In the early nineteenth century there were three routes from Honolulu to Windward Oʻahu: around the island by canoe; through Kalihi Valley and over the pali by ropes and ladders; and over Nuʻuanu Pali, the easiest, quickest and most direct route.
The first foreigner to descend the Pali and record his trip was Hiram Bingham (my great-great-great grandfather.) His zeal for spreading the word of God led him to take a group of missionaries over the Pali to the Koʻolaupoko area in 1821.
The current Pali Highway is actually the third roadway to be built there. A large portion of the highway was built over the ancient Hawaiian foot paths that traversed the famous Pali pass.
In 1845 the first road was built over the Nuʻuanu Pali to connect Windward Oʻahu with Honolulu. It was jointly financed by the government and sugar planters who wanted easy access to the fertile lands on the windward side of Oʻahu. Kamehameha III and two of his attendants were the first to cross on horseback.
A legislative appropriation in 1857 facilitated road improvements that allowed the passage of carriages. The Rev. E. Corwin and Dr. G. P. Judd were the first to descend in this manner on September 12, 1861.
In 1897, Johnny Wilson and fellow Stanford student Louis Whitehouse won the bid to expand and construct a ‘carriage road’ over the Pali. Ground was broken on May 26, 1897 and the road was opened for carriages on January 19, 1898.
When the current Pali Highway and its tunnels opened (1959,) the original roadway up and over the Pali was closed and is now used by hikers.
I am old enough to have traveled (and young enough to still remember traveling) on the Old Pali Road over the Pali before the tunnels were built.
Living on the windward side and initially going to school and then in later years working in Honolulu, there was always a satisfaction of going through the tunnels and heading home, leaving the rest of the world behind you.
Folklore holds that you should never carry pork over Old Pali Highway, especially at night. Motorists reported that their cars mysteriously stopped and would not start until the pork was removed from the car.
The stories vary, but are rooted in the legendary relationship between fire goddess Pele and the demigod Kamapuaʻa (a half-man, half-pig.) The two agreed not to visit each other.
If one takes pork over the Pali, you are bringing a physical form of Kamapuaʻa into Pele’s territory and breaking their agreement. Some versions note a white dog appears when your car stalls.
The Pali was the site of the Battle of Nuʻuanu, one of the bloodiest battles in Hawaiian history, in which Kamehameha I conquered Kalanikupule of Oʻahu, bringing it under his rule.
In 1795 Kamehameha sailed from his home island of Hawaiʻi with an army of thousands of warriors, including a handful of non-Hawaiian foreigners.
The war apparently ends with some of Kalanikupule’s warriors pushed/jumping off the Pali. When the Pali Highway was being built, excavators counted approximately 800-skulls, believed to be the remains of the warriors who were defeated by Kamehameha.
If you’re driving up the Pali Highway from town you can see two notches cut in the narrow ridgeline. The notches are man-made. Many believe they were cannon emplacements, used especially during the Battle of Nuʻuanu between Oʻahu’s Kalanikupule and Hawaiʻi Island’s Kamehameha.
However, per Herb Kane, “Kalanikupule had some arms bigger than muskets, but they were probably just swivel guns. Besides, the Battle of Nu‘uanu Pali started as a skirmish by Diamond Head, and no one knew where the battle would end up. Kalanikupule could not have planned it that way.”
“Hawaiians, like everyone else, understood the value of high ground. These are certainly (pre-Cook) lookout stations, and that’s why you see them all over the islands – if you look out for them.”
Lili‘uokalani used to visit friends at their estate in Maunawili. She and her brother King David Kalākaua were regular guests and attended parties or simply came there to rest.
Guests, when leaving the home, would walk between two parallel rows of royal palms, farewells would be exchanged; then they would ride away on horseback or in their carriages.
On one trip, when leaving, Liliʻu witnessed a particularly affectionate farewell between a gentleman in her party and a lovely young girl from Maunawili.
