In ancient times, the windward coast of the island of Lānaʻi was home to many native residents. Maunalei Valley had the only perennial stream on the island and a system of loʻi kalo (taro pond field terraces) supplied taro to the surrounding community.
Sheltered coves, fronted by a barrier reef, provided the residents with access to important fisheries, and allowed for the development of loko iʻa (fishponds), in which various species of fish were cultivated, and available to native tenants, even when the ocean was too rough for the canoes to venture out to sea. (Lānaʻi Culture and Heritage Center)
In 1861, Walter Murray Gibson came to Hawaiʻi after joining the Mormon Church the year before; he was to serve as a missionary and envoy of the Mormon Church to the peoples of the Pacific. He landed in Lānaʻi and eventually created the title “Chief President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Islands of the Sea.” He more regularly went by the name Kipikona.
The experience with the Church was relatively short-lived; in 1864, he was excommunicated for selling priesthood offices, defrauding the Hawaiian members and misusing his ecclesiastical authority (in part, he was using church funds to buy land in his name.)
By the 1870s, Gibson focused his interests in ranching in the area called Koele, situated in a sheltered valley in the uplands of Kamoku Ahupuaʻa. As the ranch operation was developed, Koele was transformed from an area of traditional residency and sustainable agriculture to the ranch headquarters. (Lānaʻi Culture and Heritage Center) In 1872, Gibson moved from Lānaʻi to Lāhainā and then to Honolulu.
After Gibson’s death in 1888, the ranch was turned over to his daughter and son-in-law, Talula and Frederick Hayselden. As early as 1896, the Gibson-Hayselden interests on Lānaʻi, which held nearly all the land on the island in fee-simple or leasehold title, began developing a scheme to plant and grow sugar on Lānaʻi.
They chose the ancient fishing community of Keōmoku for the base of operations, and in early-1899, the Maunalei Sugar Company was formally incorporated. Gear, Lansing & Co was the largest stockholder (Gear was President, Lansing was Treasurer – W Stodart was the plantation manager)
“The plan is that a sugar company will be incorporated at once with a capital of $1,000,000 and that 1,000 acres will be put into cane without delay. There will be no “wildcat” business in the enterprise and all persons signing for shares will be obliged to put down 10 percent of the amount desired. It is the intention of the promoters to avoid gambling in Lanai stocks as much as possible.” (Gear & Lansing, The Independent, February 28, 1899)
They developed larger support communities along the coast, cleared the lands, developed a narrow gauge railroad between Keōmoku Village and Kahalepalaoa (where the boat landing was situated,) and planted sugar cane, irrigated by water from Maunalei Valley.
“At the landing a very substantial wharf has been built, and a railroad to the camp two miles distant is in operation with a rolling stock of a locomotive and nineteen cars. Including the laborers quarters we have at the plantation fifty buildings, and the new buildings in contemplation are the pumping plants and the mill, a very respectable town and a very busy one.” (Stodart in Evening Bulletin, October 13, 1899)
Work on the plantation was largely done by immigrant Japanese laborers. “We have 400 laborers … and will have 200 more in a few weeks. The first crop will be ready to grind in 1901 and I have no doubt the yield per acre will be entirely satisfactory. The land is proving all that was promised and I have no doubt of the substantial returns to the stockholders.” (Stodart in Evening Bulletin, October 13, 1899)
Both men and women were brought from Japan, and a finder’s fee of $27- $36 per male employee, and $23 – $30 per female employee was paid to the immigration companies. Laborers were typically paid around $0.70 to $0.75 per day, with expenses for merchandise and board deducted from pay at the end of the month.
All did not go as planned.
Before completing the construction of the mill and associated facilities, and prior to the first harvest being collected for processing, the Maunalei Sugar Company went bankrupt. Sugar is a thirsty crop and the necessary water resources for the plantation were never realized.
Additional hardships arose following an outbreak of the bubonic plague in Honolulu, which led to a devastating fire and the closure of many Chinatown businesses (many of whom had invested in the Lānaʻi sugar operation.)
But those were not the major shareholders’ only financial concerns. A heading “Business Concern is in Difficulties” called attention to the financial problems of Gear, Lansing & Company; a sub-heading notes, “Failure of Maunalei Sugar Co. a Leading Factor in the Corporation’s Trouble Kaimukī and Other Large Real Estate Transactions”. (Honolulu Republican, June 19, 1901)
The story noted, “The corporation has, since its organization a few years ago, dealt heavily in real estate, besides participating largely in the boom of general stocks that two years ago strained the entire financial situation.”
“Gear, Lansing & Co.’s largest real estate deal was the exploitation of the Kaimukī residence tract. They laid out streets and installed a modern water works plant. A large proportion of the lots sold readily, but the hope deferred of rapid transit communication prevented a full measure of, success to the enterprise.”
Plantation records during the three year period of the plantation’s operation, some 70 employees (most of Japanese origin) died and were buried on Lānaʻi. In 1932, members of the Lānaʻi Hongwanji Mission built a memorial for Japanese employees of the sugar plantation near the grave sites.
Some other unfortunate consequences resulted from the Lānaʻi sugar endeavor. A part of the plantation’s work resulted in the introduction of the algarroba (kiawe) tree – the hardwood was to have been used as fuel for the furnaces, and the seeds as feed for the livestock. Left untended, the trees became an invasive pest on the island.
Following the sugar failure, Keōmoku was used as ranchland until 1954. The nearly 3,000 acres of cleared land led to significant erosion and siltation that spread from the uplands to the shore, burying sites and the reef under as much as nine feet of silt. (Lānaʻi Culture and Heritage Center)
The image shows a map of Maunalei Sugar (Lanai Culture and Heritage Center.) Here is a link to more images.
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