Sampan Bus; Uniquely Hilo
A Hilo taxi driver by the name of Fukumatsu Kusumoto felt taxi fares were too expensive and wanted to provide lower, cost-effect means of public transportation for Big Island residents and visitors, mainly Hilo wharf and it’s surrounding areas.
Mr. Kusumoto approached several of his friends who were taxi operators, but no one was interested in his idea. Single handed, he was able to obtain enough funding and constructed the first sampan converting a Ford Model T into a multi-passenger jitney back in 1922. Vehicle modifications started just behind the drivers seat, the back was rebuilt with wooden seats along both sides on an extended frame.
Mr. Kusumoto’s single venture brought instant success as the owner of the Hilo Sampan Company. The Sampan Bus became a big hit with sugar plantation workers and their families. Average fares ranged between 5 cents – 10 cents.
Every Sampan was custom built. Chrysler DeSoto’s, Buick’s, Ford’s and Chevrolet’s were adapted to longer, modified frames. They all featured open-aired passenger compartments which contained three bench seats that could hold between 8 – 10 adults comfortably, 12 if they packed in tight.
There’s nothing more distinctively Hilo than a Hilo Sampan bus.
– Ron Bennett, Honolulu Advertiser, 1959
In the 1930s and 1940s there were over 200 Sampans running routes around the Big Island of Hawaii. Many around & between Hilo Town and the Hamakua & Puna plantation camps. Sometimes referred to as “banana boats” the Hilo Sampan Buses are unique to Hilo, constructed nowhere else in the world. Interestingly, there was no standardized assembly.
Like it’s haphazard construction, there were no standard courses of travel. For decades after it’s inauguration sampan buses didn’t followed any set routes. They casually drove around Hilo Town picking up customers/passengers at random and taking them to requested locations and/or “hot spot” destinations. Control ad order was brought to the free enterprising sampan operation when a officials named Hilo native and distinguished veteran of World War II Tsuneo Takemoto as County Bus Control Director.
The diminishing Sampan Bus mass transit ran until 1976. The Hilo Sampan Company tried to revive Sampan service in the early 90s, but were unsuccessful. Today, there are a handful of Sampans used sort of as mobile museums for all to cherish the nostalgia.