If you’ve ever spent time in Lanai City—the island’s only town—it’s obvious that this is the central hub and “capital” of Lanai.
Had you been here in 1900, however, island life would have been centered on the coast at Keomoku village, since Lanai City was still just an empty swath of pastureland and plains.
Set on Lanai’s eastern coast, Keomoku was once a thriving village of fishermen, families, and farmers, who lived a traditional, subsistence-based lifestyle similar to generations before them. Fish were abundant inside of the reef and kalo, or taro, was grown in lo‘i (fields) in Maunalei Valley. Life was simple in Keomoku—easy and carefree —though all of that changed in the 1890s when sugar cane rolled in to town.
Known as the Maunalei Sugar Company, this failed business venture forever altered the Keomoku shoreline. Water was tapped from Maunalei Valley to irrigate the sugar, and by 1899 the area was thriving with laborers working the fields. Though numbers are rough, estimates point to over 500 workers arrived from around the globe, most notably Japan, The Philippines, Portugal, and a few from Korea and China. What was once a coastal fishing village was now a flourishing town, where houses, stores, a sugar mill, and hospital sprang up along the white sand coast.
Unfortunately, the success of Lanai’s sugar industry would be short-lived, as the water used to irrigate the sugar inexplicably turned salty and brackish. By 1901 the mill closed down, and the Maunalei Sugar Company was bankrupt. Laborers left the island in droves, and the island’s total population dropped as low as 125.
It took 20 years for Lanai to recover. When pineapple was planted in 1922 at the start of the Dole Plantation, the island’s population center shifted to Lanai City where a new town was being constructed to once again house the influx of laborers. By the 1930’s, Keomoku was forgotten, though relics of the boomtown’s former self lay hidden and tucked in the trees.
When visiting Keomoku today, you’ll need to rent a 4WD vehicle to navigate the bumpy dirt road. Expect the drive from Lanai City to take about an hour. You’ll know you’ve arrived when you see Ka Lanakila Church through the groves of kiawe trees. Ka Lanakila Church is a beautifully restored, wooden church originally built in 1903 for the handful of remaining residents.
Make sure to bring shoes when visiting Keomoku, since many historic sites – including the rubble remnants of the sugar mill – are located back in the thorny kiawe.
Thanks to the Lanai Culture and Heritage Center, many of the area’s historical sights are signposted with directions.
One unique sight is a fishing boat that’s rotting and stuck in the mud. A sign describes how passengers would ride the boat across the channel to Maui to sell their taro, buy supplies, or visit family and friends. You’ll also find a concrete bread oven that was built by Japanese masons, and a small memorial to the Japanese workers who passed away on the island.
When you’ve finished exploring the cultural relics along both sides of the road, continue for a mile to Kahalepalaoa and the white sand beach in the coconut grove—just remember to watch for falling coconuts and don’t park under a tree!
Finally, because there aren’t any supplies or services once you leave Lanai City behind, be sure to bring snacks, pack lots of water, and make sure you top off on gas. In addition, take it slow when you’re driving the road since washouts and mud puddles are common.