Maui is the second largest of the Hawaiian Islands, and covers about 730 square miles. Maui consists of two separate volcanoes with a combining isthmus between the two.
The Mauna Kahālāwai (West Maui Mountain) is probably the older of the two; Haleakala (East Maui) was last active about 1790, whereas activity on West Maui is wholly pre-historic.
The island of Maui is comprised of 12-moku (districts,) that are made up of a number of ahupuaʻa. The moku of Wailuku makes up an area known as Nā Wai ʻEhā (“The Four Great Waters”) – Waiheʻe River, Waiehu Stream, Wailuku (ʻĪao) Stream and Waikapū Stream. (Waikapū Stream is the only Nā Wai ‘Ehā stream that drains to the southern coast of Maui.)
“From Waiheʻe to Waikapū there is much good land below and bounding the ancient terrace area on the kula and in the lower valleys which would be ideal for sweet potato culture, but it is said that little was grown in this section because there was so much taro.” (Handy; Hana Pono)
“For generations the small, slowly growing population clustered around shore sites near streams that supplied them with water. Such sites are best for inshore fishing.”
“When they acquired taro, they no doubt rapidly cleared away the jungle along the streams to make room for taro patches, and there was a beginning of terraced flats that could be irrigated directly from the stream.” (Handy; Hana Pono)
The fertile kalo terraces, complex system of irrigation ʻauwai (ditches) and abundant fresh water from this area sustained Hawaiian culture for 1,000-years. Due to abundant water and fertile lands, there was substantial settlement between the 300- and 600-foot elevation at Waikapū.
The terraces were irrigated with water brought in ditches from springs and streams high in the valleys, allowing extensive areas of the valleys to be cultivated. The irrigation ditches and pondfields were engineered to allow the cool water to circulate among the taro plants and from terrace to terrace, avoiding stagnation and overheating by the sun, which would rot the taro tubers.
An acre of irrigated pondfields produced as much as five times the amount of taro as an acre of dryland cultivation. Over a period of several years, irrigated pondfields could be as much as 10 or 15 times more productive than unirrigated taro gardens, as dryland gardens need to lie fallow for greater lengths of time than irrigated gardens. (Kelly)
In Waikapū, there are different stories associated with the name of this valley and ahupuaʻa; the story of Puapualenalena and the conch shell may be the earliest known.
It was said that in ancient times a conch shell would ring out from the valley, heard around the island it was so loud and resounding. On the opposite, northern side of the stream a dog named Puapualenalena was infatuated with this conch and wanted it for himself.
One day, the owners of the conch had been careless and Puapualenalena gained entrance to the cave on the southern side of the stream that hid the conch, and from that point on it no longer sounded through the valley. The area was so named for the conch (Pu), The Water (Wai) of the Conch (Ka Pu.) (Nupepa Kuokoa, 1872; Hana Pono)
Some say the name comes from Kamehameha after the famous battle of Kepaniwai, when the defeated the forces of Kalanikūpule. Two versions are told.
One is Wai-ka-pu (the Water of the Conch,) for the place where Kamehameha sounded the Pu to begin the battle for Maui. The second is Wai-Kapu (the Sacred Water.) “Kamehameha landed at Kalepolepo, and a kapu was put upon the nearest stream. It became sacred to royalty, as was the custom and is known as Wai-kapu to this hour-that is, the forbidden water”. (Stoddard; Hana Pono)
The lower isthmus (between Mauna Kahālāwai and Haleakala) was sandy. “We passed through Waikapū in the middle of the isthmus …. Between this place and the northern shore, we walked over a bed of sand (a part of an extensive plain).” (Bingham)
In more modern times, the Waikapū ahupuaʻa and surrounding lowlands were given to Henry Cornwall for a sugar plantation, Waikapū Sugar Company, which eventually merged with others to become Wailuku Sugar Company (and later consolidated into the Alexander & Baldwin lands.).
Starting in about the 1850s, sugar cultivation destroyed the extensive terracing; by the mid-1900s, only remnant representations remained.
By 1866, a letter published in the Hawaiian language newspaper Nūpepa Kūʻokoʻa lamented “the current condition of once cultivated taro patches being dried up by the foreigners, where they are now planting sugar cane”.
“A permanent railroad was laid to Waiheʻe and to Waikapū connecting at Wailuku, from whence the cane was carried to a mill above Kahului. Another permanent line connected the other plantations. From these portable lines were laid into the fields, and it was thus possible to dispense with hundreds of mules and cattle and drivers heretofore used.” (Girvin)