Legendary sources indicate that Hilo (‘to braid’) was, among other things, renowned for its rain and fertility. Hilo is likely to have been one of the first Polynesian settlement areas on Hawai‘i Island; oral history and local legend indicate that Polynesians first settled Hilo Harbor around 1100 AD.
Early settlers would have found a protected bay, surrounded by fertile lands for agriculture, and well watered by regular rainfall and natural springs. Natural waterways and wetlands were modified to create fishponds and planting areas.
Early accounts of Hilo Bay describe a long black sand beach stretching along present day Bay Front from the Wailuku River to the Wailoa River. Coconut Island is just east of the Wailoa River, and Reed’s Bay and Kūhiō Bay are just east of Coconut Island.
“The romantic might easily imagine Hilo to be a very inviting location … on account of the beauty, grandeur, and wonders of nature, which are there so interesting. … even by the sober, pious mind, to be now a desirable residence, because the wonders of nature and the wonders of grace are there united and so distinguished.” (Hiram Bingham)
Hilo was a Royal Center for many of the early chiefs.
When Captain George Vancouver arrived at Hilo Bay in 1794, Kamehameha was living at Waiākea and preparing his fleet of war canoes for his coming conquest of the other Hawaiian Islands, which ultimately led to the consolidation of the Hawaiian Kingdom.
Vancouver’s crew surveyed Hilo as a potential anchorage, but found the surf too problematic to effect a landing and declared the bay only marginally sufficient for anchorage.
Missionary William Ellis arrived in Hilo Harbor in 1823, when the main settlement there was called Waiākea. Christian missionaries continued to come to Hilo Harbor until the mid-19th Century. The missionaries were followed by trade ships and whalers that used the Hilo Harbor port.
Hilo Bay is partially protected by a reef located in 10 to 20 feet of water (later named Blonde Reef after Lord Byron’s vessel, HMS Blonde, which successfully anchored there in 1825.) (The Blonde had carried the bodies of Liholiho (who was born in Hilo) and Kamāmalu back from London, where they died from measles during a visit there.)
Between 1824 and 1848 Hilo became a significant center for foreign activities, primarily as a result of the establishment of religious mission stations by American missionaries.
By 1874, Hilo ranked as the second largest population center in the islands, and within a few years shortly thereafter Hilo with its fertile uplands, plentiful water supply, and good port became a major center for sugarcane production and export.
Passengers and cargo landed at Hilo in the surf along the beach until about 1863, when a wharf was constructed at the base of present day Waiānuenue Street.
At one time both cargo and passengers were hoisted in a basket-like sling out to a waiting row boat which took the goods or passengers to the waiting ship. If the weather was rough, landing took place on the beach.
The wooden wharf was replaced by an iron pile wharf in 1865, and was extended between 1889 and 1890. Raw sugar was brought by inter-island steamships from the Hāmākua coast to Hilo before being shipped overseas.
The northern side of the bay became a focal point for the community’s trade and commerce. During this time, Hilo was ranked as the third most frequented port for whaling vessels in need of repair and re-provisioning.
With its foundations in the missionary Hilo Boarding School, commercial sugarcane cultivation and sugar production became the central economic focus for the Hilo area lasting until the 1970s.
The Waiākea Mill Company, in operation between 1879 and 1948, with thousands of acres of cultivated fields, established its mill operation at Wailoa Pond.
The Reciprocity Treaty (1876) between the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi and the US, along with the increase in commerce associated with the growing sugar industry and improvements in transportation in the Hilo area, prompted the decision that a harbor facility should be built on the calmer Waiākea side of Hilo Harbor. The government wharf at Waiākea was constructed at Kalauokukui Point between 1897 and 1899, and was upgraded in 1902.
Hilo Bay was still unprotected from high winds and storm surges that caused ships to break loose from their moorings and risk grounding.
In the late 19th century, the growing sugar industry in East Hawai’i demanded a better and more protected port, and a breakwater was constructed on Blonde Reef to shield ships from rough waters as they entered Hilo Harbor.
In 1908, construction began on a breakwater along the shallow reef, beginning at the shoreline east of Kūhīo Bay. The breakwater was completed in 1929 and extended roughly halfway across the bay. In 1912, contracts were awarded to construct Kūhiō Wharf, to dredge the approach to the new wharf, and to lay railroad track into the new harbor facility.
Work was completed at Kūhiō Wharf, Pier 1 in 1916. Pier 1 was a 1,400-foot long by 150-foot wide wharf with a wooden storage shed. By 1917, a mechanical conveyor for bagged sugar with derricks for loading ships, was constructed.
In 1923, Pier 2 was constructed just west of Pier 1. Additional dredging was conducted in Kūhiō Bay as part of the construction. By 1927, Pier 3 was added on the west side of Pier 2.
Between 1927 and 1928, the approach to Pier 3 was dredged and the pier was widened. In 1929, the 10,080-foot long rubble mound breakwater was completed.
Contrary to urban legend, the Hilo breakwater was built to dissipate general wave energy and reduce wave action in the protected bay, providing calm water within the bay and protection for mooring and operating in the bay; it was not built as a tsunami protection barrier for Hilo.
In fact, in 1946, Hilo was struck by a tsunami generated by an earthquake in the Aleutian Islands; it was struck again in 1960 by a tsunami generated by the great Chilean earthquake – both tsunami overtopped the breakwater and Hilo sustained significant damage, including to the breakwater.