The King's Highway of Maui


The canoe was a principal means of travel in ancient Hawaiʻi.

Canoes were used for inter-village coastal and interisland travel, while trails within the ahupuaʻa provided access between the uplands and the coast.

Most permanent villages initially were near the sea and sheltered beaches, which provided access to good fishing grounds as well as facilitating canoe travel between settlements.

At about the same time of Christopher Columbus crossing the Atlantic to America (he was looking for an alternate trade route to the East Indies,) Piʻilani was ruler of Maui.

According to oral tradition, Piʻilani unified the entire island of Maui and ruled in peace and prosperity, bringing together, under one rule, the formerly-competing eastern (Hāna) and western (Wailuku) multi-district kingdoms of the Island.

Piʻilani’s prosperity was exemplified by a boom in agriculture and construction of heiau, fishponds, trails and irrigation systems. Famed for his energy and intelligence, Piʻilani constructed the West Maui phase of the noted Alaloa, or long trail (also known as the King’s Highway.)

Ancient trails facilitated trading between upland and coastal villages and communications between ahupuaʻa and extended families. These trails were usually narrow, following the topography of the land. Sometimes, over ʻaʻā lava, they were paved with waterworn stones (ʻalā or paʻalā).

Pi‘ilani died at Lāhainā and the kingdom of Maui passed to his son, Lono-a-Piʻilani (Lono.) Pi‘ilani had directed that the kingdom go to Lono, and that Kiha-a-Piʻilani (Kiha – Lono’s brother) serve under him in peace.

In the early years of Lono’s reign all was well … that changed.

Lono became angry, because he felt Kiha was trying to seize the kingdom for himself. Lono sought to kill Kiha; so Kiha fled in secret to Molokaʻi and later to Lānaʻi. When Kiha, with chiefs, warriors and a fleet of war canoes, made their way to attack Lono; Lono trembled with fear of death, and died. (Kamakau)

Kiha assumed power over Maui. Like his father, the reign of Kiha was, “eminently peaceful and prosperous, and his name has been reverently and affectionately handed down to posterity”. (Fornander)

Kiha resumed what his father had started in West Maui. Kiha laid the East Maui section and connected the island. This trail was the only ancient pathway to encircle any Hawaiian island (not only along the coast, but also up the Kaupō Gap and through the summit area and crater of Haleakalā.)

Kiha connected the entire island with a network of trails to aide his people in their travels which gave him quick access to all parts of his kingdom.

Four to six-feet wide and 138-miles long, this rock-paved path facilitated both peace and war. It simplified local and regional travel and communication, and allowed the chief’s messengers to quickly get from one part of the island to another. The trail was used for the annual harvest festival of Makahiki and to collect taxes, promote production, enforce order and move armies.

Missionaries Richards, Andrews and Green noted in 1828, “a pavement said to have been built by Kihapiʻilani, a king … afforded us no inconsiderable assistance in traveling as we ascended and descended a great number of steep and difficult paries (pali.)” (Missionary Herald)

By the middle-1820s, significant changes in the Hawaiian Kingdom were underway. The missionaries, who arrived in April 1820, selected key stations generally coinciding with the traditional Royal Centers, which by this time, were also developing as trade points with foreign vessels. The development of trails to western-style roadways was initiated to facilitate access to mission stations, landings, and key areas of resource collection.

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 ahupuaʻa – 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.

Sometimes, the new corridors were constructed over the alignments of the ancient trails, or totally realigned, thus abandoning – for larger public purposes – the older ala loa. In addition to these modifications in trail location and type due to changing uses, trails were also relocated as a result of natural events such as lava flows, tsunami, and other occurrences.

The Hawaiian trail system was and will remain dynamic.

Hoapili is credited with improving the King’s Highway (in early 1800s – portions were called Hoapili Trail, initially built during the reign of Pi‘ilani.) Hoapili commissioned road gangs for the work. The Rev. Henry Cheever noted that these road gangs were largely composed of prisoners who had been convicted of adultery; Cheever called it “the road that sin built.” (Samson)

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.

With the passing of time, emphasis was given to areas of substantial populations. Because of the on-going decline of the Hawaiian population, and the near abandonment of isolated communities formerly accessed by the ala loa and earlier alanui aupuni, segments were abandoned.

In the later years of the Hawaiian monarchy, the need to define and protect Hawaiian trails and roadways was recognized, particularly in support of native tenants living in remote locations. Often these native tenants` lands were surrounded by tracts of land held by single, large landowners who challenged rights of access.

In 1892, Queen Liliʻuokalani and the Legislature of the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi 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.

“All roads, alleys, streets, ways, lanes, courts, places, trails and bridges in the Hawaiian Islands, whether now or hereafter opened, laid out or built by the Government, or by private parties, and dedicated or abandoned to the public as a highway, are hereby declared to be public highways.”

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