Oahu’s Only State and National Historic Road

Tantalus-Round Top Drive: Oahu’s Only State and National Historic Road

Tantalus Road

Photo courtesy Flickr user Marc Loehrwald

Tantalus-Round Top Drive is an 8-mile, two-lane paved road that begins at the entrance to Punchbowl National Cemetery. The roadway climbs Tantalus Drive to an elevation of 1,800 feet and then descends along Round Top Drive. The district ends at the 8.0 mile marker. This drive is two miles from Waikiki and one mile from downtown Honolulu. The ridges that carry Tantalus-Round Top Drive surround Makiki, one of the most densely populated neighborhoods in Honolulu.

In 1906, the Civic Federation of Honolulu brought Charles Mulford Robinson from Rochester, New York for a survey in Honolulu. He recommended securing the top of Tantalus for “the one great park for Honolulu.” In 1957 the 2,000-acre Makiki State Recreation Area was established as part of the Hawaii State Park System. There are 7 trailheads along Tantalus-Round Top Drive that provide access to a network of some 15 trails that run throughout Makiki Valley and the Tantalus-Round Top mountain range.

The drive extends over three volcanic cinder cones in the Tantalus range with the highest at 1,800 feet above sea level. Makiki Valley contains three streams that carry 130 inches of annual rainfall from Tantalus-Round Top. By comparison, nearby Waikiki’s annual rainfall is 20 inches. In 1913 all upper Tantalus residences became part of the Honolulu Watershed Forest Reserve, which was established that year to protect the vital water supply of Honolulu. Today it supplies Honolulu with some of the purest water in the world. A reforestation program was carried out by the Civilian Conservation Corps between 1934 and 1941.

Under Act 234, passed in 1957, the Tantalus-Round Top area was zoned as a Conservation District with conditional residential use. The zoning regulations were designed to prevent water pollution to the watershed area, thereby restricting further residential, commercial or agricultural development. Tantalus is home to around 600 residents with approximately 200 homes that are not serviced by the municipal water or sewer system.

This drive was built on public lands over a 25-year period, from 1892 to 1917. The development of the road extended through four governments, from the Kingdom of Hawaii, the Provisional Government of Hawaii, the Republic of Hawaii and the Territory of Hawaii. The ownership of the road remained with the Territory of Hawaii and subsequently with the State of Hawaii until 1993 when its title was transferred to the City and County of Honolulu in name and tax map only. There was no actual exchange of deeds or survey.

Residential lots on Tantalus were surveyed and laid out in 1891. Lorrin A. Thurston, Minister of Interior under King Kalakaua and a pioneer Tantalus resident, was credited with conceiving and promoting the Tantalus Road project. In 1891, Thurston authorized the construction of a carriage road “6’ wide with an easy grade of 7%”. He was the driving force behind government road construction to the summit of Tantalus on Oahu and was instrumental in the establishment of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on the Island of Hawaii and Haleakala National Park on Maui.

Construction of the Tantalus road began in 1892, and was an effort by the Kingdom of Hawaii to provide access to several hundred acres of land for settlement.

In 1914, Tantalus Drive was improved to allow automobiles at a cost of some $4,000. The Round Top road was completed in 1917. With the completion of Tantalus and Round Top Drives the road was recognized as the most beautiful scenic drive in Honolulu. It was first paved in 1937 with $337,000 in federal funding from the Works Progress Administration.

The only substantial improvement since that time was in 1953-54, when low curbside retaining walls and quarried basalt roadside drainage culverts made were added, where needed, along the length of the road.

This is an edited version of the application for the nomination of Tantalus-Round Top Drive to the Hawaii Register of Historic Places. Tantalus-Round Top Drive was approved for State Historic Designation in 2007 and for The National Historic Register in 2009.

The complete nomination application can be found at: http://historichawaii.org/2014/02/19/tantalus-round-top-road/