Honolulu in 1888: The City That Made the Magazine


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In the 1880s, the Honolulu Harbor waterfront still featured cannons.

Honolulu Harbor

The arrival of a ship at Honolulu Harbor is news. As it approaches from the east, the lookout stationed at Telegraph Hill (otherwise known as Puu O Kaimuki), signals semaphore to another station in town: A ship is coming. If it carries hotly anticipated news or a special passenger, church and factory bells ring all over the city, and the cannon booms on the Esplanade. Even ordinary ship arrivals are a bit like Christmas morning. A cargo ship might contain the latest silk dresses from Paris, a fresh supply of violet toilet powder or barrels of lager from the Anheuser-Busch Brewing Association. The navy officers aboard a foreign man-o-war will bring news from all quarters and a whiff of excitement; there will be parties on deck, and reciprocal entertainments at the palace.

The harbor itself is a constant hive of activity of loading and unloading, buying and selling, greeting and farewell. The “wharf rats”— boys who haunt the Esplanade, a newly dredged, aspirationally named piece of land where Aloha Tower will one day stand—dive deep for the nickels that crews and passengers toss into the sea. Sellers of tropical fruit, colorful fish and coral (with specimens weighing up to 20 pounds) spread their wares for the new arrivals.

The water is just as busy as the land. In our October 1888 issue, Paradise of the Pacific describes a chaotic scene. Near the shore, two “large American war vessels” are moored next to a British corvette (a speedy military boat). Two “coasting schooners” leave the harbor as the interisland steamer arrives, its decks crowded, and “constantly passing and repassing” among them are “countless boats and canoes filled with natives.”

Much of the future location of Nimitz Highway is still a shallow reef. Close to the harbor—a must if you are relying on horsepower to move your cargo—are the warehouses and heavy industry: the planing mills, the ironworks, the building agents, the animal feed dealers and many of the green-grocers’ and meat markets.

In a time when boats are the sole source of transoceanic information and goods, and Honolulu’s residents know each ship by name, the arrival of the mail-delivery steamers Zealandia and Alameda are major events. Twice a month, when the cannon announces the mail ship’s approach, an eager crowd gathers at the post office on the corner of Merchant and Bethel streets, waiting for foreign newspapers and magazines—the only source of news from abroad—and word from distant loved ones and business partners. Mail day “marks an epoch in our lives,” wrote one newcomer; the city becomes “deserted, silent; letters and newspapers absorb the attention; for a few hours we live beyond the sea.”

Depending on how far it had to go, news could take weeks to arrive. In 1888, the hotly anticipated result of that year’s American presidential election, which took place on Nov. 6, didn’t reach Hawaii until Nov. 25.

A view of Merchant Street looking east. The Kamehameha V Post Office on the corner is today the Kumu Kahua Theatre.​

The City

Fort Street and Merchant Street are the retail and business axes of Honolulu. On Merchant, real estate agents, lawyers, plantation factors, bankers, insurance agents and the press all hang their shingles. On Fort Street, you’ll find milliners and jewelers, stationers and dressmakers, haberdashers, department stores, pharmacists and photographers, along with a bowling alley, a shooting gallery and an auction house. Hotel Street is still home to the gracious cottages and buildings of the first Royal Hawaiian Hotel, flanked by tourist-friendly ice cream parlors and carriage stands. It’s one of the only hotels on the island.

Church spires cluster on the mauka edge of town along Beretania Street and, to the east, Iolani Palace, Kawaiahao Church and The Queen’s Hospital all sit apart on their own shaded grounds, as does Aliiolani Hale, which houses the kingdom’s entire legislative and judicial branches. Beyond Honolulu lies the dusty Plain, across which a mule-drawn omnibus ferries students to distant Oahu College (which will soon become Punahou School) at 8 a.m., bringing them back at 2:30 in the afternoon.

At the Ewa edge of Honolulu lies Chinatown, with its densely packed stores, laundries, restaurants, ukulele-makers, apothecaries and fresco-painters. If you didn’t hail from the European subcontinent, it’s the place to be; Portuguese from the Azores and Madeira, Native Hawaiians and Chinese all work here. It’s hard to tell that the entire district burned to the ground just 18 months before; despite the new building codes that require brick or stone construction, Chinatown has once again been built largely with vulnerable wood.

Honolulu at a Glance 1887-1888

How big is it?

The City of Honolulu lies between Nuuanu Stream and Punchbowl Street to the west and east, and Beretania Street and the oceanfront to the north and south. Everything else—Palama, Kapunahou (the district that Punahou School would later inhabit), Waikiki—is considered outside the city.

How old is it?

Honolulu started out as the sleepy fishing village of Kou. In 1845, Kamehameha III moved his capital from Waikiki to Honolulu to be nearer the harbor, the only place on Oahu where Western ships could safely anchor.

How many people are there?

According to the 1884 census (the most recent one available), Honolulu has a population of 20,487.

Who’s in charge?

There’s no mayor yet. The governor of Oahu is directly responsible for Honolulu. That would be John Owen Dominis, husband of Princess Liliuokalani—at least until Aug. 23, 1887, when the gubernatorial posts of all Islands are abolished in an effort by Kalakaua’s Bayonet cabinet to centralize power in Honolulu.

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Honolulu Magazine November 2018
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