The deep-water port of Kawaihae Harbor is on Hawaii island's northwest coast about 89 nautical miles (82 kilometers or 51 miles by air) west-northwest of Hilo Harbor. Kawaihae Harbor is almost 100 nautical miles (117 kilometers or 72 miles by air) southeast of Kahului Harbor on Maui island. Kawaihae Harbor is at the northern end of Hawaii island's "Gold Coast," a resort and beach area. The village of Kawaihae has a population of just over 100 people, but there are about seven thousand people in the Kawaihae Harbor area.
Kawaihae Harbor is a major center for shipping of raw sugar. Modern Kawaihae is a collection of frame houses, a handful of stores, and other local businesses. Kawaihae Harbor is the second busiest port on Hawaii island, and it is a popular destination for sports fishers and scuba divers. The Pu'ukohola National Historic Site, a Hawaiian ceremonial and religious building, is just south of Kawaihae Harbor. The structure was dedicated by King Kamehameha I in 1791.
Since prehistoric times, Kawaihae Harbor has been the safest mooring area in the region and one of Hawaii island's best anchorages. It was here that King Kamehameha I solidified his rank as chief of the island, and he made it is home from 1790 until 1794 as he planned to invade the other Hawaiian islands.
Captain James Cook's last and fatal expedition of 1779 brought the first Europeans to Kawaihae Harbor. Fellow traveler Captain James King reported that the Kawaihae Harbor area held nothing of particular interest for the explorers.
In 1793, Captain George Vancouver visited Kawaihae Harbor. He found the village of Kawaihae in a cocoanut tree grove just beyond the sandy beach. He noted that the buildings in the village were of two types: small depressing huts where the people lived and larger community buildings used for the creation and repair of canoes.
During King Kamehameha's reign, Kawaihae Harbor was an important place where Europeans stopped to resupply and repair their ships. Because all ships had to have the King's permission to interact with the natives, ships were frequently in Kawaihae Harbor as their captains visited the King and got his blessings. Thus, Kawaihae Harbor was an important center for foreign trade and cultural interaction that brought a period of tremendous change to the Hawaiian people.
In 1799, Captain Richard Cleveland was met by many canoes bring potatoes, cabbages, hogs, watermelons, taro, and sugarcane for trade. A local chief acted as broker and facilitator in the bartering.
An expedition led by French commander Louis de Freycinet from 1817 to 1820 found about 200 huts in Kawaihae Harbor. He noted that the village grounds were dry and barren. By that time, there was a European-style house on the north shore where John Young who was King Kamehameha's business manager and the island's governor from 1802 to 1812.
One of the first goods to be exchanged between the Hawaiians and foreign traders was salt. Used to preserve and season meat and fish, its popularity led to portions of the island being reserved for salt production. Salt production reached its peak in about 1870, although it continued until a 1946 tidal wave destroyed the numerous salt pans in and around Kawaihae Harbor.
Sandalwood trade was also important in Kawaihae Harbor. Before the 19th Century, the forests of the Kohala Mountains were abundant. John Young supervised logging activities, leading to the peak in the sandalwood industry in the 1820s. Unfortunately, the logging basically denuded the forests. Growing herds of wild goats and cattle prevented new growth, and over time Kawaihae Harbor looked more and more bleak.
During the 1820s, missionaries from the United States arrived in Kawaihae Harbor. One of the earliest missions was built in Kawaihae Harbor. By the 1830s, missionary Lorenzo Lyons had built the Waimea parish, including Kawaihae Harbor, as the biggest mission settlement in Hawaii. In 1843, a new stone meetinghouse was constructed in Kawaihae Harbor. Finally dedicated in 1859, the church stood for one hundred years, being torn down in 1959.
When the sandalwood was gone, the newly developing cattle industry began to replace it. Cattle had been imported to the island by Captain Vancouver in the late 1700s. John Palmer Parker, who arrived in Kawaihae Harbor in 1815, was hired to hunt the now wild cattle that were destroying the people's fields and thin the herds.
At the time, Hawaiians did not eat beef, but whalers who began coming to the island in the 1840s did. Over the next three decades, Parker built a thriving business exporting soap, tallow, and hides. In 1847, King Kamehameha III gave Parker two acres of land that eventually became the well-known Parker Ranch. Thus, cattle exporting became Kawaihae Harbor's main pursuit.
Most wild cattle had been killed by the late 1830s, forcing the importation of domestic cattle to stock the growing ranches. By 1850, cattle was a busy industry, with Kawaihae Harbor being used to ship stock to the slaughterhouses in Honolulu. There are still cattle holding pens across from the small boat harbor in Kawaihae.
In the mid-19th Century, demand for both Irish and sweet potatoes led to the growth of agriculture. The demand came from whalers that visited the island and as a result of the vegetable shortage during the California Gold Rush.
By 1857, Kawaihae Harbor was an important port, with 40-50 whaling ships coming to get salted beef and potatoes. Kawaihae Harbor was also busy exporting pork, bowl, wool, hides, tallow, and beans. Ships also stopped to pick up sandalwood, pulu, fresh water, and salt.
By 1840, more than 700 people lived in Kawaihae Harbor, a decrease from the year before. The village was too poor to support many families. The population of Kawaihae Harbor continued decline throughout the 1800s. An 1853 smallpox epidemic reduced the population by half.
By the end of the 19th Century, Kawaihae Harbor had dwindled in importance. Whalers did not visit Kawaihae Harbor as often as they had decades earlier. A single steamer from Honolulu visited the village once a week.
In the late 1950s, the US Army Corps of Engineers dredged Kawaihae Harbor and built a breakwater to protect it. In 1970, construction began on the small boat harbor. Following the improvement of the deep-draft harbor, vacation resorts began to appear near the beaches around Kawaihae Harbor. In 1962, the Corps of Engineers started widening the Kawaihae Harbor entrance channel and basin. They also extended the breakwater.
During the harbor excavation, the coral reef that had been a danger to ships was cut and scraped. The materials dredged from the reef were used to create a landfill upon which port facilities were built.
Although it is a small port, Kawaihae Harbor attracts many scuba divers and sports fishers. Scenes from the movie "Waterworld" were filmed in Kawaihae Harbor. Today, Kawaihae Harbor is a busy commercial harbor, especially on weekends. Second only to Hilo Harbor on Hawaii island, Kawaihae Harbor often hosts one of the three Hawaiian sailing canoes, the Makalii.