Waimea was one of the population centers for Kauai during the period prior to contact with the remainder of the world. Situated on the dry leeward side of the island, the royal court came here during Hawaii's wetter winter months. In the years following Captain James Cook's arrival, it became the most frequented port on Kauai, but remained very much a Hawaiian village of thatched buildings with very few foreign settlers. The Russians added a stone fort (KA7) and the missionaries a couple of houses (KA1) and eventually a stone church (KA2), but Hawaiian building traditions continued until the 1880s. The expansion of the rice and sugar industries brought change, and Western-style wood-framed buildings increasingly dotted the landscape. A pier constructed in 1865 allowed for island-wide distribution of Waimea's crops, and by 1898 a railroad system, which ran from Mana to Waimea, brought plantation harvests to the rice and sugar mills located in the town. Chinese, attracted to the area's rice production, operated most of the mercantile stores between 1885 and 1905.
The mechanization of California's large-scale rice fields in the 1920s marked the end of the rice industry in Waimea, as well as Hawaii. Also at this time, the town's importance as a shipping center diminished when Port Allen opened on Kauai in 1928. Although sugar steadily grew in importance in the Waimea area, especially following improvements to the irrigation system in 1912, its accompanying mechanization resulted in fewer employment opportunities, and with the coming of the Great Depression, Waimea's heyday had passed. Sugar remained the mainstay of the community's economy for much of the twentieth century, despite the sugar mill's closing with World War II and the Waimea Sugar Company being absorbed into Kekaha Plantation in 1969. Most of the buildings within the three-to four-block commercial core date from the town's early-twentieth-century vitality, surviving today as the gateway to Waimea Canyon and Kokee State Park, serving visitors as well as residents.
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