O‘ahu in 1957: The Day the Pali Highway Opened

One day in May, Hawai‘i drivers started going through the Ko‘olau mountain range to Kailua, instead of over it.

This is the month Windward drivers have been waiting for. If all goes as planned, work to stabilize the hillside and fix the tunnel entrance and lighting along Pali Highway will finish this month. Commuters have been dealing with lane closures and extra traffic since a rockslide in February.


No doubt the end of the estimated $20 million repairs and renovations to the 62-year-old byway will be greeted with driver jubilation. But it will be nothing compared to the fanfare when the highway first opened in 1957.


Hawai‘i Dedicates a Highway
Pali Highway


There are bigger tunnels on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. There are fancier bridges in the San Francisco Bay area. There are highway projects with higher price tags in Alaska, California, Colorado, Texas and maybe even the Virgin Islands.


But the Territorial Highway Department will wager Kamehameha’s statue (the big gold-painted one in front of Honolulu’s Judiciary Building) that there was never a highway dedicated with more fervor and festivity than the Nuuanu Pali Highway’s tunnel route for Honolulu-bound traffic.


Hula girls danced in the road. There was band music, singing, leis, kisses, speeches and a parade that portrayed the history of traffic across the Nuuanu Pali gap since bare brown feet pioneered the first trail.


There were prayers, too—prayers of thanksgiving for the speedy and safe execution of the $3,000,000 project. (Contractor J.M. Tanaka finished a week ahead of schedule after only 21 months of construction. The most hazardous part of the job—the tunneling—was pushed through without loss of life or a single serious injury.)


The dedication ceremonies opened a one and two-tenths mile route including two tunnels and eight full or partial bridges. They serve two lanes of traffic, moving uphill (Honolulu-bound) only. The old road across the summit has been converted to one-way use for traffic coming from Honolulu.


It was Hawaii’s Governor Samuel Wilder King who opened the new tunnel route.


Mountains should not be allowed to separate Oahu’s growing populations,’ he told the dedication audience.


Leading the parade was Prince David Kaaupu Kamehameha of Punaluu, dressed in a brief malo and straw hat. Then came two burden-bearers carrying a bag of taro strung on a pole between them—typical commercial traffic in 1836.


There followed costumed riders, representing King Kamehameha III and his retinue leading the first equestrian traffic over the horse-trail built in 1845.


Next came horse-drawn buggies and early automobiles.


Spectators’ cars fell in line behind the parade. Bumper-to-bumper traffic cozed over five new bridges to the 500-foot tunnel that pierces a ridge just Kailua side of the summit.


The highway department can’t say how many cars passed through the tunnels during the first few hours after their opening.


Overcome by the excitement of it all, the traffic recording machine just broke down.



The Kailua-bound tunnel opened in 1958. One relatively new feature of the highway was the two levels—cars headed to Kailua travel about 30 feet below those going into town, so no one has to deal with headlights directly in their face. The entire highway officially opened Aug. 1, 1961.​


Find more photos from Honolulu’s past every Thursday on Instagram: @honolulumag.