Why the Loss of Lahaina Matters So Much

Since my last post about Maui’s devastating wildfires, the numbers have increased dramatically. We now know that at least 115 people lost their lives and as many as 2,300 structures were damaged or destroyed. The numbers don’t tell the full story, though, about what Lahaina meant to Maui, to Hawaiʻi, and to the world.

The Historical Perspective

It’s probably not an overstatement to say that no other place in the Hawaiian Islands held so much history in such a concentrated area as Lahaina.

Between 1798 and 1802, King Kamehameha I began construction of a brick palace in Lahaina for his wife, Queen Kaʻahumanu, and established it as his royal residence. By 1810, he had successfully united all of the islands under his rule, and by 1820, King Kamehameha II had declared Lahaina the capital of the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi. It would remain the capital until 1845.

Because Lahaina’s location put it in the path of ships following whale migration routes, the town developed into a major whaling port during the 1820s. Inns, shops, and taverns quickly appeared to meet the demands of the many visiting sailors.

Missionaries also began to arrive in Lahaina in the 1820s. Waineʻe (eventually renamed Waiola) Church, was constructed between 1828 and 1832, making it the first stone church in Hawaiʻi. Along with other Hawaiian royalty, Princess Nahiʻenaʻena (for whom one of Lahaina’s two elementary schools was named) was buried in its graveyard. The church was taken by the fires just after celebrating its 200th anniversary.

The Baldwin Home was built in 1834/1835, and soon became a gathering place for missionaries. The Baldwin family gifted the home to the Lahaina Restoration Foundation in 1967, and it served as a museum until also being destroyed by the fires. It had been the oldest home on Maui at the time.

In 1840, King Kamehameha III commissioned Lahaina’s lighthouse. It was renovated in 1866 to increase its height from 9 feet to 26, and in 1905 it was replaced by a 55-foot version. Originally lit with whale oil and later kerosene, it was wired for electricity in 1937. It is miraculously still standing, making it the oldest lighthouse in Hawaiʻi.

By the 1850s, more than 400 whaling ships per year docked in Lahaina’s port. The Old Lahaina Prison was constructed in the early part of the decade to help the town manage the problem of rowdy sailors — and daily tours of the prison were still being offered until the fires consumed it. Likewise, the Old Lahaina Courthouse (constructed in 1858) had become home to the Lahaina Visitor Center — but now only its walls remain.

As whaling eventually began to decline in the 1860s, Lahaina evolved into a quieter plantation town. Sugar production became the main industry in west Maui, and a pineapple growing and canning industry soon followed.

In 1873, the world-famous banyan tree was planted along Front Street to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Lahaina’s first protestant mission. Eventually more than 60 feet tall, it grew to cover an entire acre of land.

Lahaina Harbor

The Pioneer Inn was built in 1901, and over the course of its history, its guests included Mark Twain and Queen Liliʻuokalani (Hawaiʻi’s last monarch). It was still in operation as a hotel until being burned down. Likewise, King Kamehameha III School (established in 1913) housed about 650 elementary students before being destroyed in the first week of the 2023-2024 school year.

In 1962, the Lahaina Historic District (including Front Street and its surrounding area) was designated as a National Historic Landmark.

Lahaina As a Vacation Destination

In recent decades, Lahaina transformed itself once again. With near-perfect weather year-round, exceptionally beautiful scenery (including the West Maui Mountains and sunset/neighbor island views), and a wealth of gorgeous beaches that tend to be great for snorkeling, how could it not become a center for tourism? Cruise ships began to access its harbor, and it became the home of many of Maui’s boat tour companies. Its shops, art galleries, restaurants, and nightlife made it a hub for anyone visiting to attend the Maui Invitational college basketball tournament, the PGA’s Sentry Tournament of Champions, or the annual XTERRA World Championship.

Lahaina, Maui, Hawaii at night. Image of downtown Lahaina from the water

Prior to the fires, Lahaina businesses (including accommodations, food, retail sales, etc.) employed around 8,500 people and brought in $70 million per month in revenue. Following the fires, Maui’s visitor arrivals fell by about 75%, resulting in an island-wide revenue loss of around $13 million per day.

Lahaina’s Tight-Knit Community

You don’t just stumble upon Lahaina — you go there intentionally. Today, Honoapiʻilani Highway roughly follows the path of an ancient stone road that was established by Hawaiian chief Piʻilani and his son. More often referred to as the Pali, the road to Lahaina winds through the curves of the West Maui Mountains while offering incredible views of surf breaks, reefs, whales, and neighbor islands. No matter how many times you drive it, it’s amazing.

