Hilo is the largest settlement and census-designated place in Hawaii County, Hawaii, United States, which encompasses the Island of Hawaiʻi with a population of 43,263 at the 2010 census.
Around 1100 AD, the first Hilo inhabitants arrived, bringing with them Polynesian knowledge and traditions. Although archaeological evidence is scant, oral history has many references to people living in Hilo, along the Wailuku and Wailoa rivers during the time of ancient Hawaii. Oral history also gives the meaning of Hilo as “to twist”.
Originally, the name “Hilo” applied to a district encompassing much of the east coast of the island of Hawaiʻi, now divided into the District of South Hilo and the District of North Hilo. When William Ellis visited in 1823, the main settlement in the Hilo district was Waiākea on the south shore of Hilo Bay. Missionaries came to the district in the early-to-middle 19th century, founding Haili Church, in the area of modern Hilo.
Hilo expanded as sugar plantations in the surrounding area created new jobs and drew in many workers from Asia, making the town a trading center.
A breakwater across Hilo Bay was begun in the first decade of the 20th century and completed in 1929. On April 1, 1946, a 7.8-magnitude earthquake near the Aleutian Islands created a 46-foot-high tsunami that hit Hilo 4.9 hours later, killing 160 people. In response, an early warning system, the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center, was established in 1949 to track these killer waves and provide warning. This tsunami also caused the end of the Hawaii Consolidated Railway, and instead the Hawaii Belt Road was built north of Hilo using some of the old railbed.
On May 23, 1960, another tsunami, caused by a 9.5-magnitude earthquake off the coast of Chile the previous day, claimed 61 lives, allegedly due to the failure of people to heed warning sirens. Low-lying bayfront areas of the city on Waiākea peninsula and along Hilo Bay, previously populated, were rededicated as parks and memorials.
Hilo expanded inland beginning in the 1960s. The downtown found a new role in the 1980s as the city’s cultural center with several galleries and museums being opened; the Palace Theater was reopened in 1998 as an arthouse cinema.
Closure of the sugar plantations (including those in Hāmākua) during the 1990s led to a downturn in the local economy, coinciding with a general statewide slump. Hilo in recent years has seen commercial and population growth, as the neighboring District of Puna became the fastest-growing region in the state.
Being the oldest city in the Hawaiian archipelago, Hilo has a significant tourism section. Hilo is home to Hawaii’s only tsunami museum, mostly dedicated to the understanding of the 1946 Pacific tsunami, and is notable for the banyan trees planted by Babe Ruth and Amelia Earhart and many other famous celebrities. Hilo’s location on the eastern side of the island of Hawaiʻi, (windward relative to the trade winds), makes it the fourth wettest designated city in the United States.