By Kent Warshauer


Hilo, Hawaii


Waipio Valley can be reached by four-wheel drive vehicle, but how and when did this become possible?


Since the valley walls are at the steep angle of 45 to nearly 90 degrees, roads and trails into the valley floor did not exist prior to 1889. That year $3,000 was expended on a survey and laying out of a bridle path from Honokaahane to Waipio. This trail is now known as the Waipio-Waimanu trail, and can be seen zig-zagging up the side of the valley from the existing Waipio Lookout on the Honokaa side. The Honokaa side of the valley was a portion of the ili of Lalakea in the ahupuaa (land division) of Waipio. The land of Lalakea is part of the crown lands reserved by King Kamehameha III for himself and his heirs. On Dec. 15, 1854, Kamehameha III died and Kamehameha IV was coronated Jan. 11, 1855, assuming ownership of the crown lands.


Kamehamaha IV granted 2,944 acres of Lalakea to William C. Lunalilo on Dec. 7, 1857. Lunalilo in turn was named king on Jan. 8, 1873. Following Lunalilos death Feb. 3, 1874, his estate sold the land of Lalakea to the Pacific Sugar Mill of Kukuihaele. On July 1, 1928, Pacific Sugar merged with the Honokaa Sugar Company and ownership of the Honokaa side of the valley was then transferred to the enlarged Honokaa Sugar Co. Private ownership of this side of Waipio valley would soon have an impact on the development of the four wheel drive road into the valley floor, but this would not be apparent until the 1940s.


In July of 1898, the Hawaiian Legislature appropriated $ 6,000 to establish a road into Waipio Valley on the Kukuihaele side. On Nov. 9, 1899, Minister of the Interior Alexander Young called for bids. Work on the new road was begun shortly thereafter by a contractor using Japanese labor. By the following September, four Japanese laborers had lost their lives building this road and several others were critically injured. The last casualty had fallen some 380 feet to his death, and his companion was severely injured.


Construction stopped at this time and was not resumed until bids were again called by James H. Boyd, superintendent of public works, on Sept. 8, 1902. Construction continued slowly due to the dangerous conditions encountered.

When the County of Hawaii came into being in 1907, Samuel K. Pua, clerk of the newly formed government, called for bids to finish the road. There is little record of anything being done.


On Jan. 4, 1917, County Supervisor Eugene Lyman introduced a resolution that $ 10,000 be appropriated to a fund known as Wagon road from the top of Waipio Gulch to the bottom, and ordered plans and specification be prepared. The residents of Waipio were overjoyed that a safer route was to be built. Both East Hawaii and the Kona district relied on Waipio for their supply of poi. And all the produce of the valley had to be packed by mules over the old trail.


On July 6, 1923, the Waipio residents wrote to Governor Farrington requesting that prison labor be employed to complete the wagon road, as large acres of fertile land in the valley were lying fallow due to insufficient financial returns caused principally by the excessive expense of bringing the produce to market. Just as arrangements for the transfer of prison labor had been completed, the residents rose in protest, citing the danger to young women and girls in the community.


The county did not forget the residents of Waipio, as Samuel M. Spencer, chairman and executive officer of the Board of Supervisors, sent work crews to clear the guava bushes and put the trail in as good a condition as possible. Otherwise, the trail would have been overgrown that travel would have been almost impossible. On July 28, 1929, Joseph Bettencourt, the countys examiner of motor drivers, drove an automobile the 4,000 and more feet from the top of the valley to the bottom and back. Bettencourt used a stock 1929 Pontiac to climb the average 45 degree trail, and it took a grueling three hours. 


Prior to this historic feat, only two other automobiles had even attempted this dangerous trail, and both machines became stuck at the bottom. The first was Bettencourt himself, for in 1910 he was misdirected down this trail, and it took six mules to get the EMF Studebaker back up the muddy horse trail. The other was renowned driver Samuel Simpson who tried it in 1914, and it took a dozen mules, and much manpower to extricate the car. During Thanksgiving vacation that year, local schoolteacher Edith Munson nearly lost her life on the muddy trail, which was 2 to 3 feet deep in muck. Due to this accident, Chairman Spencer ordered that the trail be improved.


Work began in January 1930, The trail was graded, a subbase and gravel surface laid, and ditches dug on each side to carry off the rain. At this time the trail was still used by pedestrians, horses and donkeys. Indeed, everything going into or out of the valley was by pack train. The 1945 Territorial Legislature authorized a survey fee for a new federal standard road from Kukuihaele post office to the floor of the valley. On Oct. 30, 1945, a survey crew under Edward Kaaua began the $ 10,000 project. By January 1946, only 1,000 feet of the federal aid highway was unfinished. The completed plans were in the offices of the highway department at Kuhio Wharf on April 1, 1946, and were destroyed by the seismic sea wave that hit the Hawaiian Islands on that day.