Maybe because of the dramatic way we access it, Lahaina has always seemed special — set apart from the rest of the island. It’s the kind of family-like community where you can’t leave the house without seeing someone you know.

And maybe because it’s been steeped in so much history and developed such a unique sense of place over time, Lahaina has inspired many families to make it their home for generation after generation. If you’ve ever met a Lahainaluna High School alum, you know the enormous pride they feel in having graduated from the oldest school west of the Rockies — and watching their children and grandchildren do the same.

Even for those of us who can measure our time here in decades rather than generations, we’re so very proud to call Lahaina — the heart and soul of Maui — home. And it’s that pride that will give us the strength to begin the process of recovery and rebuilding.

The “L” proudly overlooking Lahaina.

Pamela Reader, Realtor Broker


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Liza Pierce

September 7, 2023

This is a wonderful and heartfelt article Pam. I moved to Maui in 1994 and I can relate so much with that last paragraph when you said “Even for those of us who can measure our time here in decades rather than generations, we’re so very proud to call Lahaina — the heart and soul of Maui — home. And it’s that pride that will give us the strength to begin the process of recovery and rebuilding.” Mahalo for writing this. Aloha, Liza

Thanh Dinh

September 7, 2023

heart felt story – Thanks!

Jann C Buckner

September 8, 2023

a lovely, informative read
thank you Pamela

Alan. Mihlstin

September 10, 2023

We’re waiting for our famous. Hawaiian. BARRY O. !! Where is he ?


September 11, 2023

Breaks my heart. Hawaii holds a very special place in my heart like so many others. This last April I was lucky enough to take both my kids to Maui & visit Lahaina. Several times having dinner in Lahani, taking catamaran trip from Lahaina passing the famous banyan tree. I’m so grateful we were able to visit before but it also makes it so much harder knowing it’s gone.

Renee Kees

September 12, 2023

Thank you for the wonderful article! I recognized the feelings you expressed about Lahaina, and enjoyed and appreciated the additional history.

I am 71. I have not been fortunate enough to call Lahaina my home, but have been to Lahaina many times. I remember when you could actually drive the highway without traffic! So many wonderful memories of the lovely people I met, savoring the rich historical sites, sitting under the banyan tree, visiting all the shops and art galleries, grabbing a bite at Hamburger in Paradise more for the views than the food, and on and on. All of the Hawaiian islands are beautifully special in their own unique way, but Maui is the most wonderful…and Lahaina IS and always will be Maui.

My heart is broken that old Lahaina is gone. Much more than that, though, I am sickened and saddened by the harrowing catastrophe the people of Lahaina experienced. A small community knows tragedy in a very personal way. I am so very sorry.

One thing I’m sure of is that the very essence of Lahaina is within its wonderful people. They will bring the town back to life. Even in its tragic aftermath, I know there’s still a rainbow arcing above Lahaina nearly every day. God bless all of you.

Elizabeth Draper

September 12, 2023

I love the beautiful Maui my children who are adults live on Maui & Grandchildren who lived entire lives there. Praying for everyone who has been affected by awful fires .

Nancy S

September 13, 2023

Mahalo, Pamela. A beautiful tribute to an amazing town but how sad it had to be written from this perspective. My husband and I have visited Lahaina 4 times over the last 28 years and feel so at home there. It was not in our cards to reside there but lodging at either a VRBO or a 4 star hotel, snorkeling the waters or golfing the hillside, eating Hula Pie or fresh Mahi, we cherish our memories even more now. We treasure two paintings we purchased through the years depicting the Lāhainā area, which now no long exists. We look at them through tear filled eyes. Are hearts are broken for what will never be the same again for us but more importantly what will never be the same for those who live there. Our prayers remain for the families, businesses, galleries, restaurants, vets and first responders whose lives have been changed forever. As details continue to surface despite no longer being front page news, the tragedy is not yet over. God bless everyone involved and may peace return to this slice of heaven on earth that so many love. Maui Strong.

Torey Lam

September 13, 2023

Very, very nice article. Thank you Pamela.

Sherri Williams

September 17, 2023

Great article and reminder of the history. Let’s hope they honor historic facade when rebuilding. Ot breaks my heart.

Aloha Harry

September 19, 2023

Lovely article. Unbelievable what happened to Lahaina. Hoping Maui folk will rebuild some of the iconic landmarks. The artifacts and more importantly lives lost can never be replaced. I was hoping to visit this year but now I am not sure.

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