Kilauea Town History by Gary E. Smith
The Kilauea that we all know today is quite changed from what it once was…..a remote ahupua’a, populated by a relatively small population of Hawaiians. Life at Kauai’s northernmost location was not ideal or easy compared to the more populated, drier side of the island. Aside from the rock walls and unnatural land contours along the Kilauea river valley, and occasional discoveries of stone implements scattered throughout the ahupua’a, there remains little evidence to document the long Hawaiian history, estimated to have started about 100-300 AD. Although the remaining Hawaiian place names add to our awareness of what was a very vibrant culture, much of the ancient knowledge for the Ko’olau District and the ahupua’a we live in, Kilauea, has long been forgotten. We have also changed place names or made up new names when old ones were not known….Nihoku to Crater Hill, Ko’olau to Larsen’s Beach, Kahili to Rock Quarry are some examples. This practice continues to this day, most commonly, when new surfing spots are rediscovered and renamed.
The formalized town of Kilauea got its start in 1863, when Charles Titcomb purchased the 3,000-acre ahupua’a from Kamehameha IV for $2,600. He used some of his land to grow sugar, and coffee, as well as subsistence crops like sweet potato and kalo. However, the bulk of it was used for grazing cattle. Eventually the land was sold to Adams and Ross who formalized a sugar growing operation. The Titcombs, Charles and his wife Kanikele, kept a small homestead directly behind Kilauea School. Along with other relatives, they are buried where they once lived.
Kilauea Sugar Co., later called Kilauea Sugar Plantation Co., really got its start in 1881 when Robert Macfie, Jr. became its owner. With what was then a tremendous capital outlay, irrigation systems were expanded, the mill was upgraded and a narrow gauge railway system was installed to transport cane to the mill. This was a great accomplishment for Kilauea as it was the first narrow gauge rail system in the Kingdom. Princess Regent Lili’uokakani attended the dedication ceremony. It must have been the most stupendous fete in Kilauea history. Eventually, the sugar company’s land covered 8 ahupua’a with over 10,000 acres under plantation control. Roughly, 4,500 acres were in sugar cane fields and approximately 2,000 acres were used as ranch land.
Photo by Les Gushiken
The town we see today still retains some of of its plantation history with its unique field rock structures. These include a wide array of residential buildings as well as the major commercial structures for Kilauea Sugar Plantation Co. Earlier structures built with quarried rock from Kahili also still remain. Those are Stone Dam, completed in 1881, the 3 light keepers Quarters at Kilauea Point (Ka Lae ‘o Wowoni) and a beautiful stone lined railway bridge. The rock structures, have withstood all the inclement weather North Kaua’i has to offer ….in fact so well, no other plantation community in Hawai’i has been able to keep all its major structures intact! Kilauea’s sister company, Olokele Sugar Company in West Kaua’i, has the distinction of last to close. The town still retains it’s original plantation structures, although they are of wood construction. Ironically, our oldest remaining buildings are wooden ones. Most obvious is the Christ Memorial Church Parish Hall built by Kilauea’s Japanese community as a Buddhist Church in 1925.
Aside from the well preserved stone structures, it is people and their personalities that give a community its character. Although there are similar parallels from one plantation community to the next, Kilauea’s remoteness gave it it’s own special flair. Here legendary nicknames like, Taxi, Chicken, Pando, Dongo, Dong, Blackie, Shadow, Hemo, Buck Jones, and Tika were commonplace.
Sugar cane was king…it controlled the lives of its residents and to some extent the people of the outlying areas as well. The mill was the focal point in the heart of town sitting on what is now the land bordered by Kilauea Rd., Keneke St. and Oka St. Like all sugar mills of old, spewing its smoke and ash, the smells of burnt cane and fermented mill water, the mandatory mud puddles on rainy days, and the ensuing dust on dry days, were just accepted as normal life on the plantation. The old wooden movie theater building was nearby and bore the brunt of these inconveniences.
