In very ancient times, the lands were not divided and an island was left without divisions such as ahupuaʻa and ʻili, but in the time when the lands became filled with people, the lands were divided, with the proper names for this place and that place so that they could be known. (Kamakau)
Prior to European contact, each of the major islands or independent chiefdoms in the Hawaiian chain comprised a mokupuni (island.) Over the centuries, as the ancient Hawaiian population grew, land use and resource management also evolved.
Each island was divided into several moku or districts, of which there are six in the island of Hawaiʻi, and the same number in Oʻahu. There is a district called Kona on the lee side and one called Koʻolau on the windward side of almost every island. (Alexander) The moku of Hawaiʻi Island are: Kona, Kohala, Hāmākua, Hilo, Puna and Kaʻū.
Initial settlement of the Hawaiian Islands is believed to have occurred along the wetter windward sides of the Islands, along the fertile coastline. On Hawaiʻi Island, that included Hāmākua.
Waipi‘o (“curved water”) is one of several coastal valleys on the north part of the Hāmākua side of the Island of Hawaiʻi. A black sand beach, three-quarters of a mile long, fronts the valley, the longest on the Big Island.
For two hundred years or more, Waipiʻo Valley was the Royal Center to many of the rulers on the Island of Hawaiʻi, including Pili lineage rulers – the ancestors of Kamehameha – and continued to play an important role as one of many royal residences until the era of Kamehameha. (UH DURP)
Royal Centers were where the aliʻi resided; aliʻi often moved between several residences throughout the year. The Royal Centers were selected for their abundance of resources and recreation opportunities, with good surfing and canoe-landing sites being favored.
In 1872, Isabella Bird traveled by horseback along the Hāmākua coast from Onomea to the Waipiʻo Valley and described the landscape she travelled through. The journey was over very rough and steep trails and took five days. Bird noted, “this is the most severe road on horses on Hawaiʻi, and it takes a really good animal to come to Waipiʻo and go back to Hilo.”
The Isabella Bird description that follows helps give a perspective of what Hāmākua was like about 150-years ago:
“The unique beauty of this coast is what is called gulches – narrow, deep ravines or gorges, from one hundred to two thousand feet in depth, each with a series of cascades from ten to eight hundred feet in height.”
“I dislike reducing their glories to the baldness of figures, but the depth of these clefts cut and worn by the fierce streams fed by the snows of Mauna Kea, and the rains of the forest belt, cannot otherwise be expressed.”
“The cascades are most truly beautiful, gleaming white among the dark depths of foliage far away, and falling into deep limpid basins, festooned and overhung with the richest and greenest vegetation of this prolific climate, from the huge-leaved banana and shining breadfruit to the most feathery of ferns.”
“Each gulch opens on a velvet lawn close to the sea, and most of them have space for a few grass houses, with cocoanut trees, bananas and kalo patches. There are sixty-nine of these extraordinary chasms within a distance of thirty miles!”
“We had a perfect day until the middle of the afternoon. The dimpling Pacific was never more than a mile from us as we kept the narrow track in the long green grass, and on our left the blunt, snow-patched peaks of Mauna Kea rose from the girdle of forest, looking so delusively near that I fancied a two hours climb would take us to his lofty summit.”
“The track for twenty-six miles is just in and out of gulches, from one hundred to eight hundred feet in depth, all opening on the sea, which sweeps into them in three booming rollers. The candlenut or kukui tree, which on the whole predominates, has leaves of a rich, deep green when mature, which contrast beautifully with the flaky, silvery look of the younger foliage.”
“Some of the shallower gulches are filled exclusively with this tree, which in growing up to the light to within one hundred feet of the top, presents a mass and density of leafage quite unique, giving the gulch the appearance as if billows of green had rolled in and solidified there.”
“The descent into the gulches is always solemn. You canter along a bright breezy upland, and are suddenly arrested by a precipice, and from the depths of a forest-draped abyss a low plash or murmur arises, or a deep bass sound, significant of water which must be crossed, and one reluctantly leaves the upper air to plunge into heavy shadow, and each experience increases one’s apprehensions concerning the next.”
“It is wonderful that people should have thought of crossing these gulches on anything with four legs, formerly, that is, within the last thirty years, the precipices could only be ascended by climbing with the utmost care, and descended by being lowered with ropes from crag to crag, and from tree to tree, when hanging on by the hands became impracticable to even the most experienced mountaineer.”
“In this last fashion Mr. Coan and Mr. Lyons (missionaries from Hilo and Waimea) were let down to preach the gospel to the people of the then populous valleys. But within recent years, narrow tracks, allowing one horse to pass another, have been cut along the sides of these precipices, without any windings to make them easier, and only deviating enough from the perpendicular to allow of their descent by the sure-footed native-born animals.”
“All the gulches for the first twenty-four miles contain running water. The great Hakalau gulch which we crossed early yesterday, has a river with a smooth bed as wide as the Thames at Eton. Some have only small quiet streams, which pass gently through ferny grottoes.”
“The path by which we descended looked a mere thread on the side of the precipice. I don’t know what the word beetling means, but if it means anything bad, I will certainly apply it to that pali.” (Byrd)
In more modern times, sugar defined the landscape. Production started with initial smaller plantations that later merged into larger facilities.
The Hāmākua Mill Company was first established in 1877 by Theo Davies and his partner Charles Notley, Sr. In 1878, the first sugarcane was planted at the plantation and Hilo Iron Works was hired to build a mill. The mill was located at Paʻauilo.
By 1910, it had 4,800-acres planted in sugarcane and employed more than 600 people. The company ran three locomotives on nine miles of light gauge rail. There was a warehouse and landing below the cliff at Koholālole where ships were loaded by crane.
In 1914, the Kūkaʻiau Mill Company became a part of the Hāmākua Mill Company. In 1917, the Kūkaʻiau mill was sold and moved to Formosa (Taiwan.)
In 1917, the Hāmākua Mill Company was renamed the Hāmākua Sugar Company. The Kaiwiki Sugar Company was merged with the Theo H Davies Company-owned Laupāhoehoe Sugar Company on May 1, 1956 and operations were merged with the latter beginning January 3. 1957.
In 1978, the Hāmākua Sugar Company, Honokaʻa Sugar Company and the Laupāhoehoe Sugar Company were merged to form the Davies Hāmākua Sugar Company.
In 1984 the Davies Hāmākua Sugar Company was bought by Francis Morgan and renamed the Hāmākua Sugar Company (1984-1994). The Hāmākua Sugar Company operated until October of 1994, and its closing marked the end of the sugar industry at Hāmākua, as well as the Island of Hawaiʻi.
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