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County With No Children: Kalawao, Hawaii 🗿
The smallest county in the US has a history and doesn't allow minors (🗿Amazing Places Series)
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The County With No Children:
Kalawao County & Kaluapapa, Hawaii
Ah Hawaii. Beautiful beaches, warm water, a volcanic eruption as of last week, and an entire county that’s closed to children – in fact, it’s closed to everyone right now.
This is Kalawao County. At just 12 square miles, it’s the country’s smallest county, and has got to be the most isolated: the only way in by land is a mule trail carved through cliffs. The 82 people living there are the only ones who can. It’s the only US county that’s permanently closed to new residents, and one of very few like it in the world.
Kalawao occupies a small peninsula on the north coast of Molokai Island in Hawaii. It’s cut off from the rest of the island by quarter-mile high cliffs that surround it. According to the Guinness Book of Records, these are the tallest sea cliffs in the world (Though Guinness may be losing their touch… the cliffs of New Zealand’s Milford Sound are 1500 feet taller, as far as I can tell).
That isolation is part of how it came to be:
For 103 years, it was a quarantine settlement for victims of Hansen’s disease, otherwise known as a leper colony.
Before widely available treatment after the 1950s, quarantining the inflicted to isolated communities was common throughout much of the world, including the Kingdom of Hawaii, which began sending people here in 1866.
For the next century, Kalawao County and its main settlement Kalaupapa was home to more than 8000 patients who were confined and treated here. Most patients were forcibly exiled from their diagnosis through death. Separated from their loved ones with little contact, they developed a tight-knit community, aided by health workers and missionaries (two of which became catholic saints). By the time the quarantine was lifted in 1969, Hawaii was a US state and the world knew how to mitigate the disease. But, its stigma stubbornly persisted so many residents chose to stay to live the rest of their lives here.
There are under 10 former patients who still live here, all above 80 years old. They’re joined by a about 50 others who are health workers, state employees, and conservationists that maintain the Kalaupapa National Historical Park, which was established in 1980 to preserve the area’s heritage.
All visits require a special state permit, though tourists haven’t been allowed access since covid began. Per my conversation with a wonderful park ranger, the whole place is closed indefinitely for now. Kalawao County was in fact the last county in the US to report a covid case, and there’s still only been one. Minors under 16 are prohibited, though I’ve heard relatives can petition for an exception. (I can’t get to the bottom as to why this rule still exists tho)
Almost all access is through the local airstrip, which services one of the shortest flights in the world… under 10 miles from Molokai airport to Kalaupapa in about 15 minutes. The other way to get there is a barge that drops off major supplies once a year, or a steep 3-mile hike, preferably by mule, on a 130 year old trail carved into the cliffs. This trail is the only land route to topside, which is what locals call the rest of Molokai.
When no more patients are left, it’s assumed that the county will be dissolved into the National Park, with plans to preserve and educate future generations. If and when that does happen, the title of smallest county in the US will be passed on to a place a bit less remote: New York County, New York.