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The Pali Highway


Pali Tunnels 2001

The Pali Highway shoots through two sets of tunnels, thus avoiding the former treacherous trip down the side of the Pali itself.


"One day, we learned that there was going to be a highway," Kalani recalls. "And you learned that, but you didn’t really understand until you saw the construction of it. And then there was highway and the tunnel."

Nu‘uanu has for centuries been an important transportation route across the mountains, between the Kona and the Ko‘olaupoko districts. In the Stories chapter we learned of various guardian deities who watched over travelers risking the precarious Pali trail. Early Western writers often remarked on this trail and the adventure of descending it. Horses, brought in after Western contact, became the major mode of transportation on this ancient trail. And even by the turn of the century, the route up through Nu‘uanu was a bit of an adventure.



Improvements to the road had been undertaken since the beginning of the 19th century. According to Kamakau, a chief named Keanini was "the first to clear and widen the road and let in the light of the sun. He improved the road in order to draw lumber for building the Kawaiaha‘o church. The logs were cut in Ko‘olauloa, brought by canoe to Kane‘ohe, and hauled over the Pali."

Boki, a high chief and governor of O‘ahu during the time of Kamehameha II and Ka‘ahumanu, undertook additional efforts, but encountered some obstacles. Near Kaheiki there was a great rock in his way, but when he went to remove it, a man came up and said,

"Hear, O chief! leave that rock alone. The god made this rock a guardian for this place and his house is yonder (pointing upward to Kaheiki). It is a guardian for the house of the god and its name is Ho‘eu. The nature of this rock is that if you move it aside it will make you move to a foreign land and you will no longer live in Hawaii. Lucky for you if a year passes before you depart."


Pali Trail

The Pali Trail, Kailua-side.
Drawing from Fisquet, Voyage of the Bonite, 1836. Courtesy Hawai‘i State Archives.


Windward Pali 1890

"Trail up the windward side of the Pali, Honolulu Hawaii" ca. 1890. Photographer: Elias Shura.
Courtesy of Bishop Museum.


Similarly, while working on the road up at Luakaha, Boki found a long, pointed rock in his way and went to remove it. A divining kahuna named Lu‘au, who was skilled in pointing out locations, came forward and said to him,

"Do not disturb this rock. it is named Ku-of-exceeding-great-mana (Ku-manamana) and Rock-of-exceeding-great-mana (Pohaku-manamana). Not even a high chief should disturb this rock, for it covers the waters of Ka-papa-i-kawa-luna which lie below it and supply the waters of Kunawai, Kahoakane, Ko‘ula, and Kewalo."

Boki instantly ordered his men to remove the rock, but it extended into the soil so far that after extensive digging, they gave up.



Nuuanu Pali Road 1900s

"Waipuhia (Wind Blown Falls), hanging valleys, Nuuanu Pali Road, Honolulu, Hawaii."
The Pali Road in upper Nu‘uanu, as it looked in the early 1900s.
Photographer: Alonzo Gartley (no date). Bishop Museum photograph.


In 1887 a more aggressive approach was undertaken. An engineering firm, Whitehouse and Wilson, was awarded a government contract to build a new and improved road. Today that road is the "Old Pali Road." An article in Honolulu Magazine by Gerard A. Jervis reports that "The firm used 17,500 pounds of blasting powder and 10,000 pounds of dynamite to complete the job." On the Ko‘olaupoko side, a large number of skulls and human bones were unearthed during the construction, then re-buried under tons of earth at the foot of the cliffs -- the remains of Kalanikupule's warriors.

This new Pali Road drastically improved the passageway between the Kona and Ko‘olaupoko districts. As cars developed and improved, another addition was made in the form of the Pali Lookout, a pull-over place at the crest of the Pali before the descent to the Kailua side. Because of its sheer beauty, this location became a highly visited and often photographed location for tourists and visitors to the islands, and remains so today.

The images below show the evolution of the Pali lookout.
Click a thumbnail to see the larger image.



Pali 1883

Pali Construction

Pali 1920s

Pali 1940s

Pali road, no lookout,
Pali lookout under construction,
Pali lookout,
Pali lookout,
Pali lookout,




The Pali lookout, no longer used by cars, is a major attraction for tourists.


