In Maui’s ancient past, roads were not necessary. In the days when powerful chieftains ruled the island, land was bestowed in tracts called ahupua’a that ran from the mountains down to the ocean. To visit between villages, islanders traveled by canoe from one stretch of beach to another. The first inland path from one village to another was known as the King’s Trail. The King’s Trail was created in the 14th century at the behest of ruling Chief Piilani, who wanted to be able to travel from village to village on foot. Although this was only a foot path, it marked the beginning of creating a system of roads on the island of Maui.
The first modern roads on Maui began to be built around the late 1800s. Many of these early roads led to and from different plantations in the town of Hana, where sugar, pineapple, wheat and rubber all flourished. In 1849, George Wilfong opened the first sugar cane mill in Hana, and shortly after King Kalakaua entered into an agreement to import sugar into the United States duty-free. Because of Kalakaua’s treaty, by 1883 the number of sugar plantations in Hana skyrocketed to six. At this time there were small roads going from one plantation to another as well as partial routes to Kahului from Hana or from Paia to Hana. The problem was a lack of reliable roads to bring workers to and from Hana or to carry goods out from the town’s thriving plantations.
The Hana Highway was not mapped out, built and paved overnight. It happened in stages. First, a complex system of canals was built to carry water from east Maui to Hana to irrigate the grounds of different plantations. Although not the same as roads, the building of the canals did precipitate an influx of Chinese immigrant workers, and bring a Chinese-run general store to Keanae. Now traffic to and from Paia to Hana was daily, and there was a population there and able to support itself, which meant a road could be built and maintained. Then in the early 1900s a prison was built in Keanae. Keanae was chosen as the site of the prison because prisoners and supplies could be brought there by using a large dock. At this time prisoners began constructing the Hana Highway and its bridges, and locals from Keanae and Hana were hired to maintain the road being built. The Hana Highway was paved in 1962, and today it is primarily a tourist attraction and a means for locals to travel from one area of the island to another.
Today the name Hana Highway refers to the 68 mile long stretch of Hawaii state routes 36 and 360 that connects Kahului in east Maui with Hana. It is the curvy nature and one-lane bridges of the highway that have made the road a famous visitor attraction. Although the distance from Kahului to Hana is only fifty miles, the drive can take up to three and a half hours, even with no stops. Interestingly, all but one of the original bridges is still in place. Only one was so badly damaged by erosion that it had to be replaced by a steel bailey bridge brought in by the Army Corps of Engineers. In August of 2000 the Hana Highway was officially re-named the Hana Mellenium Legacy Trail by president Bill Clinton, and Paia designated as the first stop.
Not only does the Hana Highway itself boast an interesting history, there are many note-worthy historical sites located along the drive. Located in the town of Hana, the Hana Cultural Center is believed to be one of the oldest buildings on Maui. Hana town also has an accurate replica of an ancient Hawaiian living compound, giving visitors a window into ancient Hawaiian life. Eight miles south of Hana is the gravesite of a nineteenth century Maui chieftain known as Helio’s Grave.
Also, a nearby cave marks the birth place of one of Hawaii’s most famous women, Queen Ka’ahumanu, wife of Hawaii’s first ruling monarch King Kamehameha I. Another popular historical site is the home and grave of American aviator Charles Lindbergh, considered an American hero for piloting the world’s first trans-atlantic flight. Lindbergh retired with his family to Maui after the kidnapping and murder of his young child made headlines all over America and lived out the rest of his life in Hana.
The history of the Road to Hana reminds us that it is more than a beautiful scenic route. Not only are there bits of history to see and experience, there are many spectacular waterfalls, trails, and tropical gardens where you can stop and create some new memories of your own. In many ways the history of the Hana Highway, built, maintained and used by early Maui residents of all nationalities and walks of life, reflects the history of multicultural Hawaii itself.
We hope you have enjoyed this in-depth look at Road to Hana history from the friendly folks over at Hana Picnic Lunch Company. If you did, please click the “like” button so we can provide you with more of the same kinds of information.