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Kalaupapa National Historical Park
Island of Moloka'i, Hawaii
 
View across a tall grass field of the Kalaupapa settlement towards a row of tall cliffs The Kalaupapa settlement. The tall cliffs in the background helped
to isolate the Kalaupapa peninsula from the rest of the island.
Courtesy of Ed Suaminen, Flickr

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 peoples from outside the islands began to visit and settle in Hawaii. 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 to 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 part of 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. Very little was known about the ailment and the Board of Health, fearing the extinction of the Hawaiian people, felt that segregation and isolation of afflicted persons were the most effective ways to fight the spread of the disease.

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 without the need for supplies of food being sent to the community.

Historic photograph of Father Damien seated on the grass with the Kalawao Girls Choir Father Damien with the Kalawao Girls Choir, circa 1870s
Hawaii State Archives

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 in the newly formed Kalawao Settlement to be self-supporting, which proved to be unattainable. The patients were too ill, too lonely, or too demoralized to support themselves. After learning 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 had developed into a mature community, reaching its height in 1890. Many of the changes that occurred in the settlement during this period came about because of Father Damien, a Belgian priest. Father Damien helped build 300 of the 325 buildings that made up the Kalawao settlement, including homes and churches such as the St. Philomena Catholic Church. He constructed water lines, roads, and coffins, dug graves, administered medicine, and performed 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. He passed away four years later, on April 15, 1889, and was buried in the cemetery at St. Philomena after serving voluntarily at the Kalawao settlement for 16 more years.

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. The climate in the new settlement was warmer and dryer, and the location was more accessible. The Board promoted this move not only because of the better climate, but also because the new area had room to lay out a well-organized settlement. By the 1930s, the Board had built water and power systems, hospitals, service stations, stores, and homes in the new settlement and had paved the roads. Paschoal Hall offered patients entertainment and movies, while other buildings - such as Bayview - provided patients with housing and a dining hall.

Historic photograph of the Kalaupapa Settlement along the water with tall cliffs in the background Kalaupapa Settlement circa 1908
Hawaii State Archives

The community of Kalaupapa grew rapidly, using a combination of institutional planning and Hawaiian plantation-style architecture. The plan gives the Kalaupapa settlement a feeling of a long-established community and the plantation-style buildings provide an overall Hawaiian and Aloha feeling, which still permeates the community today.

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

Plan your visit

Kalaupapa National Historical Park, a unit of the National Park System and a National Historic Landmark, is located in Kalaupapa, on Moloka'i Island, HI. Click here for the National Historic Landmark file: text and photos.

Kalaupapa National Historical Park is open all year with no opening or closing hours due to restricted visitation and the active Kalaupapa community. 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 and are offered through Moloka'i Mule Rides, Inc., a National Park Service concessionaire. For reservations call 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 Hawaii Department of Health prior to visiting Kalaupapa. The Department may be contacted by calling 808-567-6924. Damien Tours, the primary tour company for Kalaupapa, arranges for permits for individuals booking a tour with them. For more information call Damien Tours at 808-567-6171. Visitors who do not secure a permit before visiting Kalaupapa National Historical Park will not be permitted to enter the park.

Kalaupapa National Historical Park is featured in the National Park Service Places Reflecting America's Diverse Cultures Travel Itinerary. Many components of the Park have been documented by the National Park Service's Historic American Buildings Survey, including: the Town of Kalaupapa, St. Francis Catholic Church, McVeigh Home, Dormitory, Bay View Home, Residence No. 1, Bishop Home, Sisters' Convent, Rea's Store and Bar,, Chicken Ranch, Staff Row, Doctor's House, and Moloka'i Light Station, Lighthouse.

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