Volunteer firefighters battled the blaze and many survivors were left to fend for themselves after Maui’s first big conflagration.

This isn’t the first time that much of Lahaina was destroyed in a blaze.

About 100 years ago, a group of buildings in the town’s commercial center went up in flames in what is known as the Great Lahaina Fire of 1919.

There are eerie parallels between the two fires: both times wooden buildings proved to be at the greatest risk, above-ground utility poles toppled and communication lines were severed, cutting off much of Lahaina from the rest of the world.

In both cases, there were shining moments of heroism, ample evidence of human error and the aftermath was filled with recriminations over what had gone wrong.

Residents surveyed the damage after the 1919 fire, from a photograph in a report on the Wo Hing Society in 2008.

But there is one big difference. In 1919, there was no reported loss of life, thanks to the efforts of a policeman who jumped on his horse and galloped through the town, shouting out the alarm, allowing people to escape from the fire and mobilize to fight it. 

“That would have been helpful this time,” said Theo Morrison, executive director of the Lahaina Restoration Foundation, one of the organizations that has preserved the memory of the 1919 fire.

There is also a difference in the scale of the disaster, said historian Peter Young, former head of the Department of Land and Natural Resources, who has written about the 1919 fire, noting that although the two fires were in the same location, the human toll in the recent fire has been much more devastating.

The 1919 fire destroyed the downtown core of Lahaina, burning up about 30 businesses, compared with nearly 1,000 lost this year. The town was also much smaller then, with the 1920 census reporting some 7,000 residents in Lahaina, or roughly half the 13,000 reported by the census in 2020.

Only the safe remained standing after a local bank burned to the ground, according to the book, “Exploring Historic Lahaina.”

The fire broke out in a fruit store in the central part of Lahaina’s business district, in the early morning hours of Sunday, Jan. 5, 1919. There was only a “light northeast wind” blowing that night, according to news accounts from the time, but the fire quickly spread, leaping from building to building in the blocks surrounding the intersection of Front Street and Dickenson Street.

There was no organized fire department at that time to help fight the flames, so about 1,000 volunteers rushed to help salvage what they could from stores that were being consumed by flames. Mountains of merchandise was heaped on the street, with some of it falling into the ocean and floating away.

The fire billowed out of control amid an unfortunate delay as firefighters struggling to spray the area with water found that the apparatus that connected the hose to the fire hydrant was missing, having been left at the site of a different fire several weeks earlier. By the time they located the missing hose connection, the flames had spread to other buildings and the site became searingly hot.

A scathing report in the Hilo Daily Tribune on Jan. 7 reported that the fire hoses themselves were in bad condition and that the chief of a volunteer fire protection unit was out of town in New York at the time of the fire.

The Honolulu Star-Bulletin reported on Jan. 6 that a fire engine that might have helped quell the flames had been left unattended on the side of the road in the years before the fire and became “almost useless.”

In the week that followed, the Maui News said the disaster had been caused by “community neglect and carelessness.”

News reports described the aftermath as a scene of destruction.

“What yesterday was a pretty little town nestling in a hollow at the edge of the sea presents today a dismal sight, the charred and blackened ruins of the major part of its business section bearing mute evidence of the ravages of the flames,” reported the Honolulu Advertiser, on Jan. 6, 1919.

Except for a local bank, the buildings that were destroyed were overwhelmingly Asian owned. They included the Yet Long store, the G.G. Seong saloon, the Shimamura hotel and the Nishihara fish market.

In fact, at that time, Lahaina was described by historians as a Chinatown that was centered on Front Street and squarely in the fire zone. The Lahaina fire was in fact the third major Chinatown fire in four decades. In 1886 and again in 1900, terrible fires wracked Oahu’s Chinatown.

The buildings that survived the 1919 fire in Lahaina included the Pioneer Hotel, one of the oldest hotels in Hawaii, the Lahaina Store, a marquee shopping destination, and the Baldwin House, one the oldest surviving missionary homes in the islands.

Blocks of downtown Lahaina were destroyed in the 1919 fire, captured in this photograph taken at the time.

The Baldwin House was saved by a Japanese teenager named Aoki who climbed to the roof of the house armed with a garden house, using a small table as a shield against flying embers, and sprayed the building down, according to a report in the Maui News on Jan. 10.

In this most recent fire, all three of those properties have been badly damaged, perhaps irredeemably. The Lahaina store site later became the popular restaurant Fleetwoods on Front Street, whose owner has said it was lost to the fire.

News coverage of the 1919 fire was somewhat muted because the event was eclipsed by reports of the unexpected death of former president Teddy Roosevelt in Oyster Bay, New York, that same day.

Roosevelt, a larger-than-life political figure who had survived a gunshot wound by an assassin and struggled with the aftereffects of malaria, was felled by a stroke in his sleep. He had had a sweeping effect on Hawaii as well, first as an advocate of U.S. colonization of the islands and then, as president, in shaping U.S. policy toward Hawaii.

A fast-moving influenza epidemic, meanwhile, soon proved even more of a distraction.

Business leaders in Honolulu came to view the fire as less significant than originally feared once they learned that 50% of the businesses that were destroyed had been insured and that their proprietors and creditors would be paid for damages. Within a week, insurers were making plans to cover the fire losses.

That meant, of course, that 50% were uninsured, leaving many people with only losses and debt to show for their hard work.

Lahaina residents impoverished by the fire were forced to turn to charity by their neighbors. A Japanese relief committee was rapidly created to begin providing assistance, first providing food and drink to the volunteer firefighters and then direct help to people who had lost their livelihoods and possessions. Church groups in Honolulu sent care packages.

Back then, there was no possibility of assistance from the federal government. The Federal Emergency Management Agency only came into existence in 1978, under President Jimmy Carter.

This time, much more help is at hand. FEMA has provided assistance to more than 12,000 survivors, dispensing some $15.2 million in aid so far, according to FEMA officials, with much more to come.

The cause of the 1919 blaze was never precisely determined.

Within a few days of the fire, rumors spread that it had been set, either intentionally or unintentionally, during a robbery or a bank heist, or maybe as an act of revenge by a gang of what was called “a dangerous gang of young desperadoes.” There were reports of looting. But there is no record in news accounts that anyone was ever charged with a fire-related crime.

The Lahaina fire of 1919 proved to be a wakeup call for other communities in Hawaii, where leaders were forced to recognize that they too could be at risk and to consider whether their fire-protection strategies were adequate. It led to changes in fire-safety defenses throughout the islands.

“The Lahaina fire was a conflagration, a disaster,” reported the Hilo Daily Tribune on Jan. 8, 1919. “It virtually wiped out a small town. It was the second greatest fire the Territory has ever known. But it will not be the last. The next one may be in Hilo.”

Lahaina quickly recovered. According to historian Busaba Yip Douglas, the Chinese buildings were rebuilt soon after, but businesspeople opted for concrete storefronts instead of wooden structures.

The same had happened with the two Chinatown fires in Honolulu.

“The biggest thing about all those big, bad fires — 1886, 1900, 1919 — is that they recovered from them,” Peter Young said. “With all of that loss, even though Lahaina has had loss of life, and will never get that back, replacement structures will be built. The areas weren’t abandoned. The areas were rebuilt.”

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.

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