The old post office at Kong Lung Store and the Dispensary were inevitably common meeting places. With an average enrollment of 135 children, Kilauea School held events like May Day, the Christmas pageant and 8th Grade Graduation, which always were wonderful ways to bring everyone together. The school worked closely with the plantation community to coordinate events and achieve discipline. Police presence was rare. The various churches; Buddhist, Catholic, and Protestant served the community’s spiritual needs. The wooden gymnasium and sports field hosted athletic training and events like soccer, baseball, basketball, volleyball, weightlifting, judo, and boxing. As well, Boy Scout and ILWU union meetings, school Christmas pageants, the Halloween program, Social dances, Rizal Day festivals, Buddhist events, Holy Ghost Festivals, 4th of July, Political Rallies, Wedding parties, and Baby Luau were events that quite adequately served the community’s social and recreational needs. These things, along with a highly organized work environment, provided the glue that held the community together for over 100 years. The plantation published a monthly newsletter that the new Industrial Relations Director,Tom Takimoto, took to its pinnacle with the creation of “Kilauea Life”. He was responsible for creating a “Halloween event” in the Gym. This made trick-or-treating a lot safer for the young ones and their parents, as there were no street lights to help avoid the muddy roads and mud puddles. Although for some older kids, he became known as the “man who killed Halloween!”
Then one day in 1970 the bubble burst when it was announced that the company would close. So, in 1971 after 90 years of business, the C. Brewer and Co. owned plantation, shut its doors. It left our community with a tremendous leadership and organizational void. The Company at first attempted to sell off its entire inventory of land as 3 acre agricultural lots. When met with stiff County resistance, they sold all their land off in bulk portions. It also expected that the tiny village community would vanish. When the County Water Development plans were instituted island-wide, Kauai County had no water development plan for Kilauea and assumed the town would die as well. Those few remaining residents would hopefully continue getting water from the antiquated ditch surface collection system located in what is now the upper reaches of Kalihiwai Ridge. Unexpectedly, the people did not want to leave and expressed a desire to buy the homes they were living in. Many of these were substandard and could not be sold. Eventually C. Brewer, ILWU officials, along with the County, State and Federal Governments worked together to develop a new subdivision around the existing habitable structures which were sold to their occupants. The “new” Kilauea town floundered for a while, as houses alone do not make a community. Leadership and direction were absent.
To fill the great leadership and organizational void, the Kilauea Community Outreach Program (KCOP) funded by the Episcopal Church was formed by members of Christ Episcopal and St. Sylvester’s Catholic Church. This group carried on the planning and hosting of community events, much like the plantation once did. Since it was the only organized body in town it slowly was dragged into many of the controversies caused by new development and its impacts. Some of the issues that I recall are the Ag Land Development Moratorium, Save Slippery Slides, and Sea Cliff Plantation. Although necessary, these political / zoning issues detracted from the organization’s mission to create a cohesive community by hosting events that brought people together. The pro-development business faction started to withhold support and in some cases create divisiveness amongst long-time residents. Nearly a decade later, the Kilauea Neighborhood Association (KNA) was founded by Kilauea citizens to address zoning issues of the day. The fledgling organization, eventually absorbed the KCOP. Over the early years, KNA erected the first sign for Kilauea town, created the landscaped entry into Kilauea, preserved Nihoku (Crater Hill) and Mokolea Point, and assisted Kaua’i Public Land Trust in preserving the Kahili sand dunes. Although time has changed the many faces and personalities of Kilauea, new ones arise to fill the void. If we focus on the community’s needs and continue to work together, many more great things can be done for our beloved Kilauea.
These images, donated by Gary Smith, are photos of an original Kilauea publication, “Kilauea Life”. On the front cover: Mac Sakai, carpenter and on the back cover, Monty Nishie, Pan Man for Kilauea Sugar Co. Monty turned 100 on July 25, 2015 and celebrated his birthday with his family and over 200 of his closest friends. He was born in the Kilauea River Valley where his father, Kuhe grew rice.