×

The State of Aloha

You can tell if someone’s from here by the way that person refers to our most famous narrow, winding road. Tourists call it the road to Hana because those words are commonly found on brochures, visitor-friendly websites, and other materials for tourists. Aunties, uncles or any other self-respecting born and raised denizen of Maui, on the other hand, call it the Hana Highway.

And what a highway it is. Ask locals about driving to Hana and prepare for rolling eyes and a few groans. True, the scenery is still spectacular. But the rented jeeps and cars clogging the roadway drive most folks nuts.

It’s gotten so bad that a group of concerned residents have posted 29 unofficial rules of “conduct” on its website at www.hanahighwayregulation.com. My personal favorite is No. 12: “Pull over to let faster moving resident and veteran commuters go on ahead.”

It wasn’t always like this. Centuries ago, Native Hawaiians maintained a footpath that connected the far eastern coast of Hana and Kipahulu with the rest of the island. When chiefs from the Big Island invaded Hana in the 18th century, the trail fell into disrepair and was overgrown by the jungle. The best way to reach settlements on the Hana Coast — Kailua, Wailua, Keanae, and Nahiku — was by sea.

Changes were made when sugar industry took over Maui’s economy in the 19th century. Sugar is a thirsty crop. Unfortunately, the cane fields in the central valley straddling Upcountry with Wailuku and Kahului were dry.

The companies hired Chinese and other Asian laborers to hike deep into the lush valleys and carve out irrigation canals to bring the water into the central valley. The workers fashioned a long trail, later called the Ditch Trail, high up in the valleys. One traveler in 1869 described the trail as the worst road in the Hawaiian Kingdom.

By the turn of the 20th century, the best way to get to Hana was still the Ditch Trail with its rickety and terrifying bridges high above the jungle floor. That also meant the best way to get to the towns along the coast was still by steamboat. The demand for a better way to Hana grew and prompted action.

Construction of the roadway came in starts and stops. The first section started near the majestic peninsula of Keanae jutting out from towering verdant cliffs in 1914. Workers and equipment arrived by boat at Keanae landing and worked eastward toward Hana. They blasted into the mountainside to carve out a one-lane gravel path.

The man awarded to run this public work was Johnny Wilson, the famed engineer responsible for the Pali Road on Oahu. He was quite a character.

Part Hawaiian and from Oahu, Wilson was a lone Democrat in a political scene dominated by pro-business Republicans. He made it a point to hire local Hawaiian workers living in the isolated settlements along the Hana Coast. He even tried to organize them and register them as Democrats.

Wilson would later use his fame as a public-works visionary to run for office. He was elected mayor of Honolulu, one of the few elected offices in the territory of Hawaii, making him one of the extremely few successful Democrats in those days.

Wilson’s workers carved the path along cliffs through pouring rain and mud. They built several miles before the project ended a few miles short of Nahiku in 1914. Hana remained out of reach.

Construction of the road ran out of money. Wilson had a lovely road to nowhere. But that didn’t stop other contractors from building sturdy and stately concrete bridges spanning gulches and streams.

All but one of the bridges remain in use today. If you look carefully, you can see the year they were completed — usually within the first two decades of the 20th century and often before the road was finished.

By the 1920s, Mauians rallied to finish the road. They raised funds to connect Kailua to Keanae and Wailua. Later on, the road construction picked up where Wilson left off and connected Hana in 1925.

The road was officially opened a year later. For the most part it was a one-lane gravel roadway chock full of scary turns and stream crossings. Nonetheless, the Hana Belt Road, as it was called back then, was hailed as an engineering wonder and cause to celebrate.

A ceremonial procession of 200 cars drove the new road all the way to Hana without any trouble. They were welcomed into Hana town with banners and flags. It was estimated that 3,500 guests descended on the little town.

It would take another 36 years to pave the road in 1962. Later, it was rechristened the Hana Highway. The visitors have not stopped since that day in 1926.

* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer, currently with the Office of the Public Defender, who grew up on Maui. His email is 808stateofaloha@gmail.com. “The State of Aloha” alternates Fridays with Sarah Ruppenthal’s “Neighbors.”