Although the canoe was a principal means of travel in ancient Hawai`i, 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.
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. Sometimes, over ‘a‘ā lava, they were paved with water-worn stones.
Before 1778, land travel was only foot traffic, over little more than trails and pathways.
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.
Various archaeologists note the following evolution of Hawai‘i trails:
• 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
Bridges also became necessary. Perhaps the first was a footbridge across the Wailuku River in Hilo, described in 1825. The first important span on O‘ahu was the Beretania Street bridge built over Nu‘uanu Stream in 1840.
By 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.
Sidewalks were constructed, usually of wood, as early as 1838. The first sidewalk made of brick was laid down in 1857 by watchmaker Samuel Tawson in front of his shop on Merchant Street.
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.)
The pioneering highway in Hawai‘i was the Mauka Arterial (later christened Lunalilo Freeway). The three ‘Ewa-bound lanes, extending one mile between Old Wai‘alae Road and Alexander Street, were opened to traffic November 9, 1953. The Kaimuki-bound lanes along the same stretch were opened and the highway was formally dedicated on January 5, 1954.