Last updated: August 16, 2019
Lahaina Historic District, located in the town of Lahaina on the Island of Maui, was once the capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom. The town was a favorite site of Hawaiian kings and queens, whaling ships, and missionaries. The historic district covers both land and sea and encompasses the entire old town of Lahaina as well as the waters one mile out from the historic section of the town.
Between 1795 and 1810, Kamehameha, aliʻi ‘ai moku (paramount chief) of the Island of Hawai'i, conquered the smaller independent chiefdoms of Oahu, Maui, Molokai, Lanai, Kauai and Niihau and unified them into a single kingdom. King Kamehameha I established Lahaina as his royal residence and built the "Brick Palace," one of the first Western design buildings in the Hawaiian Islands. Under Kamehameha I's successors, Prince Liholiho (Kamehameha II), and Prince Kauikeaouli (Kamehameha III), Lahaina was the capital of the Kingdom of Hawai'i from 1820 to 1845.
In 1778, Captain James Cook became the first European to visit the Hawaiian Islands and in 1819, the first American whaling ships arrived in Lahaina. The town quickly became one of the main Pacific ports for the North Pacific whaling fleet. Because ships stayed in port for several weeks, immigrants began to flock to Lahaina to open shops, hotels, inns, taverns, and brothels to serve the sailors on shore leave. By 1824, Lahaina was being visited by 100 ships a year and at its peak in the 1850s, more than 400 whaling ships a year were making port in Lahaina.
In 1823, Reverend Charles Stewart and Reverend William Richards settled in Lahaina and established the First Christian Mission at the invitation of Queen Ka'ahumanu, Kamehameha II's co-regent. Three months later, the first church building was constructed, a two-story stone church known as Wainee Church. The adjoining cemetery (Waiola Cemetery) became the burial-ground for later Hawaiian kings and queens and missionary advisors to the Hawaiian monarchy.
While the missionaries had a large influence on the Hawaiian royal family, particularly the women, they eventually came into conflict with the sailors from the whaling ships. The influx of sailors into Lahaina had begun to create problems for the local population. To help curb drunken brawls and prostitution the missionaries attempted to keep sailors out of the taverns and to stop local women from visiting the whaling ships. In 1823, the government, with the encouragement of the missionaries, introduced "blue laws" which enforced curfews on sailors and controlled the sale of spirits and liquors. In 1825, a whaling ship crew attempted to demolish Reverend Richards' house and in 1830, the crew of the whaling ship John Palmer fired cannonballs into Lahaina to protest a law forbidding women from swimming out to greet ships. In response, in 1832, the Royal Governor of Maui built Lahaina Fort on the waterfront. The fort covered one acre and had 20-foot-high walls. Reconstructed remains can still be seen in Banyan Court Park.
In 1834, the Masters Reading Room, a two-story building partly funded by missionaries with donations from ship captains and the public, was built in downtown Lahaina. The building included an observatory, a store room, a resting area for ship masters and officers, and a reading area stocked with periodicals such as hometown newspapers. By 1835, a separate building had been built for sailors with large rooms that were used at all hours of the day and night.
In 1834-1835, Reverend Ephraim Spaulding, a local missionary, built a house made of coral and volcanic stone near the waterfront in Lahaina. In 1838, he left the Hawaiian Islands and Dr. Dwight Baldwin, a missionary and physician, moved into the house with his family. Dr. Baldwin served as the Lahaina pastor of the Hawaiian church, seamen's chaplain, medical doctor, and government physician for Maui, Molokai, and Lanai. The Baldwin House was a center of missionary activity and was owned by the Baldwin family for 129 years. It was given by the family to the Lahaina Restoration Foundation in 1967 and is now the Baldwin House Museum.
In the early 1830's Kamehameha III commissioned the building of a two-story stone structure to be located a mile away from the homes of the missionaries. The King wanted a building that would serve as an inn and store for visiting sailors as well as a place where he could go to relax. In 1844, the U.S. Department of State leased the building to use as a hospital for sick and injured seamen, particularly whalers. The U.S. Seamen's Hospital officially closed in September 1862, as whaling was beginning to decline. The building was used as a boarding school and a private home and was eventually acquired by the Lahaina Restoration Foundation. Today the U.S. Seamen's Hospital is leased out for private offices.
In 1845, the capital of the Kingdom of Hawai'i was relocated to the city of Honolulu on the Island of Oahu and Lahaina became an occasional royal residence. By the 1860s, the whaling industry began to collapse and the prosperity that came with the whaling ships began to decline. In 1861, a sugar mill, later known as the Pioneer Mill Company, was established in Lahaina and sugar production eventually became the primary industry in West Maui. With the growth of large sugar plantations, Lahaina transitioned into a quiet plantation town.
Beginning in the 1850s, Chinese immigrants came to the Hawaiian Islands as contract labor to work on the sugar plantations. When their contracts were finished some of the workers chose to settle permanently on Maui. In 1909, Chinese immigrants living in Lahaina formed the Wo Hing Society, a branch of the Chee Kung Tong, a fraternal society that provided religious and political help, mutual aid, and funerary benefits. In 1910, the Wo Hing Society built a two-story temple in downtown Lahaina, the Wo Hing Society Hall. The new building served as a meeting hall and housed an altar room for religious ceremonies on the second floor. The building has been restored and houses the Wo Hing Museum.
In 1901, the Pioneer Hotel was built on the edge of Lahaina Harbor. The hotel served the plantation communities and occasionally hosted notable guests such as novelist Jack London and the founding father of the Republic of China Sun Yat-Sen. Today, the hotel is known as the Pioneer Inn and is one of the oldest operating hotels in Hawaii.
The Lahaina Historic District, which encompasses downtown Lahaina, Front Street, and its vicinity, was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1962. Many of the buildings in the historic district have been preserved and are open to the public.