Honuʻapo is literally translated as “caught turtle” (Pukui,) but others suggest Honuʻapo was originally Honua‘apo, meaning “embraced land”, or land embraced by a kapu. “Honua‘apo” has its origin with a cave that was a place of refuge and was therefore kapu. (Haun)
When Captain James Cook traveled this part of the Island in January 1799, King, who accompanied Cook on the voyage, wrote:
“It is not only the worst part of the Island but as barren waste looking a country as can be conceived to exist…”
“… we could discern black streaks coming from the Mountain even down to the seaside… horrid and dismal as this part of the Island appears, yet there are many villages interspersed, and it struck as being more populous than the part of Opoona (Puna) which joins Koa (Kaʻū.) There are houses built even on the ruins (lava flows) we have described.”
In July 1823, Protestant missionary Reverend William Ellis visited Kaʻū and said this of Honuʻapo: “From the manner in which we were received at Honuʻapo, we should not think this village had been often visited by foreigners…”
“… for on our descending from the high land to the lava on which the town stands, the natives came running out to meet us from all quarters, and soon gathered so thickly around us, that we found it difficult to proceed…”
“We passed through the town to the residence of the head man, situated on the farthest point towards the sea. He invited us to his house, procured us water to wash our feet with, and immediately sent to an adjacent pond for some fish for our supper.”
“While that was preparing, the people assembled in crowds around the house, and a little before sun-set Mr. Thurston preached to them in the front yard. Upwards of 200 were present…”
Soon after Ellis’s visit to Honuʻapo there was an influx of Westerners. The ever-growing population of Westerners throughout Hawai‘i forced socioeconomic and demographic changes. (Rechtman)
At the time of the Māhele (1848,) Honuʻapo ahupuaʻa (totaling 2,200 acres) was awarded as Konohiki Land to William Charles Lunalilo.
In 1868, a series of earthquakes were felt and lava began flowing on the slopes of Mauna Loa. These initial eruptions “destroyed a large stone church at Kahuku, and also all the stone dwelling houses in that place, including the houses….at the foot of the mountain”.
Then on April 4th an even larger eruption occurred. Fredrick S Lyman, who witnessed the eruption first hand, wrote: “Soon after four o’clock p.m. on Thursday we experienced a most fearful earthquake. First the earth swayed to and fro from north to south, then from east to west, then round and round, up and down, and finally in every imaginable direction, for several minutes, everything crashing around, and the trees thrashing as if torn by a hurricane, and there was a sound as of a mighty rushing wind.”
“It was impossible to stand: we had to sit on the ground, bracing with hands and feet to keep from being rolled over…we saw…an immense torrent of molten lava, which rushed across the plain below…swallowing everything in its way;–trees, houses, cattle, horses, goats, and men, all overwhelmed in an instant. This devouring current passed over a distance of about three miles in as many minutes, and then ceased.”
Within minutes of the initial quake, the ocean rose up and a tsunami pounded the coast, washing inland in some locations as far as 150 yards. It was recorded that the wave destroyed 108 houses in Ka‘ū and drowned forty-six people.
The tsunami devastated coastal villages and forced people to move inland to towns such as Nāʻālehu and Pāhala. Lyman wrote: “The villages on the shore were swept away by the great wave that rushed upon the land immediately after the earthquake. The eruption of earth destroyed thirty-one lives, but the waves swallowed a great number.” (Lyman; Journal of Science, 1868)
The coastal trail (alaloa) that Ellis walked was later modified to accommodate horse and cart as foreign population into the area increased. The trail maintained its original alignment at least through Nīnole and Punaluʻu. The 1868 earthquake and tsunami devastated the Kaʻū coastline and washed out much of the trail.
The trail was then straightened, realigned and widened, and took a mauka course and eventually became the Government Road and was the most direct means to reach villages and commerce.
With the treaty of Reciprocity and growing demand for Hawaiʻi sugar, there was a rise of sugar plantations throughout Kaʻū, including Honuʻapo; mills were built in Pāhala (1868,) Hīlea (1878) and Honuʻapo (1881.)
The sugar industry quickly set down roots in Honuʻapo and erected a sugar mill, a large sugar warehouse and various out buildings. All of these developed areas were connected with a small gauge railroad network.
Sugar from the Pāhala sugar mill was originally transported to Punaluʻu wharf for shipping. After the dredging of Honuʻapo Bay in the 1870s and construction of the landing at Honuʻapo by 1883, most of the sugar in Kaʻū was shipped out of Honuʻapo.
Honuʻapo wharf served the communities of Waiʻōhinu, Nāʻālehu, Hīlea and Honuʻapo. Punaluʻu harbor served the sugar plantation at Pāhala, as well as the communities of Nīnole and Punaluʻu.
First, government ships then private interests provided inter and intra-island transportation. Competitors Wilder Steamship Co (1872) and Inter-Island Steam Navigation Co (1883) ran different routes, rather than engage in head to head competition.
On Hawaiʻi Island, Mahukona, Kawaihae and Hilo were the Island’s major ports; Inter-Island served Kona ports. From Kailua, the steamer went south stopping at the Kona ports of Nāpoʻopoʻo, Hoʻokena, Hoʻopuloa, rounding South Point, touching at Honuʻapo and finally arriving at Punaluʻu, the terminus of the route. (From Punaluʻu, a 5-mile railroad took passengers to Pāhala, then coaches hauled the visitors to the volcano to site see.)
By 1890, Honuʻapo and Hīlea plantations became the property of Hutchinson Sugar Company, while Pāhala was owned by Hawaiian Agriculture. The mill at Hīlea was gone by 1907.
The concrete pier still visible at Honuʻapo Bay was constructed in 1910. The harbor at Honuʻapo continued operations until 1942. After that, sugar was trucked to Hilo for off-island shipment.
In 1928, the plantation camps of the Hutchinson Sugar Plantation were torn down and the residents were moved to Nā‘ālehu.) The Honuʻapo mill was shut down in 1973 and sugar plantation activities in Kaʻū were then centered at the Pāhala plantation; in 1996, the Pāhala plantation ceased operation marking the end of the sugar plantation era in Kaʻū. (Lots of information here from Rechtman and Haun.)
When I was at DLNR, we partnered with the community, County, NOAA (CELCP) and Trust for Public Land to purchase and preserve the historic and scenic Honuʻapo Estuary and coastal area along the Kaʻū coast adjoining Whittington Beach Park.