On the north side of the island of Molokai is a large peninsula of Kalaupapa. This peninsula is one of the most remote places in Hawaii, walled off from the rest of the island by some of the highest sea-cliffs (3,900 feet) in the world. The rest of the island terrain is referred to as “topside”. Because it is such a remote location it was chosen to be the site of a leper (Hansen’s disease) colony.
Leprosy took a severe toll on the indigenous Hawaiian people, and because there was no cure, and limited understanding of transmission, the rulers of the Hawaiian Kingdom decided that forced arrest and removal of patients from the general population was the only course of action. The first men and women with leprosy were brought to Kalaupapa in 1866. From that time until 1949, over 8,000 people were exiled to Kalaupapa because they were thought to have the disease. The first people who were abandoned here had to fend for themselves for food, shelter, etc. As a result, thousands of Hawaiian families were torn apart because once you were sent to the peninsula, it was considered a life sentence.
In 1873, Father Damien (a Dutch priest) arrived on the peninsula. He was sent here to help care for and minister to the residents. He had a profound impact on the lives of the residents, but by 1885, he himself had contracted the disease, and then died in 1889. Saint Damien was canonized on October 11, 2009. His gravesite is shown below.
In 1883, Mother Marianne Cope and six Sisters of St. Francis arrived on the peninsula to help operate the hospital which had been built in 1881. She died in 1918 after living on the peninsula for 30 years. Saint Marianne was canonized on October 21, 2012. The photo below are the remains from the hospital which burned to the ground (more recently).
It was not until 1969, years after a cure was discovered, that the remaining residents were finally allowed to leave. However many residents had no home to return to, and therefore the State declared that they could stay and be cared for as long as they lived.
In 1980 President Jimmy Carter established Kalaupapa as a National Historic Park. In 2007 the State Legislature passed a resolution thanking and apologizing to the people of Kalaupapa and their families.
A visit to the peninsula is a very moving experience, and one that you should do if you come to Molokai. There are 3 options for getting to the peninsula. You can ride mules down a switchback trail on the the sea cliffs, hike the trail, or fly in from topside Molokai to the small airport on the peninsula. However you get there, you all join together on a school bus to learn about the history of this place. You must take an organized tour to visit (Fly in visitors can also come from Oahu and Maui). Today there are still a couple residents with the scars of leprosy, so utmost respect is required. You must be 16 years or older to visit.
If you plan to visit Kalaupapa it is important that you plan ahead and reserve your tour because there is limited space each day (about 30 people maximum per day). For mule tours, click this link. To hike or fly into the peninsula, click this link (From Molokai, you’d choose the “topside to settlement” round trip tour.)
There are dozens of historical books about Kalaupapa, but the book we recommend is a fiction novel which gives you insight into what it was like to be a resident of the settlement. The book is simply titled “Moloka’i” and the author is Alan Brennert.
Photo of the sea cliffs below, which are as high as 3,900 feet..