At this national park in Hawaiʻi, a natural paradise and a medical purgatory

On the north side of Molokaʻi — the least-visited Hawaiian Island — a piece of land called the Kalaupapa Peninsula juts out from the rest of the island.

Lay eyes on it for the first time, and your reaction might be to call it a paradise.

About 17 square miles (44 square kilometers) in size, the peninsula emerges from the base of sea cliffs that tower thousands of feet above it. A seemingly idyllic village sits on its west side, surrounded by acres of green space. A historic lighthouse stands tall along the coast, and the sea laps up onto a series of beaches. Look east and small offshore islets appear as if created by an artist.

Looks can be deceiving, however. Learn a little bit more about Kalaupapa, and you realize that this part of Hawaiʻi entered the National Park Service system not for its scenic beauty but for its dark history.

Kalaupapa today is the world’s most famous colony for patients with Hansen’s disease, more commonly known as leprosy. As of April 2024, eight people were still on the patient register at Kalaupapa, with about half living full-time on the peninsula. Remarkably, the oldest will turn 100 this year.

Though often referred to generally as “patients,” these eight people are actually former Hansen’s disease patients. They have long been cured — drugs introduced in the 1940s effectively curtailed the disease and eliminated the need for forced isolation. The former patients are not contagious and are of no threat to visitors. Those that remain at Kalaupapa do so under a unique agreement, adding to the complexity and mystique of this secluded peninsula.

With National Park Week upon us, it’s fitting that we take a closer look at this remote national historical park.

But the timing is appropriate in other ways, too. Despite no remaining federal or state health restrictions, the park has remained closed continuously for the past four years, with no visitors allowed. Recently, the park has come under increasing public pressure from tour operators to explain its ongoing closure and reveal its plan to reopen to visitors.

Come along as we take a journey through an area that has been affected by first an epidemic, then a pandemic.

The epidemic: Patients become prisoners

In the 1800s, an epidemic broke out when leprosy arrived in the Hawaiian Islands for the first time. With locals having no cure or immunity to the disease, it spread quickly through Hawaiian communities.

The strong social stigma associated with the disease — along with its caused deformities and misunderstandings — created panic. People with mild reactions to the disease were treated at the local health clinics of the time, but advanced cases were seen as a threat to society.

The Hawaiian monarchy, led by King Kamehameha V, decided that patients with advanced forms of leprosy needed to be quarantined. The Kalaupapa Peninsula, surrounded on three sides by the ocean and the towering sea cliffs on the fourth, was deemed the best place.

In 1865, the Hawaiian monarchy took control of the peninsula, forcibly removing native communities who had occupied the land for 900 years.

Anyone with an advanced case of leprosy in the Hawaiian Islands — including those living on Oʻahu, Maui, Hawaiʻi, Lānaʻi and Kauaʻi — was brought by boat to the Kalaupapa Peninsula by force, where they lived out the rest of their years in isolation.

A historical photo of Kalaupapa shows the colony where patients with Hansen's disease — more commonly called leprosy — were forced into isolation. - KGPA Ltd/ Alamy Stock Photo
A historical photo of Kalaupapa shows the colony where patients with Hansen's disease — more commonly called leprosy — were forced into isolation. - KGPA Ltd/ Alamy Stock Photo

“The physical impairments caused by the illness [of leprosy] and the devastating effects on skin and nerves brought prejudice, fear and segregation in all societies since ancient times,” notes a scientific study from the University of Bari, Italy, on the history of leprosy. “Patients with [the] disease were socially isolated and forced to live in poverty and loneliness.”

Unfortunately, it was not a compassionate process at Kalaupapa. Patients, in fact, became prisoners. Husbands were separated from their wives; children from their mothers; families were never together again. Anyone diagnosed with the disease, no matter their age or responsibilities at home, was sent to Kalaupapa, without the right to leave.

In the end, the numbers are dark. Since the first “patients” arrived in the early months of 1866, more than 8,000 people have died at Kalaupapa, a world away from their loved ones.

Most of those deaths occurred in the first 75 years or so. After World War II, new treatments emerged for leprosy, essentially curing the disease. Barriers between those with and without the disease began to be removed. In 1969, the laws for mandatory quarantine were abolished. Patients — those that remained — were free to go.

Despite the advancements in medicine, society was not so quick to catch up. Social stigma, stereotype and prejudice continued to exist toward those with the disease. Even though patients were free to leave if they wished, some decided to remain and live out the rest of their lives at Kalaupapa (including the eight currently on the register). In time, it had become their home, and adjusting to life outside the confines of Kalaupapa proved difficult for many.

In 1980, Kalaupapa became a National Historical Park with the intention of “preserving the memories and lessons of the past,” according to the National Park Foundation.

Beauty and suffering

The combination of Kalaupapa’s visual beauty and human suffering has proved to be a potent mix for writers, artists and historians alike.

Check out the collection of books, poems and paintings of Kalaupapa, and one will see these two emotions mixed up over and over again. Book titles such as “Bittersweet Beauty” or “A Land of Beauty, Pain, and Suffering”; portraits of smiling patients with deformities, backdropped by the beautiful sea cliffs; stories of hope and service in the face of dark reality.

The obvious conflation of beauty and pain captures many who learn about Kalaupapa. The more you dig in, the more you find that the beauty of the place is not just physical, but also reflected in the acts of kindness, hope and service that sprung up around the pain and suffering.

On a community level, things grew very tight down at Kalaupapa. Separated from family, destined for an isolated death, fellow patients developed deep ties and connections not only with each other, but also with those who spent their lives serving them.

