A Brief History of Makiki-Tantalus

by Jennie Peterson, jenniepeterson (at) webtv.net, Hawaii Nature Center

The human history of Makiki-Tantalus is long, extensive and diverse and the subsequent impact on the environment has been immense. Although there has never been a complete archaeological study of the area, a state archaeological survey of Makiki Valley in 1980 revealed numerous prehistoric agricultural sites. The early Hawaiians grew taro in the swampy land near the valley mouth, where runoff from Tantalus collected, and on the small alluvial flats along the streams. The lowland taro lo’i reached into the neighboring valleys of Manoa and Pauoa. Legend tells of sweet potato gardens grown on Round Top, whose Hawaiian name, Pu’u ‘Ualaka’a means “hill of the rolling sweet potato”.

Undoubtedly the ahupua’a of Makiki provided the ancient people with a wealth of resources. Water was plentiful in Moleka and Kanealole Streams which join to form Makiki Stream. Although few native food plants existed in Hawai’i, the pioneering settlers brought with them food crops which grew readily in this new fertile land. Hawaiian introductions included taro, sugarcane, sweet potato, breadfruit, mountain apple, banana, ti and kukui. Plants that provided fuel, building material, medicine, fiber and dye grew in the upper valley and mountain areas. Also, forest birds and land snails were plentiful. From 1100-1600 A.D. there was a period of expansion when the native population grew and their impact on the land intensified. By the 1600s, the lowland forests had been so extensively utilized that archaeologists calculate that about 80 percent of the land below 2,000 feet had been altered. Change accelerated with the arrival of Westerners, beginning with Captain James Cook in 1778. The increasing numbers of explorers and traders in the 1800s had a significant impact on the Makiki-Tantalus area, which was located close to the shipping and trading port of Honolulu. Introduced livestock such as horses, cattle, goats and pigs began to destroy the forest understory and compact the soil. From 1815-1826 the sandalwood trade with China virtually eliminated this native tree from the area. A single ship’s hold could carry more than 6,000 trees at one time!

Whaling ships by the dozens plied Hawaiian waters in the 1830s-1860s. The readily accessible Makiki-Tantalus area provided trees for fuel to render the whale blubber into oil. Numerous other trees were harvested for building materials, to fuel foundries, and for firewood. By the late 1800s most of Makiki was bare, denuded of trees. The native forest was gone.

A rare glimpse of the Makiki area in the midst of these irreversible alterations is given in a fascinating account written in 1831 by an Austrian botanist, Dr. F. J. F. Meyens. He presents us with a sense of what the native forest was like and a preview of what was to come, as he hiked from Honolulu up Punchbowl, on the top of P’u Kakea and down through Makiki Valley.

Meyens describes the entire slope of Puowaina (Punchbowl) and the ridge behind it as completely barren except for low herbage and grasses scattered at elevations below 700 feet. (The nature Center is at 350 feet; Round Top is at 1,000 feet.) The valley below was covered with cultivated gardens of taro, bananas and sugar cane. A mixture of native and introduced plants existed in the higher areas. Common native plants included koa (up to 8 feet in diameter!), ilima, ‘awa, mamaki, naupaka, olona, maile, ‘ohelo, lama, kopiko, ferns and more lobelias than he had found anywhere else on the island. There were also many tree ferns from which the Hawaiians collected to pulu (fine “wool”) to sell for stuffing mattresses. The introduced plants, while no yet widespread, were ones that would prove to be very invasive- kukui, morning glory vine and ginger. The top of Pu’u Kakea supported no trees, just a dense growth of ti and morning glory. Grazing horses and long-horned cattle were common.

Within the valley itself Meyens noted many Hawaiian huts, and on a low ridge transecting the valley (behind the Nature Center) sat a quarry where the basalt outcrop was being chipped into pieces of rock used to make octopus lures. This observation confirms the relevance and meaning of the valley’s name, as one interpretation of the word “makiki” is a type of stone used for weights in octopus lures.

Glimpses of the valley 100 years ago are also available from informal records. Climbing Pu’u ‘Ohi’a (Tantalus Peak) was a frequent outing for Punahou students. In the 1840s, they named it “Tantalus” after a Greek god. Collecting land snail shells and duck hunting in the ponds behind Tantalus and Pu’u Kakea were also favorite activities. One account states that over 2,000 kahuli snails (which are now extinct in the valley ) were collected on a single hike!

During the Great Mahele of 1848 several land awards were made in upper Makiki Valley. Many parcels along Moleka and Kanealole streams were purchased between 1864 and 1876 by Mr. J.M. Herring. He built a carriage road to his property and made an unsuccessful attempt to grow coffee.

The barren hillsides became heavily eroded, and both the quantity and quality of fresh water in the streams below declined. In 1893 the Kingdom of Hawai’i formed a Commission of Agriculture and Forestry. In 1903 this became the Territorial Board of Agriculture and Forestry. The Board acquired upper Makiki Valley in 1904, and began a much-needed reforestation effort in 1910. Ralph Hosmer, the first territorial forester, began to select and grow thousands of trees, mostly species introduced from Australia, Asia, and other parts of the world at the nursery located right behind the present Nature Center buildings. In 1913 Makiki-Tantalus was declared a Forest Reserve by the Territorial government.

Reforestation and reclassification of land were not the only changes taking place during this time. Tantalus has long been a favorite locale for summer houses for those wishing to escape the summer’s heat. in 1891, the H.W. Schmidts, having received a deed for property at the top of Tantalus from Queen Lili’uo’kalani, built a house called Maluhia. In the following years more and more families built mountain retreats as roads began to replace the old horse trails. The Tantalus road was built in 1902 and connected to the Round Top section in 1914 but it was not fully paved until several years later. A house midway up the Tantalus side called the halfway house provided ice, soda and a few groceries for the summer occupants.

In 1927 the Van Tassel family leased land from the Territory on Round top and established the first macadamia nut orchard in Hawai’i at Nutridge Farm. Other trees were planted in the late 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps in another reforestation project. The road to the top of ‘Ualaka’a was put in in the late 1940s in order to create a park and look-out. After statehood, the division of Forestry was transferred to the newly established Department of Land and Natural Resources and Makiki-Tantalus was zoned as a conservation district.

Today, a 2,000 acre parcel designated as the Makiki-Tantalus State Recreation Area provides a much-loved retreat from the bustling city. New trails and look-outs have opened up the area for hikers, joggers, mountain bikers, picnickers, people out to enjoy the view and Hawai’i Nature Center students learning to love and care for the forest.

Makiki-Tantalus is a place of extraordinary change. Nearly all the plants in the area are introduced. There is only a scattering of native koa, mamaki, and moa. There are no more kahuli snails. Mongoose, rats and feral cats are common. Only one native bird is regularly hear in the forest – the ‘amakihi. Introduced cardinals, mynas, sparrows, mejiros and doves are common. The introduced shama thrush does enhance the woods with an enchanting song and the visiting kolea (Pacific golden plover) chooses the grassy slope of Round Top as a winter retreat. What will tomorrow’s students find here? What kind of change will we bring?