A side note from the USC Tsunami Research Group that describes the events that destroyed the set of plans.  


During the early morning of April 1, 1946, an earthquake of magnitude 7.4 occurred in an area of the Aleutian Trench located approximately 90 miles south of Unimak Island, part of the Aleutian Island chain. During the quake, a large section of seafloor was uplifted along the fault where the quake occurred, producing a large, Pacific-wide tectonic tsunami.


The most detailed, and well documented accounts of the 1946 Aleutian tsunami come from Scotch Cap, located on Unimak Island, and the Hawaiian Islands. Despite its enormous size at Scotch Cap, the 1946 tsunami had little effect on the Alaskan mainland, due to the presence of the Aleutian Islands, which absorbed the blunt of the tsunami's power, shielding the mainland.


Approximately 48 minutes after the earthquake, a 100-foot tsunami struck the area of Scotch Cap. The tsunami completely destroyed the newly built US Coast Guard lighthouse, surging over the costal cliff to a height of 42 m (135 ft.) above sea level. All five members of the lighthouse crew were killed.


At approximately 7 a.m., less than five hours after the earthquake in Alaska, the first of several tsunami waves reached the Hawaiian Islands. The tsunami caught Hawaii completely unaware, as the destruction at Scotch Cap prevented the transmission of any warning message until it was too late.


The tsunami waves produced extensive destruction along the shorelines of the Hawaiian Islands, especially at Hilo, on the big island of Hawaii, where the city's entire waterfront was destroyed. Wave heights across the Islands reached an estimated maximum of 55 feet, 36 feet and 33 feet on Hawaii, O'ahu, and Maui, respectively. The tsunami inundated areas up to a half a mile inland in some locations. A total of 159 people were killed as a result of the tsunami in Hawaii.




By Feb. 15 1947, Kaaua had prepared another set of plans for a 12 foot wide paved road with 6 foot wide shoulders, a 3 foot gutter on the pali side for drainage, and no more than a 7 percent grade. The proposed highway was to start near the present horse trail, and descend to a point near Hiilawe falls and hairpin to the floor of the valley.


Meanwhile, the taro farmers pleaded to the county to widen the existing trail to allow a tractor into the valley to boost production. They also supported the plans for the replacement federal aid highway. At this time the county attorneys office determined that the road was owned by the Honokaa Sugar Company, and ruled that the county could not maintain the road without owning it.


Waipio folks pleaded for a road, and following an accident Dec. 27, 1949, when a horse fell over the side with two children aboard, the county installed several guard rails. All hopes for a new highway into the valley were dashed. March 7, 1952, when Robert M. Belt, Territorial Public Works chief, stated a review of past correspondence shows the property in the valley is (worth) considerably less than the cost of building a road.


On May 6, 1966, the Honokaa Sugar Companys manager, Richard M. Fraizer, turned over the deed for a 30 foot right of way encompassing the 10 foot wide Waipio Valley access road to the county, which immediately graded the dirt road allowing access by ordinary automobile. On July 17, 1968, the Board of Supervisors, under the recommendation of the Hamakua Traffic Safety Committee, restricted traffic to four-wheel drive vehicles only, due to the 25 percent grade.


This action did not prevent a series of horrific accidents, leaving the side of Waipio Valley littered with wrecks. The first occurred Jan. 11, 1969, when a Jeep slipped out of gear and careened down the steep road and flew off the side, injuring two taro farmers. The next occurred Nov. 26, 1970, when seven people went on a wild ride down when their vans brakes failed. The two-wheel-drive van ended up smashed on the bottom.


The first fatal accident occurred Dec. 3, 1971, when a Jeep plunged over the side, fatally injuring Michael Dale Johnson of Oregon and bruising and maiming four others. Brake failure on Aug. 27, 1988, resulted in the death of Ester Macatangay of Eagle Rock, Calif. And the injury of seven others when a truck went over the side backwards, after stopping to allow approaching vehicle to pass. The accident resulted in a lawsuit against Hawaii County filed Dec 17, 1988. On March 23, 1990, the Hawaii County Council voted to ask the state to take over the Waipio Valley access road, as it was deemed by engineers as among the most precarious on the Big Island.


The State Transportation Department was unwilling to assume responsibility for the road. In late June 1991 county workers installed safety guardrails on the lower portion of the narrow roadway, partially in response to the 1988 accident. This $400,000 project disrupted tour operators who had been booked solid.


Winter storms damaged the road in 1994 and Kohala contractor Mike Lucee began a $120,000 repair project April 11, and in May prepared the road base, layered reinforced steel and paved the road with quick setting concrete. A $ 274,000 upgrade by Luce began Feb. 24, 1997 when a further 1, 225 feet of guardrail and a new turnout were added, increasing the safety of the 1.2 mile long road.


Surfing for an hour, wondering about ancient times before going back up the hill. TT