I take a lot of things for granted. For instance, the major road around Oahu is called Kamehameha Highway. I assumed that was always its name. I never really thought too much about it.
But in looking in our newspaper archives for 1920, I came across several articles about the “new” highway, its original name and dozens of proposed names.
As early as 1905, when there were just a handful of cars in Hawaii, planners began considering an “Oahu Belt Road,” as they called it at the time. Maui, Kauai and Hawaii counties were also building “belt” roads.
A resolution on Aug. 25, 1905, by the Oahu County Board of Supervisors (it wasn’t named Honolulu County until 1907) called for “particular attention to a good road around the island.” It was necessary for tourist travel, they said, and also good for commerce.
They desired to “permanently improve the road commonly known as the Belt Road running around the Island of Oahu from the end of Nuuanu Avenue through Kaneohe, around to Waialua, Aiea and back to Honolulu through the Moanalua Gardens, forming a main continuous highway for travel around the island.”
The projected cost was around $1.5 million ($50 million in today’s dollars), much too much, some critics said.
Around 1920 it was time to give it a proper name. The Honolulu Star-Bulletin asked readers and prominent community members for suggestions.
Why not call it the “Rainbow Road?” water works Superintendent W.A. Wall asked.
“The traveler on this roadway, as he wends a way through the showers which are constantly falling, is surrounded by an almost endless procession of rainbows.
“The rainbow is one of the wonders of Hawaii and I think it ought to be recognized,” Wall mused.
“Naming the highway the Rainbow Road would fix the matter in the minds of our visitors, telling them immediately what to look for, and be a constant reminder to ourselves that we have wonderful natural beauty which distinguishes us from other parts of the world.”
Benjamin P. Beckley, who had recently returned from France, suggested the name “Lanakila Highway.” The word means “victory.”
Beckley believed Lanakila was a good choice, given Hawaii’s recent participation in World War I and in view of the fact that the highway would be semimilitary in character (as part of Oahu’s coastal defense system).
Lei Ilima Highway
An anonymous reader suggested Lei Ilima Highway. A lei is a “wreath or something that encircles,” she said. “This word should be readily understood by our visitors, who are welcomed to the islands with leis around their necks. Ilima was the flower of Oahu, and also popular among the malihinis.”
“The Lei Ilima Highway encircles the island of Oahu,” she said, “or more poetically speaking, this highway adorns the neck of Oahu, taking the Nuuanu Pali for the head.” (Some of what we call the Pali Highway today was part of Kamehameha Highway in 1920.)
“Furthermore, the ilima plant flourishes wildly along some stretches of the Koolau coast and this fact will serve as a constant reminder to those driving on the Lei Ilima Highway as to the origin of its name.”
The Belt of Love
Mrs. A.G. Robertson of the Outdoor Circle suggested any one of the following: “Keanoaloha,” the belt of love; “Alakai,” meaning road by the sea; “Aipuni,” which means circle.
“Ehukai,” the spray of the ocean; “Liula,” liquid sunshine or misty with the ocean spray; “Mahealanl,” atmosphere of the early moon; “Kealawai,” the road or place of water; or “Keapopoha,” the circling road.
Mrs. Lahilahi Webb, historian of the Daughters of Hawaii, liked “Koolau Belt Road” because the highway would circle the Koolau Mountains.
City Treasurer D.L. Conkling suggested “Liliuokalani Boulevard,” in memory of our last queen, who had died three years earlier.
Dr. C. Montague Cooke, curator of the Bishop Museum, said he favored “Koolau Road” or “Kilohana,” meaning something fine or especially nice.
Former Mayor John C. Lane thought the most appropriate would be “Oahu Boulevard,” naming the road after the island itself.
Benjamin Marx, president of the Honolulu Art Society, thought “Kamehameha Boulevard” would be appropriate. “The road starts at the site of his famous battle at the Nuuanu Pali. I do not think there is at present any public road named after Kamehameha I.”
Mayor Joseph Fern liked “Alaloa,” which means the long path.
Lincoln McCandless thought “Alanui Kaapuni Oahu” would be suitable. It means the road that encircles Oahu.
Mrs. E.W. Nakuina liked the name “Poaipuni,” meaning around the circle or embracing everything worthwhile, as the road would embrace everything worthwhile on the island.
John Hedges, secretary of the tourist bureau, recommended “Dole Highway.” He was probably thinking of Sanford Dole, the politician, rather than James Dole, the pineapple king.
Alfred Gurrey of the city planning commission liked “Kaiulani Highway.”
County Clerk David Kalauokalani liked “Oahu Highway.”
Former Supervisor Harry Murray felt “Aloha Drive” would appeal to visitors.
Douglas Mossman, a clerk in the road supervisors’ office, suggested “Kamehameha Highway” as it “commemorates the spot where the greatest Hawaiian battle was fought.”
Other suggested names were “Liberty Road,” “Pershing Drive,” “Pacific Highway,” “Paradise Boulevard,” “Roosevelt Highway,” “Scenic Highway,” “Lunalilo highway,” “Prince Cupid” (Kuhio) Drive and “Kalakaua Way.”
In January 1920 the Star-Bulletin released nominations and votes by readers. The top eight:
>> Lei Ilima Drive: 874 votes
>> Lei Drive: 712
>> Alaloa (long road): 566
>> Alanuipuni: 355
>> Moana Drive: 88
>> Lanakila Highway: 81
>> Aloha Drive: 24
>> Kamehameha Road: 20
It recommended “Lei Ilima Drive,” the first choice, to the Board of Supervisors.
Later that month the Daughters and Sons of Hawaiian Warriors recommended the name “Kamehameha Highway.” They said this was appropriate “because Kamehameha the Great’s armies marched up Nuuanu Valley to the Pali and it was there that Kamehameha fought his last battle.”
The Warriors disputed the argument that haoles would not be able to pronounce Kamehameha. It is one of the easiest Hawaiian names to pronounce, once it is heard, they said.
On Jan. 31, 1920, the Board of Supervisors reviewed all the suggestions and chose “Kamehameha Highway.”
Supervisor M.C. Pacheco said, “Kamehameha I was Hawaii’s greatest warrior and ruler. He consolidated the various petty kingdoms into the Kingdom of Hawaii under one ruler and showed both in war and in peace that he was the greatest native of the Pacific in all time. I think it fitting, therefore, that the Oahu belt road be officially designated by this board as ‘Kamehameha Highway.’”
On Jan. 1, 1921, the new Kamehameha Highway was officially opened to vehicles. One part of the road was described in The Honolulu Advertiser as “20 feet wide, with super-elevated turns, that are banked about 18 inches high.”
It had beautiful views of Pearl Harbor, one driver said, as well as lush sugar cane and pineapple fields, picturesque beaches, such as Waimea Bay, and passed right by the “Beauty Hole” (pond) in Laie.
Building the Nuuanu Pali Highway in the 1950s cut away that part of Kamehameha Highway. Today, running clockwise 66 miles, it begins near the Navy Marine Golf Course and passes Pearl Harbor before darting up Central Oahu to the North Shore.
There it turns right and heads to Kahuku before running down the Windward side. It ends where Pali Highway becomes Kalanianaole Highway next to the Pali Golf Course.
So next time you’re on Kamehameha Highway, imagine if it was called Lei Ilima Highway or Rainbow Road instead.
The Rearview Mirror Insider is Bob Sigall’s weekly email that gives readers behind-the-scenes background, stories that wouldn’t fit in the column, and lots of interesting details. My Insider “posse” gives me ideas for stories and provides personal experiences that enrich the column. I invite you to join in and be an Insider at RearviewMirror Insider.com. Mahalo!