The History of Waikapū

Visitors to Maui are often drawn to the south and west sides of the island, and often for good reason, considering that these beachy cities boast the lion’s share of condos and resorts. What few newcomers realize, however, is that Maui is also home to a smattering of small gems with huge hearts—and positively riveting histories.

One such jewel is the enclave of Waikapū. Tucked into the cool, green shade of the West Maui Mountains, this quiet plantation town possesses much more than what meets the eye. Indeed, its agricultural significance and legendary past renders it one of Hawaii’s richest and most intriguing villages.

Waikapu Maui history
Waikapu Maui history

Situated in Central Maui, Waikapū is the first land division, or ahu’pua’a, in what’s known as Na Wai ‘Eha—“The Four Waters” of Wailuku, Waihe’e, Waiehu, and Waikapū. The name of the town—which translates to “Waters of the Conch”—stems from its fresh water streams and the myth at its crux.

waikapu valley historic
waikapu valley historic

According to ancient Hawaiian lore, there was once an enchanted conch shell—or pu—concealed deep within a lava tube that stretched from one end of the island to the other. When blown right, the trumpetesque bass from this shell could be heard for miles. So compelling was this pu that it prompted a prophet from Kauai to come to Maui’s shores in pursuit of it. But a mischievous dog by the name of Puapualenalena—an oft-seen trickster in Hawaiian folktales—got to the conch first and whipped it away to safety. In doing so, he silenced the shell for good—but the volume on the legend has never lessened. To visit Waikapū today is to feel the presence of a sacred past pulsing just underneath its gorgeous, windswept surface.

Maui Tropical Plantation
Maui Tropical Plantation

With its small line of shops, including the locally-sourced Maui Pasta Company and the country cornerstone, Waikapū on 30, one wouldn’t immediately think that Waikapū was once considered one of the most important regions on the island. During the wars that rocked old Hawaii, the Four Waters were revered for their ample natural resources. Chiefs took to the streams to replenish themselves, while the vertiginous mountains provided both a sanctuary and a lookout from which to spot incoming enemies. And, with the largest contiguous kalo field in the Hawaiian Islands—a staple of ancients that once brought 400 varieties to the central valley and is now seen in cups of poi at luaus around the islands— Waikapū also served as part of Maui’s political center, with neighboring Wailuku going on to become the county seat with jurisdiction over Maui, Molokai, Lanai, and Kahoolawe.

taro
taro

Such ampleness and fertility didn’t go unnoticed by the Western settlers who landed in Hawaii. Early agricultural giants focused on growing pineapple and coffee—with one of the first coffee plantations in the Hawaiian Islands cropping up on the verdant banks of Kauai—before sugar surpassed nearly every other agricultural endeavor. James Louzada—a New York transplant who married into a Hawaiian family—and his brother-in-law, Henry Cornwell, were at the helm of the sugar industry on Maui, building what ultimately became the Waikapū Sugar Plantation in the 1830s and launching the town's rise from a land of sweet potato crops to a hubbub of gentrification and commerce.

kahului harbor trains
kahului harbor trains

As the sugar industry grew on Maui, so did its population. Plantation workers from Japan, Portugal, China, Korea, and the Philippines flocked to Maui and the neighboring islands in droves, bringing close to 350,000 immigrants to Hawaii over the course of a century and introducing Hawaiian Pidgin—a dialect that was used to bridge the language gap among the diverse labor force and their employers and continues to be used by kama’aina today. Some plantation workers arrived on the island with their families; others came alone with hopes to prosper before returning home. Others still made Maui their lifelong residence, with some, particularly those of Japanese descent, marrying “picture brides.” Humble camps catering to the influx of immigrants emerged in Central Maui’s plains, paving the way for what became Dream City at the eastern end of Waikapū in Kahului. Venues in Waikapū arose along with modest dwellings, including the island’s first open-air theater, a racetrack, and The Ah Fat Chinese Store, an outfit that peddled coffee and pilot crackers. During the Second World War, a medical facility was erected on Old Waikapū Government Road, and, in 1929, an airport—now long-closed—was constructed in the coastal district of Waikapū in Maalaea. The inaugural interisland trip—from Honolulu to Maui—carried eight passengers; the fare was $20.

maui chefs challenge
maui chefs challenge

Relics of Waikapū’s storied past still remain. Maui Tropical Plantation—one of the island’s top visitor attractions—exhibits two locomotives from Maui’s early era at The Mill House. The first is the Claus Spreckels. Named after one of Maui’s original sugar barons, it dates back to 1882 and once carried freight and passengers from Kahului to Wailuku and east to the now-hip town of Paia. Equally impressive is the Kalākaua Coach, a red-hued beauty that carried King David Kalākaua and his staff before making an appearance as a New York streetcar in 1968’s Funny Girl. Walk through Waikapū today—a place teeming with exotic plants, from Hawaiian Pikake to ‘Akia—and you’ll likely spot ancient rock walls, ‘auwais (or ditches), and endemic flora that once played an instrumental role in daily Hawaiian life, from koai’a, which was used for building, to māmaki —a medicinal plant used by kupuna. WaikapūCemetery on Waiko Road also pays homage to its plantation past: many Japanese field workers are interred on its verdant grounds, whereas the town’s eponymous stream takes strollers back to its nuanced, fascinating past.

MIll House trains
MIll House trains

As vibrant as its history might be, Waikapū’s future promises to be just as rich. With a decade-long plan to revitalize the area through the construction of a retail center, an elementary school, new residences, and county parks, it’s bound to bring in fresh blood. Still, there’s no doubt Waikapū will always retain the magic it once held—much like the pu that gave it its name.

farm to table kumu farms
farm to table kumu farms
old Maui trains
old Maui trains
Waikapu historical info
Waikapu historical info

All photography was either taken by Mill House staff, from owners that have given us written permission, and/or purchased for use. We have all the rights necessary to use these images on our website.