I was blessed a while ago to stand at an exalted spot in Huelo, seen these days by few. Once 800 acres, it was on the property of a local family, acquired through the industry of an immigrant ancestor, whose ox team supplied the ditch-building efforts of the 1870s, and his equally hardworking descendants.
The courteous landowner and I bumped slowly through a pasture in his truck, stopping to feed day-old bread to the cows, until we arrived at the tip of Honokala, "Bay of the Sun," where the land slopes down to the windy point of Hawini.
The view was grand, a sweep to the east across Waipi'o Bay to Huelo Point, where in the summer the sun rises out of the sea. Then off across a gulch to Ho'olawa Bay in the west. The deep blue ocean sparkled and churned against the rocks.
I was viewing land once occupied by the 1,500-acre Huelo Plantation, first planted around 1878 by the Chinese immigrant Tong Akana, who risked his fortune on two remote, wind-swept points on Maui's rugged north coast.
Also known as Akanali'ili'i, he was the only nonhaole on Maui to jump into the sugar industry in the aftermath of the Reciprocity Treaty of 1876 negotiated by Kalakaua. This gave Hawaii favorable trade status with the United States in exchange for a crucial, controversial condition: cession of Pearl Harbor on Oahu to the U.S. for a coaling station. It was the first time Hawaiian soil had been given to a foreign power, an action bitterly resented by Hawaiians.
Akana was a remarkable man. According to The Maui News, he was born in 1833 at the village of Tong Ka in the Chinese province of Kwong Tong. He came to Honolulu in 1852, "and during the early period of his life numbered among his friends Kamehameha III and other kings and queens." In 1853 he "took up residence on Maui, living on the island since that time," and became a Hawaiian citizen in 1874.
Chinese merchants in Honolulu at the time, eager to distinguish themselves from the new wave of immigrant coolies, went out of their way to court the favor of Kamehameha IV and his new bride, Emma, by offering a scintillating, long-remembered ball for the newly married couple. Years later, Queen Emma gave Akanali'li'i her ward Hannah in marriage, and a dowry of "an ahupua'a of land on the north slopes of Haleakala, reaching from the sea shore at Huelo to the wooded lands on the mountain around Makawao."
With 120 men and 200 yoke of oxen, Akana ground 900 tons of cane in 1880 at the Huelo Mill, set on a rise above Hawini Point, of which some stonewalls and brick-work remain. A photograph of the original mill from the Hawaii State Archives shows a factory with a single stack and a flume carrying cane from Door of Faith Road, four miles away.
An article in an 1880 Hawaiian periodical gave the plantation an effusive review. Akanali'ili'i, the writer said, "has effected a most wonderful change in the appearance of the land. Where it was formerly overgrown with scrub and native trees it is now blossoming, not with the rose, but with the most magnificent fields of sugar cane, which on some parts of the estate are actually growing on the verge of high, precipitous rocks, overhanging the sea, in some places, perpendicularly, at a height from the sea of - I am safe to say - 1,200 to 1,500 feet."
The little steamer Mokoli'i "called once a week on her up and down trip from Honolulu via the Island of Molokai. Fair, cabin $6; deck, $2. There is a splendid opening for an enterprising man to open a hotel for the use of tourists. Mr. Akanaliilii - I am very sure, would render any assistance to the right man."
The plantation lasted only 16 years until, "hemmed in by the surrounding terrain and unable to expand, Huelo Plantation harvested its last crop in 1894."
What's left now of that effort is a family retreat, protected from the wind by the mill's ruined retaining wall, and a narrow trail now guarded by a metal gate. The owner speculates Chinese coolies may have carried 100 pound bags of sugar down to the effervescent sea. The flume, the reservoir, the conveyor belt for bagasse are long gone.
Mostly it's the memory of all that hard work, immigrants gaining a foothold on a new life on Maui, that remains.
* Laurel Murphy is a former staff writer for The Maui News whose "Keiki o ka 'Aina" column appears each Tuesday. She can be reached at laurelmurphymauinews@yahoo.