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The Great Lāhainā Fire of 1919

by Peter T. Young

Like any town with wooden buildings built side-by-side, folks in Lāhainā in the early-1900s were always wary of the possibility of fire getting out of control. Then, it happened.

New Years 1919, a fire (which broke out earlier New Year’s Eve) started in the Sing Lung Co. fruit store, “two doors from the corner of Front and Church streets, on the mauka side” and grew to engulf a large part of the business center of the town.

More than 30 separate buildings were destroyed before the fire was stopped by the townspeople who turned out in the middle of the night to try to battle the blaze after a mounted police officer gave the alarm by riding around town frantically blowing his whistle.

The fire appeared to be intentionally set.

“The fact that the back door to the Sing Lung store, in which the fire originated, was found to be open when the first fire fighters arrived on the scene, first gave rise to this impression.”

“Later, on Monday morning, Sheriff Clem Crowell, after a careful search of the ruins, found the padlock and hasp with which the door in question had been fastened, and both show unmistakable evidence of having been forced open.” (Maui News – January 10, 1919)

The community helped control the spread and the Maui News specifically praised the heroics of a Japanese boy named Aoki who saved the historic Baldwin House.

“This youth, with great grit and good judgment, mounted to the roof of the building with a garden hose, and, protecting himself from the terrific heat with a small table which he held in front of him as a screen, kept the roof and cornices of the building wet …”

“… and watched for sparks and embers which rained about him as he worked. The building was not damaged except for a badly charred cornice on the side next the fire.” (Maui News – January 10, 1919)

The big fire of 1919 destroyed all of the wooden buildings along Front Street from Dickenson Street to the Lāhainā Store, which was spared. Starting at Dickenson, those stores were: Yee Lip General Store, Sing Lung Fruit Store, Wa Sing Barber Shop, the Lāhainā Branch of Bank of Hawaii and Len Wai Store.

The buildings in what was called Library Park were also destroyed; the Japanese Hotel owned by M. Shimura, Yet Lung General Store, the Goo Lip Building, several small businesses, shacks and the fish market.

The Pioneer Hotel was seriously threatened, although some distance from the fire, by the shower of sparks carried upon it by the wind. By keeping the roof wet with water carried up in buckets, it was possible to prevent its catching fire.

“By the time fire fighters arrived on the scene the store was a mass of flames, and the heat was so great that no one could approach very near.” (Maui News – January 10, 1919)

“Fire hose from the court house was carried to the scene within a reasonable time, but a reducing coupling was missing It could not be attached to the fire hydrant. It developed that this coupling had been left at the scene of the fire which destroyed cottage at the Lahaina hospital at the time of the big wing storm, several weeks ago.”

“By the time it was found and brought to the scene the blaze had communicated to buildings on either side and the heat was so great that it was impossible to pass In front of them along the street.” (Maui News – January 10, 1919)

“By far the disastrous conflagration in the history of Maui, was that which started about 11:30 o’clock last Saturday night in the business center of Lahaina, and before it was finally checked had destroyed more than 30 separate buildings and had caused a loss aggregating between $125,000 and $150,000.” (Maui News – January 10, 1919)

The Lāhainā fire was not only started by burglars, who broke into the Sing Lung fruit store, stole a number of watches and about $8 in coin, but that the crime was committed by members of the gang of young bandits who robbed the Len Wai Co., store and planned to rob the Lāhainā bank.

“Partial confession has been secured from a number of boys more or less directly implicated, and the circumstantial evidence is all but conclusive against two of the gang.” (Maui News, January 17, 1919)

The fire, considered one of the worse in the history of Maui to that date, was the catalyst for important improvements to Maui urban life.

The following month, the County Board of Supervisors approved and funded the start of a fire department for Lāhainā. BO Wist was elected as the first fire chief and given the job of organizing a volunteer fire company. The Board went on to approve the purchase of two fire trucks – one for Lāhainā and one for Wailuku.

Because of the fire, the Lāhainā townspeople asked that the County install a large water main for fire purposes in the center of town as well as proper fire hydrants.”

“The Board instructed the county attorney and the county engineer to “collaborate in drawing up of fire ordinances for both Lahaina and Wailuku, fixing fire limits, and prescribing the class of buildings and equipment that may be maintained in the thickly built parts of town.”

Within a short time after the fire started the leading Japanese of Lāhainā had formed a relief organization for the benefit of those who had suffered loss from the fire.

The first work of this organization was supply food and drink to the hundreds who were engaged in fighting the fire. Later, it took up the matter of helping those sufferers of the fire.

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