Throughout the years of late-prehistory, AD 1400s – 1700s, and through much of the 1800s, the canoe was a principal means of travel in ancient Hawaiʻi. Canoes were used for interisland and inter-village coastal travel.
Most permanent villages initially were near the ocean and at sheltered beaches, which provided access to good fishing grounds, as well as facilitating convenient canoe travel.
Although the canoe was a principal means of travel in ancient Hawaiʻi, extensive cross-country trail networks enabled gathering of food and water and harvesting of materials for shelter, clothing, medicine, religious observances and other necessities for survival.
These trails were usually narrow, following the topography of the land. Sometimes, over ‘a‘ā lava, they were paved with water-worn stones.
Back then, land travel was only foot traffic, over little more than trails and pathways.
June 21, 1803 marked an important day in the history of Hawaiʻi land transportation and other uses when the Lelia Byrd, an American ship under Captain William Shaler (with commercial officer Richard Cleveland,) arrived at Kealakekua Bay with two mares and a stallion on board.
Before departing to give these gifts to Kamehameha (who was not on the island to accept them,) the captain left one of the mares with John Young (a trusted advisor of the King, who begged for one of the animals.)
Shaler and Cleveland then departed for Lāhainā, Maui to give the mare and stallion to King Kamehameha I.
Hawaiʻi had a new means of transportation (as well as a work-animal to help control the growing cattle population (gifts from Captain Vancouver in 1793.))
Until the mid-1800s, overland travel was predominantly by foot and followed the traditional trails.
In 1838, a major street improvement project was started. Honolulu was to be a planned town. Kinaʻu (Kuhina Nui Kaʻahumanu II) published the following proclamation: “I shall widen the streets in our city and break up some new places to make five streets on the length of the land, and six streets on the breadth of the land… Because of the lack of streets some people were almost killed by horseback riders …”
By the 1840s, the use of introduced horses, mules and bullocks for transportation was increasing, and many traditional trails – the ala loa and mauka-makai trails within ahupua‘a – were modified by removing the smooth stepping stones that caused the animals to slip.
A few remnants of the early uses of horses to get around can be seen. Circular indentations in curbs adjoining streets show the location of hitching rings used to tether horses outside businesses.
Typically, the evidence is iron stubs that fastened the rings to the curb. In Hilo, some curb rings can still be seen; along the curb of Kamehameha Avenue are two-inch rings spaced at intervals.
There is also evidence on Alakea Street, between King and Merchant, in Honolulu, fronting the Wolter Building (site of the former Occidental Hotel.)
Today, Hawaiʻi remains strong in the ranching tradition. Remnant hitching posts can be found outside of some businesses and homes. Rodeo grounds can be seen on most of the islands.
In 1868, horse-drawn carts operated by the Pioneer Omnibus Line went into operation in Honolulu, beginning the first public transit service in the Hawaiian Islands.
Honolulu resident HP Baldwin is credited with having the first automobile back in October 1899 (it was steam-powered.) The first gasoline-powered automobile arrived in the Islands in 1900.
In November of 1900, an electric trolley (tram line) was put into operation in Honolulu, and then in 1902, a tram line was built to connect Waikīkī and downtown Honolulu. The electric trolley replaced the horse-mule-driven tram cars.