Q: National parks help interpret diverse aspects of American culture, including unusual and exceptional stories from our country’s past. One unique park site preserves the history of a particularly rare and isolated kind of community: a Hansen’s disease settlement (commonly known as a leper colony). Can you name this park where former patients still live today?
A: On an isolated peninsula on the Hawaiian island of Molokai, Kalaupapa National Historical Park offers visitors a fascinating and often heart-rending look into the lives of people who lived with debilitating illness. Amid the lush flora and fauna of the archipelago’s wildest island, the park shares first-hand stories of isolation and suffering while preserving relics of patients who coped with Hansen’s disease (also known as leprosy) and the intense social stigma associated with it.
When leprosy first reached Hawaii’s shores in the 1800s, Native Hawaiians were particularly vulnerable, having no natural immunity to the illness. People deeply feared the disfiguring condition and believed—mistakenly—that it was easily communicable. In fact, it takes repeated, direct exposure over prolonged periods of time to contract the disease, and only a small percentage of people are naturally susceptible to it—but it would be decades before researchers would begin to understand what caused it and how it spread.
In 1865, the Kingdom of Hawaii passed a law to begin quarantining people with the illness on the remote region of Molokai, tearing families apart and removing the native inhabitants from land that their families had occupied for centuries. Scientists found a cure for Hansen’s disease in the 1940s, but the law exiling people to the settlement was not rescinded until 1969. More than 8,000 people were banished to Kalaupapa during its century of operation. A shocking 46% of patients died during their first five years in exile.
Although its history is rife with personal tragedy, Kalaupapa was not just home to great pain. The park also shares stories of heroes and caretakers who devoted themselves to people living with the illness. Many spouses, parents, and relatives of people with Hansen’s disease chose to accompany their loved ones to the settlement, easing the pain of forced isolation. These people, known as na kokua, literally “helpers,” also provided invaluable assistance, since the limited staff and volunteers often could not keep up with basic care and chores at the facility. One notable na kokua was Father Damien, a Catholic priest from Belgium who chose to live at the settlement in service to its patients. He eventually contracted the disease and died at Kalaupapa in 1899.
Although Hansen’s disease is now easily treated and no one at Kalaupapa has an active case of the illness, the state of Hawaii decided to keep the settlement open for former patients who prefer to live in its familiar environment and choose not to attempt reintegration into a new community. Survivors can also continue to receive treatment for the long-term effects of the illness.
Surrounded by the ocean and the highest coastal cliffs in the world, this site is notoriously difficult to visit. Author Robert Louis Stevenson visited after Father Damien’s death in 1899 and wrote a book about Kaluapapa, describing it as “a prison fortified by nature.” Today, in addition to the natural barriers presented by the landscape, state law carefully safeguards the privacy of current residents. To see the park, visitors must pre-arrange access with a local tour operator, then either charter a flight or hike or ride a mule down a steep three-and-a-half-mile trail to the entrance, beyond which there are no dining or shopping facilities.
About the author
Jennifer Errick Managing Editor of Online Communications
Jennifer co-produces NPCA's podcast, The Secret Lives of Parks, and writes, edits and moderates online content.