Road to Hana Construction – 19th & 20th Century Hana Belt Road

In the 1870’s, sugar moguls Alexander & Baldwin, devised a sophisticated irrigation system that would tap the mountain streams of the eastern windward slopes of Haleakalā to transport necessary water for their nearby arid sugar plantations. This section of irrigation, an engineering marvel, is known as the Hamakua Ditch, and traverses 17 miles of rain forest, ridges and ravines and is capable of carrying 60 million gallons of water a day.  A 15-mile section of unpaved road was built to facilitate its construction making the beginning of the Hāna Belt Road (a.k.a. The Road to Hāna).

In 1899, construction of a 15-mile section of unpaved road was commenced between Ke’anae and Nāhiku to facilitate the Nāhiku Rubber Company, the only commercial rubber company ever to have been established in the United States.  The road was laid with cinders to accommodate horse drawn wagons but it was not suitable for automobiles.

Around 1900, overland travel to Hāna was made by a rough government trail and it was recognized that a good wagon road was needed to connect Hāna to Central Maui.  The road would open up land for development, and service established industrial agriculture such as sugar, rubber and pineapple as well as small scale farming along the Hāna coast.  It would also promote tourism, and end Hāna’s centuries of isolation.

At this time, bridge construction commenced in anticipation for the coming road.  The automobile first appeared on Maui in 1905 and due to earlier bridge deterioration and decay from East Maui’s harsh elements and continual flash flooding, stronger and more permanent concrete bridges of better design were implemented beginning in 1906 and peaking in 1911.

By 1914, funding from the Territory of Hawai’i Legislature prompted the building of the first few miles of improved road that followed the unpaved road from Ke’anae to Nāhiku, even though it was an inaccessible stretch.

By 1920, the road accommodated automobile traffic thru the pineapple district from Central Maui to Kailua.  Due to the heavy rains, portions were paved with Macadam (a layer of broken angular stones).  From 1923 to 1925 construction of over 11 miles was achieved  between Kailua and Ke’anae using prison labor and from 1925 to 1926, construction of over 5 miles was completed from Ke’anae to Wailua and construction continued towards Hāna as far as Kīpahulu.  After years of piecemeal construction with handpicks and steam shovels, the Hāna Belt Road was opened to the public on December 18, 1926.

In 1934, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Hāna Coast Civilian Conservation Corps as part of his jobs program of the Great Depression.  Work continued on the road and by 1940, it was virtually complete.

In 1962, after statehood (1959), the Department of Transportation took over maintenance of the Hāna Belt Road and by 1964, the road was widened, paved and repaired.  In the 1980s, lava rock guard walls, road striping and guardrails were added to bring the road up to current safety standards.  Continuous construction, repairs and repaving continue today; however, the road maintains its historic character and integrity with its original alignment, narrow roadbed, one-lane bridges and culverts, and other features since it was first opened to the public in 1926 connecting the small isolated town of Hāna to central Maui.