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.
Royal Centers were where the aliʻi resided; aliʻi often moved between several residences throughout the year. The Royal Centers were selected for their abundance of resources and recreation opportunities, with good surfing and canoe‐landing sites being favored.
Ancient trails, those developed before western contact in 1778, facilitated trading between upland and coastal villages and communications between ahupua‘a and extended families. These trails were usually narrow, following the topography of the land; trails over ‘a‘ā lava were paved with water-worn stones.
In 1815, Kamehameha I granted Russian representatives permission to build a storehouse near Honolulu Harbor. But, instead, directed by the German adventurer Georg Schaffer (1779-1836,) they began building a fort and raised the Russian flag.
When Kamehameha discovered the Russians were building a fort he sent several chiefs (including Kalanimōku and John Young (his advisor,)) to remove the Russians from Oʻahu by force, if necessary.
The partially built blockhouse at Honolulu was finished by Hawaiians under the direction of John Young and mounted guns protected the fort. Its original purpose was to protect Honolulu by keeping enemy or otherwise undesirable ships out. But, it was also used to keep things in (it also served as a prison.)
Fort Street is named after this fort; it is one of the oldest streets in Honolulu. Today, the site of the old fort is the open space called Walker Park, a small park at the corner of Queen and Fort streets (also fronting Ala Moana/Nimitz.)
The missionaries, who arrived in April 1820, selected their key stations and localities based on their accessibility via the ala loa (long trail) and smaller ala hele (paths) from neighboring ahupua‘a. The mission stations generally coincided with the traditional chiefly centers, which by that time, were also developing as trade points with foreign vessels.
In 1838, a major street improvement project was started. Honolulu was to be a planned town. Kīnaʻu (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 …”
In 1845, Commander Charles Wilkes criticized the city of Honolulu by saying: “The streets, if so they may be called, have no regularity as to width, and are ankle‐deep in light dust and sand … and in some places, offensive sink‐holes strike the senses, in which are seen wallowing some old and corpulent hogs.”
“The boundaries of the old town may be said to have been, on the makai side, the waters of the harbor; on the mauka side, Beretania street; on the Waikiki side, the barren and dusty plain, and on the Ewa side, the Nuʻuanu stream. There were few, if any, residences other than the straw houses of the natives mauka of Beretania street.”
It wasn’t until 1850 that streets received official names. On August 30, 1850, the Privy Council first officially named Honolulu’s streets; there were 35‐streets that received official names that day (29 were in Downtown Honolulu, the others nearby.)
At the time, the water’s edge was in the vicinity of what we now call Queen Street. Back in those days, that road was generally called ‘Makai,’ ‘Water’ or Ali‘i Wahine.’ (Gilman)
‘Broadway’ was the main street (we now call it King Street;) it was the widest and longest ‐ about 2‐3 miles long from the river (Nuʻuanu River on the west) out to the “plains” (to Mānoa.) (It was also referred to as, ‘Chapel,’ ‘Halepule,’ ‘Church’ (due to Kawaiahaʻo fronting it) and ‘Ali‘i.’)
To date, 17 of those original names have survived the passage of time: Queen, Richards, School, Smith, Victoria, Young, Mauna Kea, Merchant, Mission, Nuʻuanu, Punchbowl, Beretania, Fort, Hotel, Kīnaʻu, King and Marin. (Gilman)
Some of the earlier-named streets that are no longer in use include, Garden, Crooked Lane, Printers Lane, French Place, Palace, Stone House, Eden House and Kaʻahumanu.
The Privy Council resolved “that the Minister of the Interior is instructed to have posts of solid durable wood, put down at the corners of all the streets that have been named … with the name of such streets … plainly printed in letters of the dimensions of one inch, painting said names in Hawaiian and English”.
In that same meeting, the Privy Council also “Resolved that Honolulu is declared to be a city, and the Capital of the Hawaiian Islands.” (Privy Council Minutes, August 30, 1850)
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 Nuʻuanu 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.)
Then, adopted in 1978, “Street names within the city (of Honolulu) … shall consist of Hawaiian names, words or phrases and shall be selected with a view to the appropriateness of the name to historic, cultural, scenic and topographical features of the area.”
“Street names shall be selected so as not to exceed the space limitation of a standard street name sign of the department of transportation services (normally 18 spaces).” (Revised Ordinances of Honolulu, Chapter 22)
“The history of the islands are well preserved in our Honolulu streets… They are a people’s creation … Let us hope that our Lanes and Ways will continue to reflect the charm, the color, and the variety of life in Honolulu.” (Clark, 1939 HHS)