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Ka’alu’alu Bay –John Coney Photo

Contact writer Pete Hendricks at


To Ka‘ū residents, those days of continuous strong tremors must have been unnerving. The 1868 earthquake damage was severe, but the related, locally generated tsunami rose up to 50 feet along the shoreline, drowning many and destroying numerous Ka‘ū shoreline villages and residences. Many Hawaiian coastal settlements in Ka‘ū just disappeared. Perhaps even greater change came with the pressure to move people and goods in the new market economy. People regrouped and rebuilt. Along the Ka‘ū coast, four bays were the shipping points for the vast district: Keauhou, Punalu’u, Honuapo and Ka’alu’alu [see map]. All of the bays had been used by earlier Hawaiians, but now more schooners and steamships began to call. Keauhou Bay (not the one in Kona) to windward, being the nearest to Kīlauea volcano, began to host a few hardy tourists willing to make the arduous trek up the mountain to Kīlauea. The first loss of a western ship in Ka‘ū occurred at Keauhou in 1846, when the schooner Clarion went ashore. Captain Pali and crew were saved, but the cargo was lost. Clarion was likely engaged in the pulu trade—pulu being the soft wool at the base of the hapu’u (tree fern) frond stalk. For a time, pulu was the preferred mattress and pillow stuffing. Up to 50 people were later employed in the pulu operation, harvesting in the volcano forest, and bringing the bales of stuffing by mule down the long trail to Keauhou landing. Tourist numbers increased with the expansion of Volcano House in 1877. The first Volcano House, now the Volcano Art Center, was hauled piece by piece up the old pulu trail by wagon from Keauhou landing. Later, tourists would take the railroad from Honuapo to Pahala, and complete the Volcano journey by stagecoach.

The southernmost of the four Ka‘ū landings, Ka’alu’alu Bay was used for a time for goods and cattle shipments, and was closest to Wai’ohinu, seven miles upland, formerly the main village of Ka‘ū. As sugar production grew in Ka‘ū, Ka’alu’alu was little used commercially except for cattle shipments. Punalu’u, and later Honuapo, became the principal landings with the growth of the Ka‘ū sugar industry. The first sugar plantation, Na’alehu Sugar Company, was established by Alexander Hutchinson and John Costa in 1878. By the 1880s, there were four plantations with mills in Ka‘ū, and a number of other sugar growers. No place in the entire district of Ka‘ū has had a wharf to accommodate vessels larger than lighters or large whaleboats. Even at Punalu’u and Honuapo, both improved by wharfs, ships had to anchor or tie up to moorings, while cargo and passengers made the often dangerous transition from ship to shore in rowed whaleboats, later motorized. In early sugar days, workers had three- or five-year contracts, and were under bondage to the plantations. The local sheriff would track down “deserters” for return to the plantations. The return of two workers to Honuapo resulted in a local tragedy. Alexander Hutchinson, a pioneer in Ka‘ū sugar, met a steamer off Honuapo landing in 1879 to take custody of two field workers who had deserted. On the way back to shore, the large rowboat carrying everyone capsized and Hutchinson hit his head on the reef, dying a few days later. The schooner Fanny also met her end on March 2, 1878, at Punalu’u. Fanny, 49 tons, had spent years as a pilot boat at the port of San Francisco, and had been in the Hawaiian coasting trade a short time. Again the sea took its toll, as the little schooner, under an acting captain, apparently anchored too far to leeward in the bay, she was not able to claw away to windward from the reef upon departure. The precarious business of sending sugar and cattle from Honuapo continued until 1942, when the port was shut down permanently due to World War II concerns. Better roads allowed cargo to be trucked to Hilo for outward shipment. Ka‘ū Agribusiness Company, the last sugar operation on Hawai‘i Island, continued operations until 1996. The Ka‘ū coast and ocean today continues to be a wild, beautiful, primal place—the longest stretch of undeveloped coastline in the state of Hawai‘i. Fishermen still harvest the rich, nearshore waters and offshore ocean, but going to sea in Ka‘ū—site of the first Hawaiians’ landings—is only for the experienced mariner. ❖

September-October 2011