The Waianae Coast received its name from the mullet that was once farmed here. Wai means water, and ʻanae means large mullet (perhaps from mullet in the muliwai, or brackish-water pools, that were once common in the backshore on many Waiʻanae beaches.) These fish were once produced in large amounts.
A legend describes the origins of niu (coconut) in the Hawaiian Islands, as well as the naming of Pōkaʻī Bay. Pōkaʻī was a voyaging chief of Kahiki (Tahiti) who is said to have brought coconut palms to Hawai‘i. A huge grove of coconuts once lined the shore of Pōka‘ī Bay.
The trees provided shelter and useful materials for the ancient Hawaiian village. This grove, known as “Ka Uluniu o Pokai,” was not just a legend as it was noted by western sailors in the 1700s.
Waiʻanae Ahupuaʻa within the Waiʻanae District was its Royal Center in the late-1600s to the 1700s. The ahupuaʻa had numerous important heiau and the largest population of the district at European contact.
Prior to contact with the Hawaiian Islands by Captain James Cook in 1778, the population of Waiʻanae was approximately 4,000 to 6,000 people.
In 1793, Vancouver described Waiʻanae as desolate and barren: “From the commencement of the high land to the westward of Opooroah [Puʻuloa] was … one barren rocky waste, nearly destitute of verdure, cultivation or inhabitants, with little variation all to the west point of the island. …”
“Nearly in the middle of this side of the Island is the only village we had seen westward of Opooroah. … The shore here forms a small sandy bay. On its southern side, between the two high rocky precipices, in a grove of cocoanut and other trees, is situated the village. …”
“The few inhabitants that visited us from the village, earnestly entreated out anchoring and told us, that if we would stay until morning, their chief would be on board with a number of hogs, and a great quantity of vegetables. … The face of the country did not, however, promise an abundant supply.” (Vancouver)
A Waiʻanae kahuna (priest) prophesied the coming of a “big fish” who “would eat all the little fish.” The following year (1795,) Kamehameha invaded and conquered Oʻahu. Following Kamehameha’s succession as ruling chief, “the despoiled people in large numbers fled to Waiʻanae and settled there. This part of Oahu being hot, arid, isolated, with little water, was not coveted by the invaders”. (City P&R)
In direct contrast was an inland description of Waiʻanae recorded by Handy in 1940: In ancient times Waiʻanae Valley had extensive systems of terraces along its various streams, in what is now forest and water reserve, and well down into the broad area not covered by sugar cane.
Names were obtained for 14 district terrace sections, watered by Olahua Stream, extending as far down as the site of the present power house. The section named Honua, including the group of terraces farthest inland, belonged to the aliʻi of the valley. (City P&R)
In the 1800s, missionary Levi Chamberlain traveled to Waiʻanae, describing it as: “… a very beautiful place, opening an extensive valley … having a view of the sea from those points …”
“… on the left is a grove of coconuts on low ground through the midst of which runs a beautiful stream of clear water from the mountains. Houses are scattered here and there in the grove and clumps of sugar cane and rows of bananas are see interspersed.” (Chamberlain)
The census in 1835 listed 1,654 residents on the Waiʻanae coast. In 1855, JW Makalena, the Waiʻanae tax collector, listed these figures for taxpayers: Waiʻanae Kai – 62, Kamaile – 44, Mākaha – 38, Makua – 21, Maile – 9, Nanakuli – 8. These were generally adult males. Assuming each adult male had a family of four, estimates of population are: Waiʻanae Kai – 250, Kamaile – 175, Makaha – 150, Makua – 85, Maili – 35, and Nanakuli – 30.
Christian missionaries were quick to establish missions throughout Oʻahu following their arrival in 1820. Ordained in 1850, Stephen Waimalu became the first Hawaiian minister of Waiʻanae.
In the mid-1800s, Paul Manini (son of Don Francisco de Paula Marin) had a lease over Waiʻanae Valley; he raised cattle on the land. By the late-1870s most of Waiʻanae Ahupuaʻa was in ranching. JM Dowsett had acquired Waiʻanae Uka by 1870 and by 1880 was running a grazing ranch on 17,200 acres of the Waiʻanae Valley. (City P&R)
Prior to the 1880s, the Waiʻanae coastline may not have undergone much alteration. The old coastal trail probably followed the natural contours of the local topography. With the introduction of horses, cattle and wagons in the nineteenth century, many of the coastal trails were widened and graded.
However, sugar was to be the economic future of Hawaiʻi and with the passing of the treaty of reciprocity in 1876, allowing sugar into the United States duty free, the profits became enormous.
In 1879 Judge Hermann A Wideman, GN Wilcox and AS Wilcox started the Waiʻanae Company to grow sugar in the Mākaha, Waiʻanae and Lualualei valleys.
With the addition of a railroad for hauling cane, Waiʻanae Company carried the distinction of being the most modern and efficient in all of Hawai`i.
As the success of sugar cultivation grew, so did Waiʻanae Village. By the 1890s, there was a resident postmaster, two mail deliveries a week, a steamer arrival every Friday and the plantation manager’s office boasted a telephone (McGrath).
Eventually as the sugar lands increased, squabbles arose between the plantation and the taro farmers over the precious and limited water resources. Wells dug by the McCandless brothers solved the crises for the plantation for a while. At its peak, the plantation produced 13.79 tons of sugar per acre in 1935.
John Papa ‘Ī‘ī describes a network of Leeward O‘ahu trails, which in early historic times crossed the Waiʻanae Range, allowing passage from Central O‘ahu through Pōhākea Pass and Kolekole Pass. The Pu‘u Kapolei trail gave access to the Waiʻanae district from Central O‘ahu, which evolved into the present day Farrington Highway.
In 1888, Benjamin F Dillingham secured a franchise from King Kalākaua to build a railroad that eventually extended from Honolulu, along the Waiʻanae coast, around Kaʻena Point, to Waialua and Kahuku. With easy access to the Waiʻanae coast by train came limited development
The arrival of WW II changed the character and land use of Waiʻanae. Some of the best sugar lands were taken over by the military, which was the beginning of the end for the Waiʻanae Plantation, that closed in 1947. Lots of information here from McGerty and Spear in City P&R.