Māhukona (lit., leeward steam or vapor,) a seamount on the northwestern flank of the island of Hawai‘i, is the most recently discovered shield volcano in the Hawaiian Islands.
A ‘gap’ in the chain of regularly-spaced volcanoes in the sequence of younger shield volcanoes forming on the southernmost portion of the Hawaiian-Emperor chain was first noticed in 1890. Māhukona filled that gap.
Māhukona is one of the smallest Hawaiian volcanoes – it grew to at least about 1,000-feet below sea level, but never formed an Island and went extinct prematurely. (Garcia, et al)
But this is not about a lost volcano; this is about harbor that the volcano was named, Māhukona, the nearby port on the Island of Hawai‘i. Let’s look back …
Māhukona Harbor was developed and expanded as a port for the sugar plantations in Kohala and as a landing for interisland steamers. (Pukui)
Competitors Wilder Steamship Co (1872) and Inter-Island Steam Navigation Co (1883) ran different inter-island steam ships routes between the Islands, but decided to not engage in head to head competition, here.
Wilder’s steamers left Honolulu and stopped at the Maui ports of Lāhainā, Māʻalaea Bay and Makena and then proceeded to Māhukona and Kawaihae.
From Kawaihae, the steamers turned north, passing Māhukona and rounding Upolu Point at the north end of Hawaiʻi and running for Hilo along the Kohala and Hāmākua coasts, stopping at Laupāhoehoe. (Visitors for Kīlauea Crater took coaches from Hilo through Olaʻa to the volcano.)
The Treaty of Reciprocity (1875) between the US and the Kingdom of Hawai‘i eliminated the major trade barrier to Hawai‘i’s closest and major market. Through the treaty and its amendments, the US obtained Pearl Harbor and Hawai‘i’s sugar planters received duty-free entry into US markets for their sugar.
In the late nineteenth century, sugar plantations were prospering on the Big Island. Six plantations in North Kohala, the area that includes the island’s north shore, used a couple of crude landings along that rugged coastline for exporting their products.
Steers would pull heavy wagons full of sugar or molasses to the landings where, braving high surf and swell, men loaded the cargo onto flatboats, which would transport the goods offshore to awaiting steamers.
In winter, the use of the landings was often too risky due to large breakers, so the sugarcane byproducts were transported over the hill to Māhukona, a protected small cove on the leeward side of the island.
Then, Samuel G Wilder secured a charter for a narrow gauge railroad from the port of Māhukona for 20-miles along the north coast of Hawaii in Niuliʻi. Wilder, who was the minister of interior of the Kalākaua government at that time, signed his own charter on July 5, 1880.
An amendment signed by King Kalākaua on August 13 gave the company a subsidy of $2,500 per mile on the completion. Wilder left the government the following day and organized Hawaiian Railway on October 20. Construction started April 1881. (Hilton)
Wilder also started with improving Māhukona port through the addition of numerous wharfs and a storehouse. By March of that year, the first section of ties and tracks had been laid.
In January 1883, the tracks covered almost twenty miles, reaching the northernmost sugar mill at Niuliʻi, and the Hawaiian Railroad was complete.
Raw sugar manufactured in the Kohala mills was bagged, transported by rail to Māhukona, and stored in warehouses until the arrival of a freighter. When a freighter moored offshore, lighters carried out the bags. (Pukui)
In May 1883, the Hawaiian Railroad Company earned a claim to fame hosting a ceremonial train ride for King Kalākaua. The original statue of King Kamehameha I which had been lost at sea, then found and restored, was waiting in Kapa‘au to be unveiled.
Kohala outdid itself in preparation for the King’s stay. The King thrilled Kohala by arriving in a Russian gunboat which fired him a royal salute. King Kalākaua and his entourage rode the first Big Island train. The teak passenger cars in which they were seated earned their new name, the ‘Kalākaua cars.’ (Schweitzer)
The steam locomotives traveled twelve miles per hour; the train was a novelty for locals, and tourists were visiting from Hilo to take a ride. Plantation owners were also pleased with the new railroad as their revenues started to surge. (LighthouseFriends) (Samuel Wilder died in 1888.)
In 1889, Charles L. Wight, president of the Hawaiian Railroad Company, noted “Foreign vessels call here about every three weeks and they often lose much time not knowing where to come in. In thick weather it is also hard for steamers to find the place. In addition it will be of material assistance to the vessels bound up the channel.” (LighthouseFriends)
In 1897 the rail name was changed to the Hawai‘i Railway Company. In 1899, during the first year of existence of the Territory of Hawaii, the Wilder family withdrew from the railroad and shipping business and sold the Hawai‘i Railway to the four principal plantations it served: Union Mill Co, Hālawa Plantation, Kohala Plantation and Niuliʻi Plantation.
In April of 1937, Kohala Sugar Co bought out the other plantations, acquired all of the stock in the Hawai‘i Railway Company and reincorporated (September 30, 1937) as Māhukona Terminals Inc.
Kohala Sugar laid spur tracks to the mills and their corresponding fields. This marked the first physical connection of the railroad to the sugar cane operations. Previously, trucks hauled the raw cane to the mills where the sugar cane was processed and put in sacks which were then loaded onto trains.
The Māhukona harbor was closed when the US declared war against Japan on December 8, 1941. Business gradually declined and in 1945 the Hawai‘i Railway was abandoned. (OAC)
Māhukona Harbor was the major port serving the Kohala Sugar Company and North Kohala people until it closed in 1956. Houses, a store and recreational facilities stood near the harbor.
Until the mid-1960s, the regional highway system left North Kohala as one of the most physically isolated places on the island. The only highway into or out of North Kohala was the 22-mile road over the Kohala Mountain into Waimea.
A 6-mile road from Hawi to the Māhukona harbor was the only penetration into the dry side. On the other side, the highway stopped at the Pololu Valley lookout. North Kohala formed an ‘end at the road community’ in all respects. (Community Resources) Kohala Sugar closed in 1973.
North Kohala legislator (from 1947 to 1965) Akoni Pule advocated strongly for a second access road into his district. The Akoni Pule Highway (named for him) was dedicated in 1973. (South Kohala CDP) (In 1975, the Queen Kaʻahumanu Highway was completed from the Keāhole Airport to Kawaihae Harbor.)