The highway also points out an environmental impact that has changed the nature of the landscape. Where the old Pali Highway wound its way up the valley and around and down the Pali like the original trail, the new highway involved punching holes through the mountain and installing tunnels. Stephen reports,

"When I was growing up, living in Kane‘ohe, this was the route to school up the old Pali Road. And back then, we would entertain ourselves on the long drive, on a rainy day, by looking over the Ko‘olau mountains. You know how kids have these little road games on long trips, like counting out-of-state license plates? We used to count waterfalls to entertain us. I remember those, and I’ve asked old timers 'Do you remember the waterfalls?' And it’s always 'Do you remember the waterfalls…' because they are basically gone. Even on a rainy day, they’re not prominent like I remember they were."


Old Pali Highway

Remains of the Old Pali Highway still wend their way along the face of the Pali, down from the Pali Lookout. It is now a walking trail.


Tunnel Drilling

Tunnel drilling. Statehood Commission Photograph, Hawai‘i State Archives.


Why? The answer has to do with dike-impounded water -- water that is trapped in the vertical rock structure inside the mountains. These "high-level aquifers" are like tubes of water that fill up, until the water pours out the top, making waterfalls on the high mountaintops.

"When they realized that the mountains were full of water, from that first main tunnel, they started boring more tunnels to tap more water," Stephen continues. "This is all in the 20’s, and by that time most of the ground water aquifers were being tapped out with artesian wells. So a lot of the water development industry formed. And they began all over the island, once they had the theory about the high level aquifers. So throughout the island tunnels were being bored into mountains. "

"Today you see urbanization everywhere. That draws water from the aquifers which are really in the mountains. And you see golf courses. All of this extensive development and use of the land is really at odds with the the natural function of this ahupua‘a."



"At the time, you didn’t have too many highways that size," Kalani recalls. "Originally the median strips were very wide lawn areas with big monkeypod trees, and they came over and shaded the highway, which I believe was their purpose. Then in the late '60s and '70s, suddenly they took out the big trees, and narrowed that planted area, and put in the third lane, because it was only two-and-two.

"That’s when you really noticed it, because then the traffic was much heavier, and faster. I felt, 'Gee, we’re losing a lot of the valley feel.' Then again, you were relieved that all these cars weren’t stopping. I had been away at the time, so I didn’t notice on a day-to-day basis how Honolulu had grown. When I came back I saw the additional highway lanes, and that the monkeypod had been almost all taken out. That was when I felt the impact of the growth. There’s I think one monkeypod left up here, but they were all through this middle section and down the highway until it narrows at Kapena falls."



A lone monkeypod tree remains, not on the central median, but on this wider strip where the old road--Nu‘uanu Pali Drive--splits off from today's highway.



Cars disappear through the tunnels below the Pali gap, headings towards the Windward side.


With the Windward side now linked by highway to Honolulu, "the result is constant traffic. People from Kailua or Kane‘ohe use this as a transit way," Kalani remarks. "And they bring their concerns: We want more lights, we want to go faster, why can’t we have a gas station? And so the community would say, No more lights, or, no, you can’t have a gas station. And we don’t want speeding cars through here. That’s been a concern since the 1990s, because prior to that, I don’t know, people just weren’t in so much of a hurry. Now, if someone is delayed in traffic five minutes, they feel that they have the right to go faster.

"Now they want to widen the highway, and add on reverse lanes in the morning, so that the traffic can move faster. There have been proposals to elevate the highway, and then add more lights. I don’t know what it will solve, because as soon as they put in that lane, the cars will fill it, and they’ll still be five minutes slower. The community has been against it, especially the newer residents that have moved here specifically to get out of the city. They’ll come up and say, 'I moved here specifically five years ago to get away from that, now don’t you dare do it!'"



"Highways aren’t the answer." Kalani concludes. "I don’t know what the purpose is. If they say transportation is to move people, right now highways are moving cars, not people. Highways have a strong impact in this valley, and what comes with it--lights, the cars, the new traffic. Now we have people on both sides of the Pali, and it is necessary to move them. It might mean changing habits, or finding a new mode that’s less destructive than building a highway and reaching no limit with that. You’re still only going to move cars. So how do you want to move people?"

More on community attitudes and actions in Nu‘uanu is found in the Onwards chapter.



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