It used to be referred to as ʻĀina Momona (the bountiful land,) reflecting the great productivity of the island and its surrounding ocean.
It is about 38-miles long and 10-miles wide, an area of 260-square miles, making it the 5th largest of the main Hawaiian Islands (and the 27th largest island in the US.)
The island was formed by two volcanoes, East and West, emerging about 1.5-2-million years ago. The cliffs on the north-eastern part of the island are the result of subsidence and the “Wailua Slump” (a giant submarine landslide – about 25-miles long that tumbled about 120-miles offshore – about 1.4-million years ago.)
In separate volcanic activity about 300,000-years ago, Kalaupapa Peninsula was formed. Penguin Bank, to the west of the island, is believed to be a separate volcano that was once above the water, but submerged within the last 100,000-years.
Molokaʻi is divided into two moku (districts,) Koʻolau on the windward side and Kona on the leeward side. (These are common district names that are universally used across of the Hawaiian archipelago (“Koʻolau,” marking the windward sides of the islands, and “Kona,” the leeward sides of the islands.))
Archaeological evidence suggests that Molokaʻi’s East end was traditionally the home of the majority of early Hawaiians; large clusters of Hawaiians were living along the shore, on the lower slopes and in the larger valleys. Productive, well-kept fishponds were strung along the southern shoreline.
The water supply was ample; ʻauwai (irrigation ditches), taro loʻi (ponded terraces) and habitation sites were found in every wet valley. ʻUala (sweet potato) and wauke (paper mulberry) were cultivated in the mauka areas between long shallow stone terraces which swept across the lower kula slopes.
The windward valleys developed into areas of intensive irrigated taro cultivation and seasonal migrations took place to stock up on fish and precious salt for the rest of the year.
The drier coastal regions of the West end were sparsely populated on a year-round basis, although they were frequently visited for extended periods of fishing during the summer months. (Papohaku on the west shore is the longest stretch of white sand beach in Hawaiʻi (3-miles long and 300-feet wide.))
East end’s Pukoʻo had a natural break in the reef, good landing areas for canoes and nearby fishponds built out over the fringe reef. Archaeological evidence suggests it was a heavily populated area; it was also destined to become the first town in the western tradition on the island of Molokaʻi.
When the American Protestant missionaries arrived on Molokaʻi in 1832, they settled at nearby Kaluaʻaha. The first church was made of thatch (1833,) a school soon followed. By 1844, a stone church was built.
It was not long before a small community was forming around the church buildings. It became the social center of the entire island, with people coming from as far away as the windward valleys, over the pali and by canoe, just to attend church sermons on Sunday and socialize.
In the 1850s, Catholic priests began to visit the island; during the 1870s, Father Damien, who had come to Molokaʻi to serve the patients at Kalawao, traveled top-side to gather congregations of Catholics. He built four Catholic churches on the East End of Molokaʻi, at Kamaloʻo, Kaluaʻaha, Halawa and Kumimi.
In later years they built a wharf at Pukoʻo – it became the center of activity for the island and the first County seat. However, with economic opportunities forming on the central and west sides of the Island, Pukoʻo soon lost its appeal (there is no commercial activity there, today.)
Like Pukoʻo, Kaunakakai had a natural opening in the reef. In 1859, Kamehameha IV established a sheep ranch (Molokaʻi Ranch) and built his home, Malama, there. “It is a grass hut, skillfully thatched, having a lanai all around, with floors covered with real Hawaiian mats. The house has two big rooms. The parlor is well furnished, with glass cases containing books in the English language.”
“On the north west side of the house is a large grass house, and it seems to be the largest one seen to this time. The house is divided into rooms and appears to be a place in which to receive the king’s guests.” (SFCA)
Rudolph Wilhelm became manager of Moloka`i Ranch for Kamehameha V in 1864. However, Kamehameha V was probably best known on Molokaʻi for the establishment of the Leprosy Settlement on the isolated peninsula of Kalaupapa in 1865.
