story by Dennis Hollier
photos by Monte Costa
Late on a warm evening in June of 1867, the postmaster Henry Greenwell disembarked from a schooner in the scruffy West Hawai‘i port of Kawaihae. Being a punctilious man, Greenwell had no plans to tarry there. In his bags, he carried the overland mail for Kalukalu, and he was eager to begin the difficult journey to Kealakekua Bay. He awaited only his hired hand and enough light for them to follow the trail across the lava fields. In his journal he wrote:
“At midnight, Gilbert arrived with
the mules. Slept until 4 a.m. on
Thursday morning, when, by the
light of a small moon, we made
Greenwell’s route followed the King’s Highway, the new trail that King Kamehameha III had ordered built across the lava fields of Kona to help speed the transport of cattle from Kohala down to the royal enclave in Kailua. Prison labor had carved this eight-foot-wide path, paving it in cinders where it crossed the jagged ‘a‘a, and lining it with rough curbstones to help guide cattle across the trackless stretches of pahoehoe. The new trail bypassed most of the old, largely abandoned fishing villages that lay along the scalloped coast. Where the ancient trails had wended in and out of these bays, the King’s Highway ran straight as a rifle shot. But the terrain that it crossed was still hard and desolate. Only a few years earlier, the 1859 eruption of Mauna Kea had inundated a portion of the trail, complicating travel. Nevertheless, Greenwell was in a hurry and kept the mules moving apace.
Despite brief pauses in Kiholo, where they bathed, and in Kailua town, where Greenwell obtained a horse, they drove the mules steadily through the day, finally reaching Kalukalu late that evening. In all, they trudged the 50 miles from Kawaihae in less than fifteen hours—an astonishing but apparently not remarkable transit. In fact, the records show that the scheduled mail carrier was paid just $2 to ride the same route as an overnight trip, making additional stops along the way to deliver mail.