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Exploring the History Behind the Haʻikū Stairs, City Council to Debate Removal

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The Honolulu City Council is expected to decide on the future of the Haʻikū Stairs later this month, so The Conversation has been taking the time to explore the history behind the kapu, forbidden, “Stairway to Heaven.”

Friends of the Haʻikū Stairs is a nonprofit group dedicated to preserving the stairs and the surrounding environment. Many mayors and local lawmakers have come and gone over three decades, but this grassroots group has persevered, turning over options from different access points to land swaps to having a private operator manage the stairs.

Kaneohe resident John Flannigan recalled that back in the 80s, he saw a letter to the editor in the newspaper from a man looking for anyone interested in keeping the access open — Flannigan called him.

Flannigan, then an instructor at the now-closed Hawaiʻi Loa College, arranged a meeting room for Haʻikū Stairs supporters to gather.

"We publicized it — there was a paper inviting people that were interested to show up. And boy we had about 50 people there, including several legislators and (Neil) Abercrombie came to the meeting," Flannigan said.

Flannigan became one of the early organizers of a group that would become the Friends of Haʻiku Stairs.

As for the future of the stairs, their removal has received support from the Department of Hawaiian Homelands, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, and 97 people. Written testimony in opposition was received from 1,280 people, the Friends of Haʻikū Stairs and the Hawaii Historical Trails Association, the July 20 committee report said.

All five members of the Committee on Housing and the Economy voted in support of removing the stairs — Andria Tupola voted yes with reservations. The city's 2021-2022 budget set aside $1 million for the removal, according to the resolution.

The stairs consist of 3,922 steps over 2,420 feet of elevation — starting at an elevation of 400 feet — on the ridgeline of the Koʻolau Mountains, according to the city.

The architect behind Haʻikū Stairs

The Conversation was curious about the story behind the stairs, specifically the architect charged with designing them. His name was Daniel Caires. He was from Kaimuki and he lived on 8th Avenue with his grandparents.

He got a job at the Pearl Harbor shipyard in an apprentice draftsman program, and worked his way up and became an architect. One of his projects as a civilian architect for the Navy was designing the stairs for the Coast Guard Omega Station — stairs that would later be known as Haʻikū Stairs.

Daniel Caires retired from Pearl Harbor after 36 years and moved to Maui, where he died at the age of 93 in 2016.

The Conversation talked to his son Michael Caires, who now lives in Maine. For his father, the stairs were "built for one intention, and that intention was fulfilled," Michael Caires said.

"I know he said it was unfortunate that it would fall into disrepair because something of that nature, you have to maintain it. And it was being used for purposes other than what it was originally meant for," Michael Caires said. "So he expressed that but not so much in disappointment, it's just that that was the reality of it. It was his project that he worked on, and it was done for a purpose, for a reason — and it was met. And then after that, it's just a matter of just letting it go."

Daniel Caires is buried at the Hawaiʻi State Veterans Cemetery in Kaneohe.

The architect behind Haʻikū Stairs - Aug. 6, 2021
Michael Caires shares his father Daniel Caires' most famous project, the Haʻikū Stairs

These interviews aired on The Conversation on Aug. 5 and 6, 2021.

Catherine Cruz is the host of The Conversation. Originally from Guam, she spent more than 30 years at KITV, covering beats from government to education. Contact her at ccruz@hawaiipublicradio.org.
Sophia McCullough is HPR's digital news producer. Contact her at news@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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