The city of Hilo has been a trading place from the time Hawaiian tribes came up the Wailuku River, which separated Hilo from Hamakua, and shouted out what goods they had to offer. In the 1800s, although Honolulu reigned supreme as the principal whaling base of the Pacific, Hilo came in third behind Koloa as alternative anchorages. Foreign ships found anchorages between the coral heads of Hilo's wide bay, and thereafter the dredging of a channel permitted steamships to enter the area.
Missionaries settled Hilo in 1822. The region was first studied scientifically by Lord Byron and his men of the ship Blonde in 1825. Titus Cona, a missionary at Hilo, was the foremost volcanologist of his time and made frequent visits to the volcano.
The beginnings of Hilo's tourist industry date back to the 1870s when Hilo was one of a number of sites on a standard sightseeing route. Particularly popular were visits to the volcano of Kilauea east of Mauna Loa.
By the early 1900s, Hilo's sugar industry was booming and the city became the commercial center of the island. A railroad connected Hilo with other parts of the island. Hilo became the seat of Hawaii County in 1905 was incorporated as a city in 1911.
In March 1868, a volcanic eruption resulted in formidable destruction. The city experienced close calls from the eruption of Mauna Loa in 1942 and in 1984. Two tsunamis have also caused major damage. In 1946 a tidal wave swept half the town inland and then dragged the remains out to sea. Hilo rebuilt and constructed a stone breakwater across the bay to protect the harbor. Another tidal wave destroyed a major part of the waterfront business district and the city's beachfront in 1960, sweeping 61 Hiloites out to sea. Civic leaders, vowing that such destruction would never recur, drained the lowland crescent and raised a new hill 26 feet above sea level and mounted a new government and commercial center. Today, however, the beach is still gone.
Hilo's cultural diversity adds to the city's charm. Japanese, Polynesian, Filipino, Chinese, Puerto Rican, Portuguese, and Russian residents make up the city's mixed-race culture of today. Since their arrival, Japanese people have had an important influence on the city, from serving on the city council to starting entrepreneurial businesses. Business people of all races join the Japanese Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Japanese newspaper, the Hilo Times, is published in the city.