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Kalaupapa: A remote historic preserve


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POSTED: Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Historic or religious sites are traditional destinations for travelers, but no hordes of people are likely to descend on Kalaupapa to walk in Father Damien's footsteps any time soon.

First, there's the considerable expense of just getting to Hawaii. Then there's the daunting geography. Visitors can reach the remote Molokai peninsula by air - two flights a day on a nine-seat aircraft - or by mule or on foot down a harrowing trail from the top of the 2,000-foot sea cliffs.

The 3-mile trail with 26 switchbacks “;is equally strenuous to hiking to the bottom of the Grand Canyon,”; said Steve Prokop, administrator of Kalaupapa National Historic Park. “;It's half the distance but much steeper.”;

Prokop said “;there will be increasing attention and demand”; for admission to the peninsula. Beyond the heroic story of the priest who served there, the park holds the history of 8,000 leprosy patients who were sent into exile between 1866 and 1969, and there is increasing interest in them, too.

Greater than any limitation on travel is the fact that the peninsula is still home to 20 former leprosy patients. The number of visitors is capped at 100 on any given day, a rule established by the state Department of Health, which administered the settlement before the National Park Service took over in 1980. It is continued with the affirmation of the Patients Council.

“;That's to protect the privacy of the patient community here at Kalaupapa,”; said Prokop. “;As long as there are patients living here, the National Park Service will honor their request that the number of visitors be capped.”;

After the state put an end to more than 100 years of forced isolation in 1969, former patients were guaranteed lifelong residency there if they chose, and health care for life provided by the state.

The village is also home to about 60 employees of the state and National Park Service.

On an average day, 20 to 30 tourists might arrive, required to take the bus tour on patient-owned Damien Tours rather than roam free. Travelers are shown significant sites, but few get to meet Kalaupapa residents. On the windward side, Kalawao, where Damien ministered to the earliest exiles, only two buildings remain: the Protestant Siloama Church, built by patients in 1866, and St. Philomena Church, which Damien helped build and where he said Mass.

Visitors pass through the tidy village of Kalaupapa on the leeward side, clapboard architecture reminiscent of plantation villages.

Protestant and Catholic churches there are open, but the state-run store limits sales to one snack or drink purchase by a visitor. A National Park Service bookstore offers the only chance to shop - books, T-shirts and caps - and a peek at historical artifacts, from ancient poi pounders to patient-crafted tools.

The National Park Service has spent $23 million to ensure the history is preserved and accessible for future visitors, Prokop said. A major infrastructure investment was the new water utility system. Electrical wiring has been upgraded in the century-old buildings, and the high-voltage power grid is being upgraded.

“;Every building here is a national historic structure,”; said Prokop. “;We don't just tear out the old and put in the new. We have maintenance crews with specialized training in historic restoration. We use the same window materials, the same hardware and doors as the original. It is much more expensive and labor intensive.”;

With 200 wooden structures and an annual $3.5 million maintenance budget, “;it's like triage,”; said Prokop. “;It's always a game of catch-up.”;

Numerous buildings were bulldozed after the mandatory quarantine ended in 1969. “;The state wasn't thinking of historic preservation. They were thinking that the number of patients was declining and there wouldn't be anyone else moving into the houses. Many buildings were in a bad state of repair, falling down.”;

Prokop said the late Richard Marks and other patients realized the state would not be able to handle anything along the lines of historic preservation, “;or taking care that the patients' memories and stories would be kept through oral interviews and archives. They lobbied elected officials to invite the National Park Service.”;

The late U.S. Rep. Patsy Mink introduced the bill that created the park in 1980.

The only new building on the scene is a 4,000-square-foot, climate-controlled warehouse holding “;more than 250,000 artifacts from patients and from the Hawaiian people who lived here before the settlement.”; Ancient tools and rock walls indicate people lived there for at least 800 years. A curator recently joined the park staff with the task of cataloging the treasures.

“;We want to make sure that the cultural, archaeological resources and history are protected for the enjoyment of future generations of Hawaiians and Americans,”; Prokop said. “;Anyone who comes here feels the timeless nature of Kalaupapa. That's what we plan to preserve.”;