Kalaupapa: Why Hawaii's Most Isolated Town Stays Isolated
This video was made possible by CuriosityStream. Watch an exclusive compilation video of all the most interesting unused answers from our interview subjects by signing up for the CuriosityStream/Nebula bundle deal at CuriosityStream.com/ext. On a rocky bluff at the end of a small peninsula jutting off a small island stands a lighthouse. For over a century, the Molokai Light has cast its rotating beam across the shipping routes of the Pacific before turning island side and illuminating the cliffs that wall in the peninsula. For over a century, the Molokai Light provided aid for cargo ships and inspiration for the community of a few hundred living in its shadow. As one resident of the isolated, insulated plain put it: “That light has been very special to the people here… it is the Kalaupapa Light.”
The lighthouse symbolizes the story of the remote, Hawaiian peninsula of Kalaupapa: it’s signaled to outsiders to stay away; to steer clear, while, to those living on the plain, it’s offered a reminder that while they hadn’t ended up there by choice, they weren’t entirely alone after all. Kalaupapa proves that proximity and isolation don’t always correlate. Certainly, on a map, the Hawaiian Islands are tucked far away from the rest of the world. Colonization, however, along with air travel, statehood, tourism, sugar cane, and sandy beaches, has collapsed that physical distance—a slice of paradise, to US citizens, just a domestic flight away. To many—native Hawaiians, settlers, long-timers, and tourists who preferred fewer tourists—Hawaii is now too connected to the rest of the world. And yet, as much of the US’s fiftieth state drowns in visitors, the island of Molokai remains isolated from the outside world and disconnected from the chain’s development.
Here, there are no crowded beaches nor massive resorts. In fact, there are no resorts of any size—the island doesn’t even have a single stoplight. And the most isolated point on this isolated island, only accessible by plane, boat, or mule trail, is Kalaupapa.
“Higgins: Molokai with eight thousand people living on it is really small. It's like a small town. It's like very rural, very small town. Everybody knows everybody when you land at the airport there in Molokai and everybody knows you're there. And so there's no secrets, really. It's a small community.
And then Kalaupapa is the most isolated place on that whole island. So it's very isolated when you compare it to the rest of our island chain and even to the island of Molokai itself.” Kalaupapa’s isolation is informed by natural impediments, but ultimately, it’s a curated isolation; an isolation by design; and an isolation that some fear may be coming to an end in this decade or the next. Kalaupapa translates to “flat leaf”—an apt title for an oddly level postage-stamp-of-a-peninsula 2.5 miles or four kilometers wide and extending two miles or three kilometers out to sea.
On three sides, the plain is surrounded by rough waters and rocky coastline. On the fourth: some of the world’s tallest sea cliffs bolt skyward, enclosing the plain in all their Spielbergian grandeur. Covering much of the peninsula beyond the lighthouse and settlement, is a wealth of greenery—some of it endemic, much of it introduced by Polynesian, and later, European settlers. No roads link Kalaupapa to the rest of the rugged Molokai--only a steep mule trail ascending 1,700 feet or 500 meters over 26 switchbacks connects the plain’s foot traffic to the rest of the island.
Such isolation, and the peninsula’s slow, small town atmosphere leaves room for wildlife to roam. “Law: I mean, there are several species that don't exist any other place in the world except Molokai, whether you're talking plants or even some animals there.” Endangered monk seals occasionally sprawl out in the sun along the rocky beaches while threatened green sea turtles use these protected shores to nest.
By itself, the peninsula’s natural beauty—its striking geology and unique biota unburdened by hordes of visitors, hotels, rental cars, and cruise ships—would likely be enough to garner the attention of the National Park Service. And while the NPS has indeed looked after the peninsula since 1980, it wasn’t the wildlife that brought in the preservationists, but the people. “Law: It's a human story. And that's probably the most important part of the park, that's why it's a historical park.”
On the peninsula’s western edge are white, gothic style churches, a small network of paved and gridded streets, manicured lawns, and nearly 200 structures that have served as everything from homes and dormitories to laundry rooms and maintenance sheds. There’s also a disproportionate number of cemeteries. These burial sites, some marked, many not, are the tragic legacy of a misinformed and overly punitive response to a disease now curable with modern medicine.
It was this past, still tethered to today by the preserved structures and the survivors from the period, that brought the NPS to the island. When explaining how this peninsula came to be, geologists often lean on the adjective “cataclysmic.” It was a singular, massive landslide that sheered the peninsula away from the mountainous island and later, a momentous volcanic eruption that pushed the land back above sea level.
