Transitional-composition pillow basalts from the toe of the Hilo Ridge, collected from outcrop by submersible, have yielded the oldest ages known from the Island of Hawaii: 1138 ± 34 to 1159 ± 33 ka. Hilo Ridge has long been interpreted as a submarine rift zone of Mauna Kea, but the new ages validate proposals that it is the distal east rift zone of Kohala, the oldest subaerial volcano on the island. These ages constrain the inception of tholeiitic volcanism at Kohala, provide the first measured duration of tholeiitic shield building (≥870 k.y.) for any Hawaiian volcano, and show that this 125-km-long rift zone developed to near-total length during early growth of Kohala. Long eastern-trending rift zones of Hawaiian volcanoes may follow fractures in oceanic crust activated by arching of the Hawaiian Swell in front of the propagating hotspot.