Exploring Lahaina's history

Kalapana Kollars, tour guide for the Maui Nei historic and cultural Lahaina tour, discusses the history of the town's banyan tree, said to be the largest in the U.S.
Kalapana Kollars, tour guide for the Maui Nei historic and cultural Lahaina tour, discusses the history of the town's banyan tree, said to be the largest in the U.S. Photo Credit: Tovin Lapan
Tovin Lapan
Tovin Lapan

Lahaina, on Maui's western coast, is known for its strip of visitor-friendly shops and restaurants on Front Street and the small boat harbor with a view of Lanai across the channel. The area is also an important historical site for the Hawaiian culture, and was the seat of the unified Hawaiian government under King Kamehameha from 1830 to 1845, before the monarch moved to Oahu.

Maui Nei, the educational wing of Friends of Mokuula, a nonprofit organization based in Lahaina, offers cultural tours of the town and other significant sites on Maui with the larger goal of funding a major restoration project.

At the south end of Front Street sits Mokuula, a low-lying wetland area with strips of land that served as the home for several of Maui's chiefs and was the former royal residence of the Kingdom of Hawaii. Once some archaeological work was done in 1993 to ensure that the site was indeed there after being buried with crushed coral and other sediment when the coastline in Lahaina was filled in, the site was placed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places, dubbed a state historic landmark and is up for consideration as a Unesco World Heritage Site.

Currently the area is fenced in as the organization and others prepare for the delicate restoration process. Meanwhile, the Maui Nei Lahaina historic tour offers insights into the town's important role in Maui and the Kingdom of Hawaii's history, and helps fund the Mokuula project.

We started at the Old Lahaina Courthouse, a free museum in the center of town that features displays chronicling the early history of the island and its role in the growth of the state. Our knowledgeable guide, Kalapana Kollars, walked the group through some of the early history of Maui and the Hawaiian Kingdom, including background on the first ruler to unify the archipelago, King Kamehameha, and his successors, Kamehameha II and Kamehameha III.

The courthouse sits in front of Lahaina's well-known banyan tree. The tree, which marked the 50th anniversary of the first Protestant mission to the area, was planted on April 24, 1873, and stood 8 feet tall at the time. Today, considered the largest banyan in the United States, it is more than 60 feet tall and its root system covers more than a half-acre. The canopy provides shades for various vendors and stalls that often fill the plaza for markets and festivals.

After leaving the courthouse and heading north past the Lahaina Harbor, Kollars pointed out the reason why the harbor cannot expand in the future. On the northern fringes of the harbor lies the Hauolo Stone, a birthing rock sitting at the water's edge where, when the tide and conditions allowed, high-ranking Hawaiians and chiefs were brought to give birth. The mixture of salt and fresh water was thought to have healing properties, and being partially submerged offered the benefits of a water birth, such as easier contractions. Nearby is also the preserved stone foundation of Kamehameha I's former home.

Next up was a visit to the Baldwin Home, now a historical site showcasing the missionary background of the area. The Baldwins were not the first to live there, according to Kollars, but they stayed after the church deemed the mission a success and pulled its funding. The missionary Dwight Baldwin first came to the area in 1836, and though not a doctor, his knowledge of biology helped the community ameliorate several epidemics, including smallpox, that hit the Islands. Later they helped push for private land ownership and eventually became major developers on the islands. Dwight's son David Baldwin helped establish pineapple cultivation on the island.

As we walked through town, Kollars peppered the tour with details, including history on the development of Lahaina as a town and information on the various plants and trees found around the area. Up the hill from Lahaina's center is the Lahainaluna High School, a facility that dates to 1831. In 1849 the then private seminary became a public institution of higher learning under the edict of Kamehameha III, and by 1864, only Lahainaluna graduates were considered qualified to hold government positions such as lawyers, teachers, district magistrates, and other important posts.

We ended with a glimpse of the Mokuula site. The master plan calls for the demolition of a tennis and basketball courts on the property, moving a parking lot and carefully excavating the cultural site.

Maui Nei offers the historic tour of Lahaina ($50 for adults, $25 for ages 6 to 12), a Kaanapali tour ($46/$23) and a more in depth "Discover Old Hawaii" program ($150 per person, not recommended for children younger than 12) during which participants get to complete and handful of arts and crafts projects.
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