As they rode up the Pali and into the swirling winds, she started to hum a melody weaving words into a romantic song. The Queen continued to hum and completed her song as they rode the winding trail down the valley back to Honolulu.
She put her words to music and as a result of that 1878 visit, she wrote “Aloha ‘Oe.”
The melody may have been derived from Croatian folk song (Subotika region) Sedi Mara Na Kamen Studencu (Girl On The Rock,) in 1857 published in Philadelphia by Charles Crozat Converse as The Rock Beside The Sea.
Aloha ʻOe was first introduced in America in 1883 by the Royal Hawaiian Band with Heinrich (Henry) Berger conducting.
(When Liliʻuokalani was imprisoned, Johnny Wilson’s mother Eveline (Townsend) Wilson was her lady in waiting. During her imprisonment, Queen Liliʻuokalani was denied any visitors – but Johnny would bring newspapers hidden in flowers from the Queen’s garden.)
(Reportedly, Liliʻuokalani’s famous song Kuʻu Pua I Paoakalani (written while imprisoned,) was dedicated to Wilson (it speaks of the flowers at her Waikiki home, Paoakalani.))
(The other early set of Koʻolau tunnels, first known as the Kalihi Tunnel (competed in 1960) were named in honor of Johnny Wilson. The H-3 tunnels are named after Tetsuo (Tets) Harano, a former DOT Highways administrator.)
Lorraine Cano says
I remember the Pali road oh so well. In the 1950’s, I would take classmates home who lived on the other side of the island. I lived in Kalihi. On certain days you could feel the wind whip around the corner as you entered the turn. It was just at that turn. I reminisce to my children about driving the Pali road. And the hairpin turn. Wasn’t there a huge rock called the Piko rock? My grandmother and grandpa used to talk about it. Just some of the trips driving the old Pali road.
Evelyn Evans says
very nice to know the WHOLE story of the physical development of this passage…would love to know more about the mythology and the importance to Hawai’ians of these sacred lands and why they protested so adamantly during construction of H3.
ele draher says
My Mother use to tell us stories and I have loved all the legends of old Hawaii. I was born and raised there.
Owen Miyamoto says
The story of how the tunnels were built is interesting since much of the planning was done by the State Highways Division under the direction of a tunnel engineer from the California Division of Highways. The route consists of two pairs of tunnels, 1,000 feet and 500 feet in length. There are a series of bridges spanning the ravines between the tunnels and the hair-pin turn.
What an incredible story and history of the Pali. And with all the photos. Thank you so much!
Susan Wynne says
Great article. I have very vague memories of traveling the old Pali road, pre-1959.
Marlene Baker says
LOVE, LOVE, LOVE old photos of Hawaii. I live on the mainland now but have to see this part of the island whenever I come home. Born in 1957and raised in Kalihi Valley. Such fond memories of my grandmother driving to Laie to see relatives. We always had to make sure our weight was disturbed throughout the car. Driving through the Wilson Tunnel, sticking our heads out of the window and yelling, “ahhhhhhh” all the way to the end! And not forgetting to turn our lights off!!!
Rufelia Levinthol says
Wow! Just wow! Thank you for sharing these beautiful pictures. Born and raised in Hawaii and can never get enough about the history of our beautiful islands. Love learning and love history. Thank you again. Aloha and mahalo. 🙂
Raoul Kalani Niemeyer says
I recall the pu’ua (pork) legend well: Several of us guys in the mid-1950s got a pork butt and waited for a full moon nite and precisely at Midnight, proceeded down the Old Pali Rd in a ’50s model Citroen. Nothing happened! We were all disappointed. . .
While working for a scrap metal company at Pier 35, I was taught to drive a “Semi” tractor trailer. As initiation (I guess) I was assigned to transport fuel oil to the Kaneohe Hospital (Pupule House) in a short bed tanker. The law forbade large trucks to descend the Old Pali Rd. so I had to drive around Koko Head side, deliver my load then crawl back up that narrow, steep grade in compound low. What a harrowing experience!
This was a terrific article on the Pali and the photos were unreal! Thanks for putting this together