Father Damien is pictured with the Kalawao Girls Choir, circa 1878. Kalawao is a settlement on the Kalaupapa Peninsula. - Alamy Stock Photo
Father Damien is pictured with the Kalawao Girls Choir, circa 1878. Kalawao is a settlement on the Kalaupapa Peninsula. - Alamy Stock Photo

There are countless unremembered people who dedicated their lives to the medical, clerical and communal duties necessary to care for the patients at Kalaupapa. But one famous example is Father Damien (now a saint), who spent more than 15 years serving patients at Kalaupapa before contracting and dying from the disease himself at the age of 49 in 1889.

Today, a statue of him stands in front of the State Capitol on Oʻahu. Though his remains have been returned to his homeland of Belgium, his initial grave can still be found on the Kalaupapa Peninsula.

As with many acts of history, a dark time was slowly but surely lit by hope and humanity.

The National Park website sums it up best with its description of Kalaupapa: “A place exhibiting the worst and the best of human responses to the challenge of sickness.”

That statement probably resonates with us now more than ever after living through the Covid-19 pandemic.

Covid-19 closure continues

Today, Kalaupapa remarkably still operates first and foremost as a refuge and active “colony.”

At any given time, about five of the eight former patients still on the register are living down at Kalaupapa (patients leave for non-Hansen’s-related medical treatment and other appointments nowadays, so the number of people “living” there is a bit in flux).

They range in age from 80 to 100 and get support from medical workers, National Park Service employees and other staff. They live in a settlement of nearly 200 buildings.

Today, the uses for these buildings often vary from their original use. But when the colony was populous, they included houses, a post office, social hall, churches, bars, a gas station, stores, a jail, police station and warehouses.

Though we don’t know exactly what tours will look like when they resume, previous tours of Kalaupapa utilized an old school bus to take visitors around the peninsula to lay eyes on these old buildings, learn the history and perhaps even meet a resident. Visitors either arrived by air or on foot or via mule down a trail from “topside” Molokaʻi.

Back in 2020, when the Covid-19 pandemic emerged, daily tours and public access came to a halt. Flash forward to 2024, and all Hawaiʻi public health restrictions have been rescinded. But the National Park Service is still not allowing visitors.

This fact was recently brought under the microscope by local news organizations, which featured frustrated tour operators claiming they were being stymied by the National Park Service.

The delay in reopening, says Kalaupapa Superintendent Nancy Holman, is because of a number of factors.

First and foremost, the patients. Holman said the tours that visited Kalaupapa in the past have always been sponsored by a resident; a former patient at Kalaupapa was either directly involved or a partner in a business that organized the tour.

Once the health restrictions of the pandemic were lifted, the National Park Service again offered this option to the former patients. Holman said one person is currently interested and “working very hard” to get their business in order.

“Until there’s no longer a patient who wants to provide tours, we need to offer that to them and only them,” Holman explained.

Other issues are influencing the park’s closure as well, Holman said, including the erosion of the popular trail that many visitors hiked or rode mules down to access the peninsula.

A plaque explains some of the area's history at Kalaupapa Lookout. The peninsula emerges at the base of towering sea cliffs. - Craig Ellenwood/Alamy Stock Photo
A plaque explains some of the area's history at Kalaupapa Lookout. The peninsula emerges at the base of towering sea cliffs. - Craig Ellenwood/Alamy Stock Photo

Access by air has also been diminished by a consolidation of local airlines and cuts brought on by the pandemic, Holman said.

The Park Service, she said, is still figuring out how to welcome back visitors without taking up resources needed by locals.

“How do we provide [visitors access to Kalaupapa] and not compete directly with Molokaʻi residents [for those airline seats]?” Holman said. “We want to be thoughtful and sensitive in our work … not extractive.”

“I know we are closer than ever [to resuming public access],” she added.

Mikiʻala Pescaia, an interpretive ranger at Kalaupapa, also said the park is “so close” to reopening to tours. But both Pescaia and Holman declined to give an estimated date of reopening.

The future of Kalaupapa

At some point, Kalaupapa will reopen for tours.

In the meantime, there are still several ways to experience Kalaupapa when visiting Molokaʻi. The Kalaupapa Overlook is located atop the sea cliffs, providing a breathtaking view of the entire peninsula. Bring binoculars if you want to see the settlement more clearly.

In Kualapuʻu, the Molokaʻi Museum features a moving photo exhibition full of portraits, landscapes and explanations that look back at what daily life was like for the patients at Kalaupapa.

Looking to the future, when there are no patients left on the peninsula, is one of the main objectives of the Kalaupapa Transition Interagency Working Group.

The goal in the short term is to protect the privacy and wishes of the former patients, Holman said. This includes putting a cap on the number of daily visitors, which before the pandemic closure was 100 a day. But once all the former patients are gone, the Secretary of Interior, who oversees NPS, can consider changes to this policy, perhaps allowing more people to visit.

Land ownership rights will also need to be addressed once the former patients have gone.

As previously mentioned, the monarchy forcibly removed Hawaiian families to create this colony. Currently, a third of the buildings and surrounding area is owned by the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands. Among other duties, the department provides native families with homestead leases. In this way, much thought is being given to how the peninsula might be managed going forward.

In the near future, though, tours will resume, and Holman said “big fanfare” will surround the reopening. She said that while people can read and learn about Kalaupapa on their own, visiting is still the best way to understand it fully.

“Nothing beats first-hand experience, putting your feet on soil,” Holman said. “Nothing is going to be better for truly understanding the scope of the place and what it would have been like to live there.”

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