Meyer started to grow sugar shortly thereafter (1876.) By 1882, there were three small sugar plantations on Molokaʻi: Meyer’s at Kalaʻe, one at Kamaloʻo and another at Moanui.
Meyer also served as the Superintendent of the isolated Kalawao settlement (Kalaupapa) (serving with Father Damien and Mother Marianne Cope (now, both are Saints.))
Kaunakakai Harbor was an important transportation link and key to these various activities. After 1866, it became vital to bringing in supplies for the Kalaupapa Settlement. Goods, personnel and visitors were landed at Kaunakakai then transported by mule down the pali trail.
During the 1880s, sugar and molasses from the Meyer sugar mill were loaded onto carts and taken to the harbor where they were transferred into small boats. These boats came up to the sand beach and take the sugar and molasses to larger ships anchored in the harbor. By 1889 a small wharf had been built at Kaunakakai.
After Molokai Ranch was sold to the American Sugar Company in 1897 a new, more substantial stone mole with a wooden landing platform at the makai end, was put up next to the old wharf to service their expected sugar shipments.
Finally in 1909, a political division of the island was made incorporating Moloka`i into Maui County and excluding the State Health Department administered area of the Kalaupapa Settlement. This district became known as Kalawao County.
During the 1920s Kaunakakai first began to develop as the main business center of the island. Several stores were built along either side of Ala Malama Street indicating the sense of prosperity of the times. This activity continued well into the 1930s, a period that corresponded to the largest increase in population on Molokaʻi.
At that time and into the early-1930s, Kaunakakai gradually became the main hub of activity, partially due to its central location and increased population. It was here that a larger, improved wharf had been developed for the pineapple plantations and for the shipment of cattle.
Another major change occurred when the Government passed the Hawaiian Homes Act in 1921. Seventy-nine Hawaiian homesteading families moved to Kalamaʻula in 1922 and in 1924 the Hoʻolehua and Palaʻau areas were opened for homesteading on lands previously under lease from the government to the American Sugar Company Limited. The homestead population rose from an estimated 278 in 1924 to 1,400 by 1935.
In 1923, Libby, McNeil & Libby began to grow pineapple on land leased from Molokai Ranch; their activities were focused primarily in the Kaluakoʻi section of the island. Lacking facilities and housing, the plantation began building clusters of dwellings (“camps”) around Maunaloa. By 1927, it started to grow into a small town – as pineapple production grew, so did the town.
In 1927, California Packing Corporation, later known as Del Monte Corporation, leased lands of Naʻiwa and Kahanui owned by Molokaʻi Ranch to establish a pineapple plantation with headquarters in the town of Kualapuʻu. The town takes its name from kaʻuala puʻu, or the sweet potato hill, the hill to the south where sweet potatoes were grown on its slopes.
The town was first created when Molokaʻi Ranch (American Sugar Company) moved their ranch headquarters from Kaunakakai to Kualapuʻu after the demise of their sugar enterprise.
After the Hoʻolehua homesteads were opened up by Hawaiian Homes Commission in 1924, the ranch headquarters began to take on the character of a real town. However the real change came with the arrival of California Packing Corporation in Kualapuʻu to grow pineapple for shipment to the Oʻahu cannery.
In 1968, there were 16,800 acres of pineapple under cultivation on Moloka`i. The Libby plantation was sold to the Dole Pineapple Corporation in 1970, which very soon closed down the plantation when they determined it was no longer a profitable venture. After fifty-five years of operation, Del Monte began a phased shut down operation in 1982 which terminated in 1989.
Maunaloa and Kualapuʻu were towns created expressly for agriculture. Kaunakakai came into its own due to its harbor, central location, and the shift of population from the east end of the island. It gradually became the administrative and business center of Moloka`i, much as Pukoʻo had been many years before.
The image shows an 1897 map of Molokaʻi. (Lots of information here is from Curtis.)
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