began in earnest under the leadership of Henry Baldwin. During this time, the railroad and harbor depended on each other to provide service to the merchants and the sugar cane plantations. (Noda; DOT)
The harbor complex originated in 1900 when a 400-foot long east breakwater was constructed by the Kahului Railroad Company.
In 1901, the rail company purchased its first tugboat, the Leslie Baldwin, to tow lighters to and from vessels. Harbor development was initiated three-years later by Kahului Railroad Company, who was at the time a subsidiary of Hawaiian Commercial and Sugar Company.
“(T)he growing commercial importance of Kahului Harbor, a seaport of this Territory, in the Island of Maui, demands that adequate facilities be provided for the proper handling of freight and passenger traffic under government supervision and control”.
The Territorial Senate then addressed a Resolution, asking “That the sum of $100,000.00 be inserted in the Appropriation Bill for the purpose of defraying all costs incidental and necessary to condemn the new Claudine Wharf and moorings in Kahului Harbor, Maui, now owned and controlled by the Kahului Railroad Company, Limited”
“… whereby said wharf and moorings shall become the property of the Territory of Hawaiʻi; and also to construct a new wharf in said harbor at which large vessels may dock and load or discharge freight and passengers.” Wm T Robinson, Senator 2nd District; February 23, 1911.
Pier 1 was initially 500-feet in length and was constructed between 1921 and 1924, along with a pier shed that was 374 feet long. Subsequent construction lengthened Pier 1 to 929-feet.
The first 627-feet of Pier 2 was constructed in 1927 at the location of the old “Claudine Wharf,” and extended in 1929 by 894-feet.
The first involvement of the Army Corps of Engineers with the project came in 1913 when the east breakwater was extended 400-feet. The west breakwater was constructed to 1,950-feet in 1919, and the structures were extended to their current lengths in 1931. (DOT)
The harbor basin has been widened and deepened at various times to reduce navigational hazards due to increased traffic within the harbor and to accommodate larger vessels.
Kahului Harbor is one of nine commercial harbors (seven deep-draft and two medium-draft) found throughout the state. Because of Hawaiʻi’s geographic isolation, nearly all of its imported goods arrive via island ports.
Honolulu Harbor serves as the hub of Hawaiʻi’s commercial harbor system from where inter-island cargo distribution branches out to serve the neighbor islands. (Lots of information here is from Hawaiʻi DOT Harbors Master Plan.)