The earliest recorded bridge in Hawai‘i was a crude footbridge across the Wailuku River at Hilo, reported by missionary C. S. Stewart in 1825. The first major bridge on O‘ahu appears to have been one extending North Beretania Street across Nu‘uanu Stream, erected at a cost of $1,200 in 1840. This span was swept away by a sudden flooding of the stream in April 1847. Reconstruction had barely gotten underway when, five weeks later, another freshet hit the area. According to witnesses, the replacement span “was seen floating out of the harbor at the rate of about four knots.”
Hilo’s dangerous Wailuku River was finally spanned again in September 1859, this time by a 196-foot-long suspension bridge. Less than seven weeks after it was opened, while being crossed by a party of eight or ten persons and their horses, this bridge collapsed, and the group narrowly averted death from the falling timbers or by drowning.
This was not the first disaster or near-disaster at that site. Weakened by earthquakes and a tsunami, the railroad bridge over the Wailuku River collapsed on March 31, 1923, just after one loaded passenger train had crossed and as another was approaching. Two of the largest bridges on the Hawai‘i Consolidated Railway were destroyed by the 1946 tsunami, a disaster that effectively put that railroad out of business.
For a more extensive, illustrated treatment of island bridges, see “Early Hawaiian Bridges” in The Hawaiian Journal of History (1986).
By Robert C. Schmitt