The Maui News reported that this “fine piece of road” was of “practically no benefit”.
They later changed their tune and called it a “great road making achievement in the Islands, fraught with tremendous difficulties in engineering and construction work” and completed by “dare-devil exploits.” (NPS)
OK, it’s called “Hāna Highway” but that name conjures up the wrong images of what this roadway is all about. Drive slowly, because you can’t drive fast, anyway.
It’s 52-miles long; there are 620-curves, 59-bridges and 8-culverts … in your slow motion ride, along the way you will also see a variety of scenic views, including the ocean, mountains, sea cliffs, waterfalls, small villages, native and exotic vegetation and traditional landscapes.
This transportation link has a long history … let’s look back.
Back in the 15th Century (around the time Columbus was crossing the Atlantic,) Maui was divided into two Royal Centers, Lāhainā and Hāna. Back then, the canoe was the primary means of travel around and between the Islands.
Piʻilani, ruling from the Royal Center in Lāhaina, where he was born (and died,) gained political prominence for Maui by unifying the East and West of the island, elevating the political status of Maui.
Famed for his energy and intelligence, Piʻilani constructed the West Maui phase of the noted Alaloa, or long trail (also known as the King’s Highway.) His son, Kihapiʻilani laid the East Maui section and connected the island.
This trail was the only ancient pathway to encircle any Hawaiian island (not only along the coast, but also up the Kaupo Gap and through the summit area and crater of Haleakalā.)
Four to six feet wide and 138 miles long, this rock-paved path facilitated both peace and war. It simplified local and regional travel and communication, and allowed the chief’s messengers to quickly get from one part of the island to another.
Missionaries Richards, Andrews and Green noted in 1828, “a pavement said to have been built by Kihapiʻilani, a king … afforded us no inconsiderable assistance in traveling as we ascended and descended a great number of steep and difficult paries (pali.)” (Missionary Herald)
The 1848 account of Moses Manu noted, “This road was treacherous and difficult for the stranger, but when it was paved by Kihapiʻilani this road became a fine thing.” (NPS)
The first modern roads on Maui began to be built around the late-1800s. Many of these early roads led to and from different plantations in the town of Hāna, where sugar, pineapple, wheat and rubber all flourished. In 1849, George Wilfong opened the first sugar mill in Hāna near Kaʻuiki Hill.
The modern history of the Hāna Belt Road began in the 1870s when fifteen miles of unpaved road was built from central Maui into East Maui’s rain forest to facilitate the construction of the Hāmākua Ditch (to carry water for irrigation of central Maui’s sugar plantations.)
By 1883, the number of sugar plantations in Hāna grew to six. At this time there were small roads going from one plantation to another, as well as partial routes to Kahului from Hāna or from Pāʻia to Hāna. The problem was a lack of reliable roads into and out of Hāna.
The journey to Hāna was made partly over unpaved wagon roads and horse trails, often rendered impassable by damage from frequent rains. The most common means of travel to Hana was by steamer ship. Writer Robert Wenkam states that …
“When Hana was without a road, and the coastal steamer arrived on a weekly schedule, Hana-bound travelers unwilling to wait for the boat drove their car to the road’s end … rode horseback … walked down the switchback into Honomanu Valley.”
“… By outrigger canoe it was a short ride beyond Wailua to Nahiku landing where they could borrow a car for the rest of the involved trip to Hana. Sometimes the itinerary could be completed in a day. Bad weather could make it last a week.” (Library of Congress)
In 1900, folks saw the need to extend a good wagon road through to Hāna, which would be part of the island’s “belt” (around-the-island) road system. That year, a rudimentary road was built from Ke’anae to Nahiku.
The 1905 Superintendent of Public Works report stated that “very rough country is encountered in these districts. On account of the great expenses of road construction, the road has been made as narrow as possible in order to construct, with the money available, the maximum length of road”. (LOC, Territory of Hawaiʻi 1905)
Overland travel continued by horse and many travelers followed the trails along the irrigation ditches. Steamers remained the preferred mode of transportation for travel along the Hāna Coast.
Beginning in 1908, in anticipation of road improvements, twenty-four solid-paneled, reinforced-concrete bridges were built by 1915; from 1916 to 1929, an additional thirty-one bridges were built with a reinforced-concrete.
A large part of the road to Hāna was constructed by prison labor based at the Keʻanae Prison Camp. The camp was built in 1926 to house the prisoners who would construct the road, including several bridges from Kailua to Hana. When the road was completed, men from Keʻanae to Hāna town were hired to maintain the road, especially during the rainy season. (McGregor)
Finally, after multiple phases of road and bridge construction, the Hāna Belt Road was opened to the public on December 18, 1926. Honiron, a publication of Honolulu Iron Works, described the road as “spectacularly chiseled out of abrupt cliffs and precipitous valleys.” The road was not paved along its entire length when it was opened in 1926. (NPS)
Miles of the roadway were nothing more than a 16′-wide shelf cut into the mountainside, with towering masses of rock above and sheer drops measuring hundreds of feet to the ocean below. (NPS)
The Maui News claimed the road was the most scenic drive way in the world, with vistas of lofty mountains, the Pacific Ocean, wild canyons, cataracts, waterfalls and luxurious tropical vegetation. Signs marked “bad turn” and “go slow” were installed to mark dangerous curves and other points in the road. The average speed for driving the Hana Belt Road was 20-mph. (NPS)
The Hāna Highway portion of the “belt road” traverses approximately fifty-two miles along Maui’s north and east coast from Kahului in central Maui to the remote East Maui community of Hāna. After Hāna, the road continues as the Piʻilani Highway. Together, these East Maui roads were part of Maui’s “belt” road system around the entire island. (NPS)
It is not just a road; it is an attraction … for all, an experience.
In August 2000, the Hāna Highway was officially designated a Millennium Legacy Trail. The designation is given to trails that reflect the essence and spirit of our nation’s states and territories.
Millennium Legacy Trails are representative of the diversity of trails; rail-trails and greenways, historic trails, cultural itineraries, recreation paths, waterways, alternative transportation corridors and many other types of trails. (Rails to Trails Conservancy) On June 15, 2001, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places.