Early settlement patterns in the Islands put people on the windward sides of the islands, typically along the shoreline. However, in Puna on the Island of Hawaiʻi, much of the district’s coastal areas have thin soils and there are no good deep water harbors. The ocean along the Puna coast is often rough and windblown.
As a result, settlement patterns in Puna tend to be dispersed and without major population centers. Villages in Puna tended to be spread out over larger areas and often are inland, and away from the coast, where the soil is better for agriculture. (Escott)
This was confirmed on William Ellis’ travel around the island in the early 1800s, “Hitherto we had travelled close to the sea-shore, in order to visit the most populous villages in the districts through which we had passed. But here receiving information that we should find more inhabitants a few miles inland, than nearer the sea, we thought it best to direct our course towards the mountains.” (Ellis, 1823)
An historic trail once ran from the modern day Lili‘uokalani Gardens area in Hilo to Hāʻena along the Puna coast. The trail is often referred to as the old Puna Trail and/or Puna Road. There is an historic trail/cart road that is also called the Puna Trail (Ala Hele Puna) and/or the Old Government Road.
This path was essentially the main thoroughfare through the Puna district before the late-1800s. Pāhoa was oʻioʻina (a resting place) on the trail. (Papakilo) Then it grew to become the principal town of lower Puna.
The evolving trail (first by foot, then by horse, cart and buggy, and finally by automobile) likely incorporated segments of the traditional Hawaiian trail system often referred to as the ala loa or ala hele. (Rechtman)
The full length of the Puna Trail, or Old Government Road, might have been constructed or improved just before 1840. The alignment was mapped by the Wilkes Expedition of 1804-41. (Escott)
People who traditionally had lived along the Puna coast were moving toward Hilo and into the more fertile upland areas of Puna in order to find paid work and to produce cash crops for local markets and for export.
The focus began to shift to the center of the Puna District and the developing sugar and related industries near ʻŌlaʻa, Hilo and the volcano region.
Before the turn of the century, railroad operations began – with lines running into Hilo. A main railroad line and several feeder lines were constructed in the early-1900s from Keaʻau to locations in lower Puna District.
The major line ran from Hilo through Keaʻau to the Kapoho area. A branch line ran from the ʻŌlaʻa Sugar Mill up past present day Glenwood. A second branch line ran to Pāhoa town.
Some suggest this is how Pāhoa received its name. “Then the train was put in from Hilo to Puna. One spur went up into Pāhoa; it was like a dagger into the forest. I‘m told this is how Pāhoa got its name. (Pāhoa means dagger.)” (Edwards; Cultural Surveys)
People began to work in the inland areas to grow sugarcane. The new road, the Pāhoa branch of the railroad, sugarcane agriculture and a logging venture all combined to create Pāhoa as a population center in the region. (Rechtman)
Macadamia nuts and papaya were introduced in 1881 and 1919; at the turn of the century, large-scale coffee cultivation was attempted. Over 6,000-acres of coffee trees were owned by approximately 200-independent coffee planters.
This fledgling industry couldn‘t compete with more successful ventures located in other districts, and after a few decades the coffee industry in Puna was abandoned. (Cultural Surveys, Rechtman)
By 1901, sugar dominated the island’s industry and landscape, and Hilo was the epicenter of production and export. Railroads connected sugar mills and sugar plantations in Hilo, the Hāmākua and Puna. The railroad also connected the mills to the wharves at Hilo Bay.
Early on, one of the major export items transported by the railroad was timber. Starting in 1907, the Hawaiian Mahogany Company began cutting trees to clear land for sugarcane. The logs were brought to Pāhoa Town to be milled, then sent to Hilo Harbor and eventually shipped to the US Mainland as railroad ties for the Santa Fe Railroad.
The lumber mill facilities and the railroad line that served them were located near the center of town where the Akebono Theater is located.
In 1909, the company was renamed Pāhoa Lumber Company. In 1913, the main mill facilities were lost in a fire; it was rebuilt that year the company was renamed the Hawaiian Hardwood Company.
The company closed down in 1916 when the Santa Fe Railroad ended its contract to buy lumber. The defunct company then leased its mill facilities, buildings and railroad tracks to the expanding ʻŌlaʻa Sugar Company. (Rechtman)
Today, Pāhoa Town has a main street – the former highway route before the construction of the by-pass road – that still retains much of the original street-wall of plantation-era structures, as well as some significant stand-alone buildings.
Most of the uses are commercial or civic. The County has acquired a large tract of land within Pāhoa Town, which presents a significant opportunity for community revitalization and a possible catalyst for economic activity. (Puna CDP)