When I first arrived in Hilo in l962 it was on a sailboat. We lived on the boat for a few weeks–the only boat in Reed’s Bay. We had no means of transportation other than walking which became a burdensome chore when grocery shopping or looking for boat parts, etc. To the rescue came the Hilo Sampan. The original sampan was built in 1922 by Mr. Kurumoto who at the time was a taxi driver. He was distraught over the increasing fares for taxis so decided to build a small bus-style vehicle that would seat up to 8 people. This was in 1922 and he used a model A Ford for his first Sampan. The car was cut just behind the drivers seat, the back was rebuilt with wooden seats along both sides. As his friends thought he was nuts, they decided not to go into the venture so Mr. Kurumoto was the only owner of the Hilo Sampan Co. The fare for the ride into town from the pier or airport was 5-10 cents. In 1962 the fare was still 5-10 cents, but by now there were about 200 sampan on the island, mostly in the bay front town of Hilo on the island of Hawai’i, affectionately called “The Big Island”. The Sampans were so much fun to ride. They were open-air jitneys and reminded me of a “Surrey With the Fringe on Top” though they frequently had surfboards on top. The drivers knew more about the town than anyone. They would point out all the places of interest…the clock that stopped when the 1960 tidal wave hit, the old historic buildings. They would “wala’au” just talk story with you. And, once they got to know us they would pick us up at Reed’s Bay. Talk about service! Unfortunately, when Ford, Chevrolet, Dodge, etc. started building buses that were air-conditioned, had padded seats and big windows, the Sampans started losing favor among the tourists. Slowly the fleet started dwindling. It became more difficult to find parts for the old vehicles and in t976 the last Sampan roamed the town of Hilo.
Years later in 1994 there was a revival of the Sampan and three of them once again chugged along the streets of Hilo, but costs of re-fitting the cars, and a lack of interest on the part of tourists, once again the Sampans were out of business.
However, recently I have seen a bus that has the old Sampan flavor about it. It is brightly colored, has big windows with a little surrey type awning above them. It offers trips around to all the points of interest all day for $15. The bus is called Hoppa On-Hoppa Off Bus. It was parked just up the street from my house in Hawaiian Paradise Park. There it sat for a couple of months. I was to understand that permits for passengers were pending. But, lately, I’ve seen the jitney picking up passengers from the cruise ships. Most of them open the windows to enjoy the Hilo breezes. I’m quite sure they are getting a talk-story session from the driver. It might not be as fancy as the newer air-conditioned buses, but the fare is right, it has a lot more personality and I hope he stays in business for years to come. Maybe this is a “great grandchild” of the original Sampan.