Kailua Bay has been a focal point for the Kona districts since ancient times. It was a Royal Center where ali‘i lived; this was a favorite spot of King Kamehameha I who spent his last years at Kailua. He died here at his home, Kamakahonu, on May 8, 1819. Other Hawaiian royalty lived here at different times.
By the end of the century, large ranches had begun to form and ranching, along with coffee, came to dominate much of the economics and landscape of the Kona Coast for the next 50 years.
The first Kailua wharf, adjoining Kaiakeakua Landing on the west was probably constructed in the late-nineteenth century to accommodate whale boats and lighters (open barges) from interisland steamers.
Competitors Wilder Steamship Co (1872) and Inter-Island Steam Navigation Co (1883) ran different routes, rather than engage in head to head competition.
“The Inter-Island Steam Navigation Co, established in 1883, own(ed) and operate(d) a fleet of first-class vessels engaged exclusively in the transportation of passengers and freight between ports on the islands of the Hawaiian group.” (Annual Report of the Governor, 1939)
Inter-Island operated the Kauaʻi and Oʻahu ports plus some on Hawaiʻi. Wilder took Molokaʻi, Lānaʻi and Maui plus Hawaiʻi ports not served by Inter-Island. Both companies stopped at Lāhainā, Māʻalaea Bay and Makena on Maui’s leeward coast. (HawaiianStamps)
Mahukona, Kawaihae and Hilo were the Big Island’s major ports; Inter-Island served Kona ports; vessels left Honolulu stopping at Lāhainā and Māʻalaea Bay on Maui and then proceeding directly to Kailua-Kona.
From Kailua, the steamer went south stopping at the Kona ports of Nāpoʻopoʻo on Kealakekua Bay, Hoʻokena, Hoʻopuloa, rounding South Point, touching at the Kaʻū port of Honuʻapo and finally arriving at Punaluʻu, Kaʻū, the terminus of the route. (From Punaluʻu, five mile railroad took passengers to Pahala and then coaches hauled the visitors to the volcano from the Kaʻū side.)
In 1915, Kona freight shipments, consisting of coffee, sugar and general cargo, had increased to such an extent that it became necessary to enlarge the wharf area. This work was completed in 1916.
Another of the primary usages of the wharf was for the shipment of cattle. A unique facet of ranching in Hawai‘i was its close relationship to the local maritime industry of inter-island and inter-coastal shipping.
Before the days of refrigeration, cattle, for other than the local markets of each island, had to be shipped live to the island of Oahu where, because of the larger population and accelerated development, the demand for fresh beef was always greater.
The transporting of live cattle posed dramatic technical challenges that were complicated by the shallow bay bottom, precluding an inter-island schooner or steamer to dock for loading of cattle (or other freight).
Ranchers ran the cattle through Kailua town and the paniolo would drag cattle out from the beach to longboats that rowed out to the main steamer with cattle tied by the head to the gunwales. (Strazar)
The last shipment of cattle from Kailua occurred in the early 1950s. This marked the end of an area. This colorful but inefficient method of shipping cattle became obsolete when improvements were made to the Kawaihae Wharf located 30 miles to the north.
By 1944, the wharf was under the control of the Board of Harbor Commissioners and had an area of 11,608 square feet. In 1952 a contract was let to build a more modern facility of steel and concrete.
The Wharf had a berthing length of 157 feet and a water depth of three to five feet. The wharf area was 10,755 square feet and had a shed which covered an additional area of 9,508 square feet and a fuel storage facility.
“Plans are being prepared and bids will soon be called on the construction of a wharf to replace the old Kailua Wharf, Island of Hawaii.”
“This replacement will be so designed that barges and inter island vessels of draft of 16 to 18 feet can dock alongside of pier face. The cost of this project is being paid from current revenues.” (Board of Harbor Commissioners, 1952) The new wharf was completed in 1953.
However, with the completion of improvements to Kawaihae Harbor in 1959, the use of the Kailua-Kona Wharf became uneconomical and all cargo handling was moved to Kawaihae. The use of the Kailua Wharf became sport fishing oriented. As sport fishing and other visitor interests grew, it became apparent that the Wharf was too small to service all interested parties.
In the 1980s, damage to the Wharf’s steel bulkhead was discovered and repairs were made. In the early-1990s, underwater inspections revealed addition damage to the Wharf bulkhead. Repairs were made to the structure in 2004.
The present wharf, enlarged to 62,109 square feet in 1952, has mooring facilities, though limited, as well as a boat ramp.