Cataclysmic also describes how this peninsula was settled in the mid 1800s—as a single decree would lead to thousands being torn from their families and forced onto the isolated edge of Molokai. Kalaupapa was established as a leprosy settlement. In the early 1800s, various old-world diseases ravaged Hawaiians’ unexposed immune systems. “Higgins: If we were to just look at the population numbers, we estimate the high of 1778, when Captain Cook came, we estimate there were about 800,000 Hawaiians living in Hawaii at that time… By the time you get to 1823, which is three years after the American missionaries came, we're now looking at a drop in population. There are now only about 135,000, Right.
So it's a huge dramatic drop, right.” Following decades of devastation at the hands of communicable diseases, leprosy first appeared on the islands in the 1830s. Then, it spread. In 1865, King Kamehameha V signed into law the “Act to Prevent the Spread of Leprosy,” which required police and hospital workers to report, arrest, monitor, and quarantine those displaying symptoms of the disease—a singular piece of legislation that would isolate the peninsula from the rest of the islands and insulate it from the chain’s development for the next century-and-a-half. Leprosy, or Hansen’s disease, attacks the nerves, skin, and eyes.
Untreated, it leads to paralysis, disfigurement, loss of feeling, and a fragile immune system. While we now know how to treat this bacterial infection, and understand that it’s not easily communicable, Hansen’s outbreaks, across thousands of years of history, are often accompanied by hysteria. The disease’s delayed onset and the cruel disfigurement of its host has led to its association with divine punishment—a connection that has led to victim shaming and out-casting of those afflicted. While American overthrow of the Kingdom was still decades out, the draconian response to the disease was likely a reflection of mainlanders’ increasing influence on the islands. “Higgins: So when Hawaiians are trying to figure out what to do with the people who have leprosy, I think it's they're being influenced by a lot of Westerners because Westerners are being employed by the government in 1840s, ‘50s and even into the ‘60s.
Right…So the Board of Health in the ‘60s was made up of all these white men, these foreigners, and they were the ones who I think we're labeling and they're bringing with them the notions of this fear of leprosy.” In 1866, adopting the western world’s approach to the disease, the Kingdom ripped twelve Hawaiians with advanced symptoms from their home islands and cast them off to spend the rest of their lives on Kalaupapa—an archetypal landscape for the ostracized. Dozens, then hundreds, then thousands would soon follow. Spending time at the settlement some twenty years after the first patients arrived, novelist Robert Louis Stevenson described the peninsula as “a prison fortified by nature.” For the first waves of arrivals, with no assistance beyond some boxed supplies, a “prison” was perhaps too gentle a description.
Here, there was no planned release date, no staff, no final tear-filled goodbye with families, nor any chance of a reunion. For the new arrivals, life on this foreign, underdeveloped plain, with little help and worsening symptoms, was extremely difficult. Life on Kalaupapa, however, had always been difficult.
Prior to the establishment of the leprosy settlement, the peninsula was home to sparse numbers of native Hawaiians for centuries. Dry, difficult to access, and limited by its shallow, volcanic soil, subsistence and persistence had long defined life on Kalaupapa. “Higgins: So it's, it's possible to live there between the fishing and the sweet potato, and if you trade with people in the valley to get your taro, you know, it's possible to live there. Yeah, it's it's inhospitable but not... it's not unlivable. You can live there. It is possible.”
And with new arrivals in the 1860s and ‘70s, came a new responsibility for those eking out a life on the plain. “Higgins: [00:22:06] And the government had not built any homes for them. No hospital, no doctors, no nurses, no nothing. They just dumped them off there, basically.
And so it was those kamaʻāina, the local people who lived in Kalaupapa who took care of them.” While health officials had hoped it would become self-sustaining, only a few modest shelters cropped up on the eastern end of the peninsula in the settlement's early years. In these especially dark days, burials outpaced building and murmurs of miserable living conditions drifted across the archipelago.
While cast off and kept at a distance against their will, patients and their plight pulled at the heartstrings of family-oriented Hawaiians and captured the outside world’s curiosity, pity, and, in some cases, outrage. Spurred on by their humanitarian ethos, the Hawaiian royal family and religious communities began visiting and providing aid for the settlement by the late 1860s--sending volunteers and supplies, and building Kalaupapa’s first church in 1871. By the 1890s, nearly 300 structures lined the peninsula’s east end to house and treat the patient population that had ballooned to over 1,000.
