Tantalus is located in the Koʻolau mountain range in the Kona district of the island of O‘ahu. The ridges that carry Tantalus Drive and Round Top Drive surround Makiki Valley. Within this valley, three streams, Kānealole, Moleka and Maunalaha, eventually drain into Māmala Bay off of the Honolulu Plain.
Early Hawaiians grew taro near the mouth of Makiki Valley where runoff from the three streams created ideal agricultural conditions.
Archaeologists speculate that by the 1600s the lowland forests had been extensively harvested and that approximately eighty-percent of the land below 2,000-feet elevation was altered.
Puʻu ʻŌhiʻa, its traditional name, had been given the name “Tantalus” during a hiking excursion by the Punahou student hiking club, the Clan Alpine (mid-1800s.)
The students began their hike at Pu‘u ‘Ualaka‘a. As night approached, they found themselves at the edge of the ridge overlooking Poloke Valley. Unable to continue due to the thick undergrowth, the boys were forced to give up their ascent. Versed in Greek mythology, the students named the mountain ‘Tantalus’. (National Register)
(The mythological Tantalus was condemned to an afterlife of insatiable hunger and thirst due to unreachable pools of water and overhanging fruit.)
‘Round Top’ and ‘Sugar Loaf’ were also named by early Punahou students; these names appear on an 1873 ‘Map of Makiki Valley’ surveyed by William De Witt Alexander.
Mo‘olelo (Hawaiian stories) indicate that Pu‘u ‘Ualaka‘a was a favored locality for sweet potato cultivation and King Kamehameha I established his personal sweet potato plantation here.
Pu‘u translates as “hill” and ‘ualaka‘a means “rolling sweet potato”, so named for the steepness of the terrain. Within the valley is a quarry where the basalt outcrop was chipped into pieces to make octopus lures. That is believed to be the origin of the word ‘makiki’ – a type of stone used for weights in octopus lures.
Historical attempts at cultivation in the Makiki-Tantalus area included a coffee plantation by JM Herring along Moleka Stream in the late-1800s (valley conditions proved too wet for coffee beans to flourish) and Hawai‘i’s first commercial macadamia nut plantation along the west side of Pu‘u ‘Ualaka‘a. Rows of macadamia nuts trees from the original orchard remain today.
Due to the close proximity to Honolulu Harbor, the Makiki-Tantalus forest underwent severe deforestation in two periods. In the first period, heavy timber was cut for the sandalwood trade with China from 1815 to 1826.
In the second period, 1833 to 1860, wood was primarily harvested as fuel for the whaling trade to render whale blubber into oil. By the late-1800s most of Makiki was bare, denuded of trees. The native forest was gone.
As early as 1846, the Kingdom of Hawai‘i was facing development pressure from the public regarding the Makiki-Tantalus watershed. The barren hillsides were heavily eroded and the quantity and quality of fresh water in the streams was compromised.
That same year, King Kamehameha III passed a law declaring forests to be government property. In 1876, the Kingdom passed the “Act for the Protection and Preservation of Woods and Forests” including watershed preservation. In 1880, further legislation was enacted to protect all watershed areas that contributed domestic water supplies in the Makiki, Tantalus, Round Top and Pauoa area.
Despite the establishment of the protected area, 1890s legislation allowed citizens to acquire residential property on Tantalus.
The beginnings of Tantalus and Round Top drives date to 1892. The 10-mile drive was completed as gravel roads in 1917, and first paved in 1937. The Tantalus-Round Top road is a 10-mile drive that begins near the entrance to Pūowaina (Punchbowl -National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific.)
The Biennial Report of the Minister of the Interior to the Legislative Assembly of 1892 states that the Tantalus carriage road “begins at the Punchbowl Road, forming a junction with the same at the rear of the hill, at an elevation of about 285 feet, and follows a 5% grade up the ridge known as the forest ridge, to the narrow ridge, dividing Makiki from Pauoa Valley, at an elevation of about 1450 feet; then around the South Slope of Tantalus and head of the ravines leading into Makiki, to a point by the Pond just above ‘Sugar Loaf.’”
The roadway climbs Tantalus Drive along the Kalāwahine ridge between Pauoa and Makiki Valleys and then descends along Round Top Drive on the ridge linking Pu‘u ‘Ōhi‘a (Mount Tantalus, 2,013-feet,) Pu‘u Kākea (Sugarloaf, 1,408-feet) and Pu‘u ‘Ualaka‘a (Round Top, 1,052-feet,) then past Maunalaha Valley Road to Makiki Street.
The continuing development of the carriage road was reported in the June 1898 issue of the Paradise of the Pacific, “Myth of Mountain Tantalus”: “At every turn are new sections of the glorious and ever expanding panorama of ocean and sky; of mountain, town and plain, including large portions of the island.”
“But the richest part of the road above where it cuts through the upper wildwood of koa and kukui, intermingled with luxuriant fern and wild ginger- all overhanging the deep canyons. One is here in another world – cool, green, moist…it is a long and tedious climb to Tantalus, but once there, the lingering visitor will never regret or forget its romance and the melancholy cadence of its winds.”
In 1906, the Civic Federation of Honolulu brought Charles Mulford Robinson, a well-known civic adviser from Rochester, New York for a survey of streets, parks and public works in Honolulu. He recommended securing the top of Tantalus for “the one great park for Honolulu that cities now are learning to secure and save for the people, that they may get close to nature, forgetting the fences and survey lines which civilization has thrown like a network of prison walls upon the world.”
The Tantalus-Round Top stretch is the first roadway on Oʻahu to be placed on the state historic register. Kūhiō Highway on Kauaʻi and Hana Highway on Maui are on the state and national registers of historic places. (According to Historic Roads, a national group dedicated to preserving old thoroughfares, there are 97 roads in the nation listed as historic.) (Info from Historic Hawaiʻi Foundation and National Register.)