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 Hawai‘i. Canoes were used for interisland and inter-village coastal travel.
Most permanent villages initially were near the ocean and sheltered beaches, which provided access to good fishing grounds, as well as facilitating canoe travel between villages.
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.
Back then, land travel was only foot traffic, over little more than trails and pathways. These trails were usually narrow, following the topography of the land. Sometimes, over ‘a‘ā lava, they were paved with water-worn stones.
Things changed on June 21, 1803, 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.
George Kanahele suggests the early name for the horse was “wa‘a holo honua” (canoes that travel on land). Malo suggests they were called lio – “a large animal. Men sit upon his back and ride; he has no horns on his head.”
In the 1820s and 1830s, more horses were imported from California, and by the 1840s the use of introduced horses, mules and bullocks for transportation was increasing.
“(H)orses and cattle (became) numerous on Kauai because the foreigners had given many such to Kaumualiʻi. On O‘ahu there were only a few which had been brought in by John Young and Kamehameha from Kauai in 1809; afterwards more were brought in by Don Marin.” (Kamakau)
By the middle of the nineteenth century, riding on horseback had come to be both a common means of efficient travel and a common form of recreation and entertainment. The recreational aspect of horseback riding made the greatest appeal. Hawaiians became enthusiastic and expert equestrians. (Kuykendall)
Changes were made to the overland trails to accommodate horses, then were expanded to allow for the horse-drawn cart:
• Pre-contact/Early historical … Single-file footpath … Follow contours of coast
• 1820-1840 … Widened for one horse … Coastal – curbstones added
• 1820-1840 … Built in straight lines, inland
• 1841-1918 … Widened for two horses … Straight, leveled
• Late-1800s-early 1900s … Widened for horse cart … Straight, leveled
In the 1830s, King Kamehameha III initiated a program of island-wide improvements on the ala loa, and in 1847, a formal program for development of the alanui aupuni (government roads) was initiated.
Until the 1840s, overland travel was predominantly by foot and followed the traditional trails. 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.
Eventually, wider, straighter trails were constructed to accommodate horse drawn carts. Unlike the earlier trails, these later trails could not conform to the natural, sometimes steep, terrain.
They often by-passed the traditional trails as more remote coastal villages became depopulated due to introduced diseases and the changing economic and social systems.
By the early 1850s, specific criteria were developed for realigning trails and roadways, including the straightening of alignments and development of causeways and bridges.
This system of roadwork, supervised by district overseers, and funded through government appropriations – with labor by prisoners and individuals unable to pay taxes in another way – evolved over the next 40 years.
Paved streets were unknown until 1881. In that year, Fort Street was macadamized (a paving process using aggregate layers of stone with a cementing agent binder – a process named after Scotsman John Loudon McAdam,) followed by Nu‘uanu Avenue.
In 1892, Queen Lili‘uokalani and the Legislature of the Kingdom of Hawai‘i signed into law an “Act Defining Highways, and Defining and Establishing Certain Routes and Duties in Connection Therewith,” to be known as The Highways Act, 1892.
Through this act, all roads, alleys, streets, ways, lanes, courts, places, trails and bridges in the Hawaiian Islands, whether laid out or built by the Government or by private parties were declared to be public highways.
Ownership was placed in the Government (typically, under the control of the Department of Land and Natural Resources, although recent legislation transferred O‘ahu ‘roads in limbo’ to the C&C.)