By the 1900s, the Kingdom of Hawaii had become the American Territory of Hawaii. Patients now arrived from across the Pacific, and the world’s medicine community had made its way onto the peninsula. For the American, Chinese, and Portuguese, and Hawaiian patients on Kalaupapa, material living conditions improved throughout the opening decades of the new century. After moving the community to the west side of the island, the Hawaii Board of Health modernized treatment facilities and dormitories. In 1909, the federal government built the state-of-the-art US Leprosy Investigation Station. In the 1930s, the Hawaiian territorial government funded infrastructure projects that supplied fresh water and electrified the plain.
By the time the US entered World War II, the peninsula looked markedly different from the one that the first patients had arrived at in 1866. And yet, the settlement’s purpose ultimately remained the same as it always had, no matter how modern the facilities. With a cure still years out by the 1940s, patients lived on the island ostensibly to die. Still, in the face of forced, life-long quarantine, patients didn’t idly sit by and wait. They lived. Residents played softball, went to church, carved out friendships, and created families.
From 1900 to 1930, almost 1,000 couples married at the settlement. Whether it’d be Lei-making gatherings, dances, or the annual arrival of goods shipments, patients came up with reasons to celebrate, relax, and enjoy life in one another's company. “Higgins: You've got your like your community meeting hall that's being built. Right. You have a real sense of community... they're building different things and you're really
creating this sense of community there. So while they still are isolated and sent there, they're trying to provide what's needed for their livelihood there.” As one patient recalled: “when I arrived… I was the youngest child inside the place… All the people took me in, and I became like everyone’s child.
It was really one big family in here, an ohana. I had everything… so much love!” Kalaupapa’s patient population exemplified some of the best aspects of the human spirit: principally, the will to persist. And when they thought they weren’t being treated as humans, they leveraged their collective power. In 1913, just four years after opening, the modern, expensive, but overly strict Leprosy Investigation Station shuttered due to patient boycott.
Pain and difficulties, though, never disappeared. Prior to 1946, patient lifespans were short—many died within a few years of their arrival. For those that remained, the scars of being ripped away from home never disappeared, and in the cases of those that conceived on the island, these wounds were only worsened when health officials sent their children off the peninsula to isolate them from the disease. Community didn’t replace the difficulties of permanent quarantine, but it helped lessen the burden. In 1946, the peninsula’s patients again leveraged their collective power to begin the administration of a promising experimental treatment. Promin proved a miracle drug.
It halted Hansen’s advance, reversed some symptoms, and rendered the disease non-contagious. It healed sores and revived patients who were certain they laid on their deathbed. It also launched Kalaupapa on a new trajectory. General stigmas, fears, and assumptions that surrounded leprosy for centuries loosened with a cure. On the peninsula, the physical walls, barriers, and rails that separated patients from visitors and health care workers came down.
So too did the social barriers—as handshakes and hugs were no longer met with a scolding. Most importantly, there was no need for quarantine to continue. Just over a hundred years after passing, in 1969, the state of Hawaii reversed the law that imprisoned 8,000 onto the peninsula. Patients were finally free to leave. Rather than burying the past, moving on, and feverishly chasing after mainland tourist dollars, Kalaupapa the town didn’t function much differently than Kalaupapa the settlement— many who had grown fond of life on peninsula, or had simply known no other life, chose to stay. In the late ‘70s, to ensure that they’d be able to remain on the peninsula while also protecting the place’s legacy, residents reached out to the National Park Service, and in 1980, the plain became a National Historic Park.
“Law: Well, the park wasn't building out. We weren't doing anything like grabbing land or anything like that. We were just there to help basically. And still are, you know, and we've hired a lot of local people there. You know, and I think that's the thing to do, you need to have local people involved, whether they're working there or, you know, anything you do there should... have their involvement.”
Since 1980, the peninsula’s been under joint management between the Hawaii Board of Health and the NPS—an arrangement that allowed for both the protection of the place and propagation of its tight-knit sense of community. “Law: You know, there were a lot of people doing their daily business, you know, and people get together at the bar at night and have a good time singing Hawaiian songs, whatever kind of music, you know. And so it was… very interesting.
But it was also it was a good time. They were very friendly people.” In the morning, residents met up at mass before then heading to the hospital for treatment or to pick up breakfast at the cafeteria. At midday, patients, state employees, and park staff alike convened and caught up at the store where they grabbed lunch and at the post office where they picked up that morning’s delivered parcels. As early evening rolled around, residents and off-duty workers began shuffling into Elaine’s Place to grab a drink, sit down to a shared meal, have another drink, and sing Hawaiian songs well into the night.
