There sometimes feel like a lot of Russia, Russia, Russia talks in terms of American politics, but generally, put Americans don’t really think of that country as having a particular central impact on the United States. Particularly not when it comes to the founding of the United States and those early European countries who sent settlers and claimed lands. But did you know that Russia did have a bit of a hand in Hawaii’s settling by non-islanders? Enter Russian Fort Elizabeth.
Russian Fort Elizabeth, originally known as Fort Elizavety, is a National Historic Landmark that is situated on the island of Kauai. The fort is part of the larger Russian Fort Elizabeth State Park and reminds visitors and locals of the truly unique history of the Hawaiian islands compared to the rest of the United States. In 1815, Russia signed a treaty with Kaumualii, the last independent ruler of the island of Kauai and Niihau that made Russian Tsar Alexander I a protectorate over the island of Kauai. This designation gave Kaumuallii assurance that he would have aid in his attempts to avoid his islands from becoming incorporated in the more unified Hawaiian kingdom under Kamehameha. This gambit was ultimately not successful and within only a few short years, Kamehameha took control of the fort along with the rest of Kauai.
The Russian Fort Elizabeth was the first fort to be built after that treaty near the village of Waimea, named in honor of the sitting Empress of Russia. Two other forts were built shortly after, Fortress Alexander and Fort Barclay-de-Tolly, both built near Hanalei. Russian Fort Elizabeth, however, was certainly the largest of them all and the waterfront fort is worth a visit.
Of course, for those who have traveled the Caribbean, Russian Fort Elizabeth might seem a little underwhelming compared to the fort in San Juan and Havana. But still pretty impressive! The outer walls of Russian Fort Elizabeth once reached upwards of 20 feet high, although most of those have crumbled away. The octangular structure also once harbored a church and critical military defense equipment like massive cannons that overlooked the bay. Right now, historians and archeologists are working on ways to transform what remains into an authentic re-creation that will look and feel like it did in the 19th century. Visiting Russian Fort Elizabeth State Park is a great way to learn more about those efforts as well as learn more about those eventful years.
While the Russian fort is the big centerpiece of the state park, it is not the only attraction. Russian Fort Elizabeth State Park sprawls out across 17 acres and includes a small beachfront facing Waimea Bay. Self-guided trails lead visitors both around the fort itself as well as the grounds at large. So after you’ve seen the fort, consider continuing on the nature trails along the Waimea River and Waimea Bay.
In addition to re-creating the fort itself, there are also plans to build a substantial visitor’s center for the park. A center that can more properly convey the events that went on during the first half of the 1800s. However, that is still a vision in the works. Today, when you enter the Russian Fort Elizabeth State Park, you will find a simple parking lot and restroom facilities. Paper maps and trail markers are available for visitors to follow a self-guided tour.
Russian Fort Elizabeth State Park is a must-see location for those who enjoy history. But there is an emphasis on the last part of that sentence. This park is a very kid-friendly activity. That’s because there is no real shade and as we noted above, the fort is only a fraction of what it once was. In other words, it takes a good imagination and understanding of history to really appreciate what stands before you. So if you are traveling with children or with others who don’t enjoy early 19th-century history, we’d skip this one.