Moloka'i Island: Kalaupapa National Historical Park

Three children sit on steps in this black and white image.
Young Hansen's disease patients during the early years of settlement at Kalawao

Courtesy of National Park Service

Hansen’s disease, or leprosy, affects people all over the world. For centuries, the disease had social stigmas attached to it because of the lack of understanding of this affliction that affects the skin, limbs, nerves, and eyes. Due to their remote location in the Pacific Ocean, the Hawaiian people did not encounter Hansen’s disease until the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when foreign influences began to infiltrate their society. By 1860, an epidemic of Hansen’s disease plagued the Kingdom of Hawai'i. To handle the epidemic and in an attempt to contain the disease, the Hawaiian government carried out a plan of forced isolation. Kalaupapa National Historical Park tells the story of the isolated people with Hansen’s disease on the remote Kalaupapa Peninsula of Moloka'i from 1866 until 1969.

Kalaupapa National Historical Park includes the community of Kalaupapa on the leeward side of the peninsula, which is still home for many surviving Hansen’s disease patients. The Hansen’s disease settlement of Kalawao and the churches of Siloama and Saint Philomena on the windward side of the peninsula are also in the park.

On January 6, 1866, a year and three days after Kamehameha V approved the Act to Prevent the Spread of Leprosy, the Hawaiian Board of Health sent the first 12 leprosy patients to the remote Kalaupapa Peninsula. Since very little was known about the ailment, the board felt that segregation and isolation of afflicted persons were the most effective ways to fight the spread of the disease, which the Board of Health thought threatened the extinction of the Hawaiian people. Torn from their families, 8,000 people went to live in isolation at Kalaupapa between 1866 and 1969.

The Board of Health chose Kalaupapa Peninsula because of its geographical isolation. To the south, a 2,000 foot cliff cuts Kalaupapa off from the rest of Moloka'i. The Pacific Ocean surrounds the east, north, and west sides. The land in Kalaupapa supports the growing of food crops such as fruit, taro, and sweet potatoes, so the Board of Health was hopeful that the settlement could sustain itself. Archeological evidence indicates that the peninsula has had people living there for 900 years.

The history of the isolated settlement on Kalaupapa Peninsula falls into three phases: the Pioneer Kalawao Period, the Kalawao Settlement Period, and the Kalaupapa Settlement Period. During the Pioneer Kalawao Period, the Board of Health expected leprosy patients to be self-supporting, which proved to be unattainable. The patients were too ill, too lonely, or too demoralized to support themselves. After hearing of these conditions, many of the healthy family members of the patients moved to the settlement to assist in caring for their loved ones. These people became known as kokua, or helpers. While the Board of Health eventually built hospitals and homes and provided food and clothing, the medical facilities could not keep up with the large number of people sent to Kalaupapa each year.

By 1873, the Kalawao settlement developed into a mature community, which reached its height in 1890. Many of the changes that occurred in the settlement during this period came because of Father Damien, a Belgian priest. Father Damien helped build about 300 of the 325 buildings that made up the Kalawao settlement, including homes and churches such as Father Damien’s St. Philomena Catholic Church, which is still in the park for visitors to see today. He constructed water lines, roads, and coffins; dug graves; administered medicine; and did amputations. Father Damien spoke the Hawaiian language and promoted positive energy. Known as a “Christian Hero,” he gained widespread publicity around the world. After 12 years at the settlement, Father Damien contracted Hansen’s disease and after serving voluntarily at the Kalawao settlement for 16 years, he passed away April 15, 1889.

In 1890, shortly after Father Damien’s death, the Board of Health began relocating patients from Kalawao to the Kalaupapa settlement on the leeward side of the peninsula. There the climate is warmer and dryer, and the location is more accessible. The board promoted this move because of the superior climate and because this area had plenty of room to lay out a well-organized settlement. By the 1930s, the board built water and power systems, hospitals, service stations, stores, and homes, and paved the roads. Paschoal Hall offered patients entertainment and movies, while other buildings, such as Bayview, provided patients with housing and a dining hall. The National Park Service restored both Paschoal Hall and Bayview.

The community of Kalaupapa grew by using a combination of institutional planning and Hawaiian plantation styles. The laid out plan gives the Kalaupapa settlement a feeling of an established community. The Hawaiian plantation-style buildings provide an overall Hawaiian and Aloha feeling, which still permeates the community today. Visitors may experience the way of life and the stories of struggle, perseverance, courage, and love by walking through the Kalaupapa community today.

By the late 1940s, new medications brought drastic changes to the treatment of Hansen’s disease. The new treatments reduced patients’ symptoms and made the disease non-contagious rendering isolation unnecessary in the fight against Hansen’s disease in Hawai'i. With the abolition of the isolation law in 1969, patients had a choice of either returning to their original homes or staying at the Kalaupapa settlement. Many patients chose to stay at Kalaupapa, and a few remain there even today. Kalaupapa National Historical Park preserves this place for them, for visitors today, and for future generations. The park provides a place for people to contemplate and understand societal responses to disease and disabilities.

Kalaupapa National Historical Park is open all year with no opening or closing hours due to the restricted visitation and active Kalaupapa community of people. Commercial tours operate Monday through Saturday, except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years. Damien Tours, owned and operated by a Kalaupapa resident, offers commercial tours of Kalaupapa daily; call 808-567-6171 for tour reservations and information. Mule rides on the Kalaupapa Trail can be arranged through Moloka'i Mule Rides, Inc., a National Park Service concession, for reservations call 1-800-567-7550. For more information, visit the National Park Service Kalaupapa National Historical Park website or call 808-567-6802.

*Note: State law requires all individuals to secure a permit from the State Department of Health prior to visiting Kalaupapa. Damien Tours arranges for permits for individuals booking with them. Persons who do not prearrange their visit to the park with Damien Tours at 808-567-6171 or the Hawai'i Department of Health at 808-567-6924 will not be able to enter the park.

Last updated: December 21, 2022