With time, though, Kalaupapa has become far quieter; life slower. “Law: But when I was there, things were kind of… much more happy-go-lucky than they are today because there's not as many people around.” State and NPS employees still looked after patients, maintained the grounds, and shuttled a limited number of tourists around the peninsula throughout the ‘90s, but that distinct local feel slowly began to fade as the resident population aged. In the early 2000s, nightly crowds began to thin at Elaine’s Place. As an ethnographic report astutely noted, by 2003 the busy nights of singing and potlucks had been replaced by a quiet bar where a corner TV served as the primary source of entertainment. In 2020, the number of remaining patients hovered at just under ten, with no member younger than 70—while the peninsula’s population fluctuated between 50 and 100 depending on the day of the week.
With the number of patients shrinking, fears have arisen as to what happens once they’re gone. “Law: Yes, they’re all afraid of development coming in and building a hotel and golf course and that kind of thing, you know, and it's I think to everybody that knows the place knows it's too sacred to have something like that happen.” “Higgins: I worry about making it too touristy, I think, because it's such a sacred place. The whole peninsula is such a sacred place, and so many graves and so many lives and so many stories there, that it should not become like a Waikiki, I really don’t want to see it like Waikiki, where it's just a tourist destination.” To those with connections to Kalaupapa, overzealous development would doom a sacred landscape. While daily tourists are capped at a hundred to respect the privacy of the remaining patients, proposals to increase that number in the near future have surfaced—much to the concern of those with family ties to the settlement and Molokai residents trying to protect a quieter corner of Hawaii.
It's unlikely, though, that this story will fade away as the last remaining residents pass. At base, geography presents a problem—even today, freight only arrives once a year on what’s celebrated as Barge Day, while food is flown in on a weekly basis. Beyond physical constraints though, the place’s people won’t stand for it.
The NPS has invested decades in protecting the place’s past, and it just wouldn’t be Hawaiian to let the story die. “Higgins: So it is a story of Hawaii, right… I think we want to resurrect the stories and get to know our ancestors and understand their struggles and remember them in a way that Hawaiians remember their history, they remember their ancestors. Right. That family connection is so important, which is why I think Kalaupapa story is so important to us. We need to tell that story.”
Those with firsthand experience of life stranded on the peninsula won’t be here forever, but their legacies will last. Currently, the Ka‘Ohana O Kalaupapa organization, a group dedicated to promoting the value and dignity of those forced onto the island, is working on establishing a monument with all 8,000 names of those quarantined on Kalaupapa--a physical representation of how the place’s story isn’t one confined to the past, but one closely connected to the present through family ties. “Law: [00:39:34] Well, I think with what the ‘Ohana is doing now is helping out, you know, getting family members--going all the way back to the earliest people there, there are family members of even the first boatload people, you know--and they have a stake in all of this, too, although they're spread all over the islands and some of them on the mainland.” While Kalaupapa for centuries existed largely in isolation from the rest of the island chain and the mainland, the place’s story, the peoples’ resiliency, and community’s strength epitomize what it means to be Hawaiian, and more broadly, what it means to be human. “Higgins: It's such a hard disease and such a difficult life that they had because of that separation from family. Yet, they made the best that they could in that community, right, with the people living there, and you got to admire them for that, the stamina, the endurance, the love, the kindness, the generosity of the people who live there despite the disease, creating a community and a life for themselves, right, away from their family members.
So…” Though cut off from the rest of the world by no choice of their own, and sometimes distanced from their own inherent dignity by the cruel treatment from the outside world, Kalaupapa and its people exemplified human’s most bright and beautiful capacities. The isolated peninsula and its isolated people--from the Hawaiians that took in and looked after the first wave of infirmed, to the generations of quarantined and their kin now protecting their legacy--displays just how much we, at the connected center, can learn from those living on the edges. Of course, the story of Kalaupapa is more complicated than a twenty-minute video can possibly give credit. In the making of this video, we sat down with Colette Higgins, a historian of 19th century Hawaii, and Henry Law, the first superintendent of Kalaupapa National Historic Park, for two hours to better understand this place’s story. While we pulled some fascinating quotes for this video, some of our favorites were still left on the cutting room floor.
But we’ve turned those into a video too! If you are interested in learning more about the place, and would like to hear more from our discussions with the people who know the place best, head to Nebula to watch this exclusive companion video--a compilation of all our favorite sound bites that we couldn’t quite fit in this one. You’ll hear far more on Hawaiian culture, the Hawaiian royal family’s connection to the peninsula, and what it was like to actually live on Kalaupapa as it transitioned from settlement to historic park site. To see this companion video, support a creator owned platform, access all of our regular videos early and ad-free, and watch our big-budget originals, head over to Nebula.
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