My 2014 Retirement Trip Hawaii travel blog

The 8 seater plane we took from "topside" Molokai down to Kalaupapa

This was the day I had been waiting for - the reason I chose this trip. Today we go to the Kalaupapa National Historical Park.

Since the 1820's leprosy had become a problem in Hawaii. More and more Hawaiians were becoming infected and the threat of the disease spreading was terrorizing the population. This was especially concerning since in the 1805 census of the Kingdom of Hawaii the population was documented at 264,160. By 1850 the population was around 82,000 people. Most of these had died from diseases carried by Europeans to which they had not built up an immunity. In response to the leprosy threat, in 1866, Kamehameha V finally passed a public health law to "establish a place set aside to isolate and separate" those who were determined to have leprosy.

The site chosen for this "place set aside" was the peninsula on the north central tip of the island of Molokai. This place was deemed perfect because the peninsula was surrounded on three sides by water and the other side by some of the highest sea cliffs in the world. These cliffs rise 3300 feet with an average steepness of 55 degrees (the result of a portion of the island slipping into the ocean in prehistoric times). The fact that there were already inhabitants of the area was not factored into the decision and no provision was made to relocate these people. Most chose to stay and live alongside the lepers.

In 1867 the first 12 "patients" were dropped off at Kalawao. The government provided some food but no shelter and no medical supplies or medical aid. By 1873 there were 816 lepers living in the area with no organization, no support, little or no food, usually in make-shift shacks. Finally the Catholic Church sent Father Damien, a priest who had a parish on the island of Hawaii, to minister to the peninsula. As an accomplished carpenter his first act was to build a church. Then he established order, enforced a set of basic laws (how can you further punish someone banished to such a situation?), built homes, organized working farms and a school, established a "orphanage" for boys who had been sent to the colony and eventually a girls' "orphanage" and finally persuaded the Church to send nuns trained as nurses to provide much needed health care. During his time there the main settlement was moved to Kalaupapa, a mile or so further to the west to a location less susceptible to flooding.

After he was there 11 years Father Damien contracted the disease and died two years later in 1889 at the age of 49. He was declared a Saint in 2009.

Approximately 8000 people were sent to the colony. There are only 1600 graves in the area. The rest were buried in unmarked graves.

Leprosy is now known as Hansen's disease. Over 95% of the world's population has a natural immunity to it. In the 1940's a cure was found; however, the Act that segregated those afflicted with the disease was not lifted until 1969, although forced isolation was lifted in 1949 and celebrities such as Shirley Temple, John Wayne and the Van Trapp Family Singers came to perform at the settlement. Current residents (less than 10) are allowed to leave but chose to remain. The youngest resident is 72 years old and runs the bookstore.

In 1980 Kalaupapa National Historic Park was established to preserve the natural and cultural aspects of the peninsula.

To get to the Park we had to take an 8 passenger plane. There is no other access other than hiking down or riding a mule. We were in-flight 4 minutes. Door to door of the airports was 15 minutes. To get all of us down took 2 hours and then to get all of us back up took another 2 hours. The access to the park is very limited, at least until there are now more former patients/residents. In addition to the former patients approximately 50 National Park personnel live on the peninsula. No one else is allowed in the area without prior permission. Damien Tours, developed by a former patient (now carried on by his widow, also a former patient) has the concession to provide tours of the park.

For more information read the book Molokai by Alan Brennert. Although not a true story, it is a true depiction of this part of Hawaii's history. It uses true stories from many individuals. There have also been several movies made about Father Damien.

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