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.
The Waipiʻo Valley was once the Royal Center to many of the rulers on the Island of Hawaiʻi, including Pili lineage rulers – the ancestors of Kamehameha. Līloa and his son ʻUmi ruled from Waipiʻo. The Valley continued to play an important role as one of many royal residences until the era of Kamehameha. (UH DURP)
In the 1780s, warring factions were fighting for control. The island of Hawaiʻi was in internal struggle when one of the aliʻi nui, Kalaniʻōpuʻu, died. He passed his title to his son Kīwalaʻo and named his nephew, Kamehameha, keeper of the family war god, Kūkaʻilimoku.
Kīwalaʻo was later killed in battle, setting off a power struggle between Keōua, Keawemauhili and Kamehameha. The 1782 Battle of Mokuʻōhai gave Kamehameha control of the West and North sides of the island of Hawaiʻi.
It was off the coast of Waimanu, near Waipiʻo, that Kamehameha overpowered Kahekili, the Chief of Maui Nui and O’ahu, and his half-brother, Kāʻeokūlani of Kauaʻi (1791.)
This was the first naval battle in Hawaiian history – Kepuwahaulaula, – known as the Battle of the Red-Mouthed Guns (so named for the cannons and other western weapons;) from here, Kamehameha continued his conquest of the Islands.
Many significant sites on the Island of Hawaiʻi were located in Waipiʻo:
Honuaʻula Heiau – “… all the corpses of those slain in battle were offered up in the heiau of Honua‘ula in Waipi‘o … when ʻUmi-a-Līloa laid the victims on the altar in the heiau—the bodies of the fallen warriors and the chief, Hakau …”
“… the tongue of the god came down from heaven, without the body being seen. The tongue quivered downward to the altar, accompanied by thunder and lightning, and took away all the sacrifices.” (Kamakau)
Pakaʻalana Heiau – “The puʻuhonua of Pakaʻalana was 300-feet to the southwest of Honua‘ula Heiau …There are many references to this famous place…[Fornander notes:…the tabus of its [Waipi‘o] great heiau were the most sacred on Hawaii …”
“… and remained so until the destruction of the heiau and the spoliation of all the royal associations in the valley of Waipi‘o by Kāʻeokūlani, king of Kauai, and confederate of Kahekili, king of Maui, in the war upon Kamehameha I, in 1791 …” (Stokes)
Hokuwelowelo Heiau – “The heiau is a small pen near the edge of the sea cliff, overlooking the mouth of Waipi‘o valley….This heiau is said to have been “built by the gods” and was the place where the famous Kihapu was guarded until it was stolen by the thief-dog, Puapualenalena .” (Stokes)
Moaʻula Heiau – “The site is at the foot of the steep northwest cliff bounding Waipi‘o valley, 2,500 feet from the sea. According to local information, Moaʻula was built by Hākau but was not dedicated at the time of ‘Umi’s rebellion. After ʻUmi killed Hākau, he dedicated the heiau and used Hākau’s body for the first offering. (Stokes)
Fornander recounts that the great high chief ʻUmi “built large taro patches in Waipiʻo, and he tilled the soil in all places where he resided.” So it is readily apparent that the valley was intensively cultivated from long ago.
The valley floor was once the largest wetland kalo (taro) cultivation site on the Big Island and one of the largest in the Islands; but only a small portion of the land is still in production today.
Waipiʻo was a fertile and productive valley that could provide for many. Reportedly, as many as 10,000-people lived in Waipiʻo Valley during the times before the arrival of Captain Cook in 1778.
Kalo cultivation and poi production in traditional Hawaiian was the mainstay of the Hawaiian diet. In the later part of the 19th-century and early half of the 20th-century its commercial manufacture became an important economic activity for the residents of Waipi‘o Valley.
William Ellis in 1823 described valley walls that “were nearly perpendicular, yet they were mostly clothed with grass, and low straggling shrubs were here and there seen amidst the jutting rocks.” The valley floor he described as “one continued garden, cultivated with taro, bananas, sugar-cane, and other productions of the islands, all growing luxuriantly.”
Workers were seen carrying back “loads of sandal wood, which they had been cutting in the neighbouring mountains.” Isabella Bird, viewing the valley from the pali above in 1873, described “a fertile region perfectly level…watered by a winding stream, and bright with fishponds, meadow lands, kalo patches, orange and coffee groves, figs, breadfruit, and palms.”
Waipiʻo was the greatest wet-taro valley of Hawaiʻi and one of the largest planting areas in the entire group of islands. In 1870, the Chinese started rice farming in areas which were previously cultivated in taro.
In 1902 Tuttle estimated 580 acres cultivated in rice and taro in Waipiʻo. Rice crop production came to an end in 1927 when it could no longer compete with the lower-cost California rice. (UH DURP)
By 1907, Waipiʻo Valley had four schools – one English, three Hawaiian. It had five stores, four restaurants, one hotel, a post office, a rice mill, nine poi factories, four pool halls and five churches. (UH DURP)
Tidal waves came in 1819 and 1946 destroying crops, destroying the fertility of the land with salt intrusion and in 1946, destroyed the people’s spirit. “The brutal 55-foot waves … came in at an angle, hitting the Waimanu side of the pali, deflecting up the flat and then circling down the Wailoa River in torrents” (UH DURP)
There is limited access (due to the steep and narrow roadway) into the valley. Warning signs at the top of the extremely steep and narrow Waipiʻo Valley access road restrict use to 4-WD vehicles in low range to keep a reduced speed and to save your vehicle’s brakes. Periodically, the road is closed.