Some suggest it was named after missionary William Richards (later, advisor to King Kamehameha III – instructor in law, political economy and the administration of affairs generally;) others note it was named for a man selling luggage to tourists in his shop on that street.
One thing is certain, in looking at early maps of Honolulu, Richards Street was different. Let’s look back.
Honolulu Harbor, also known as Kuloloia, was entered by the first foreigner, Captain William Brown of the English ship Butterworth, in 1794. He named the harbor “Fair Haven.” The name Honolulu (meaning “sheltered bay” – with numerous variations in spelling) soon came into use.
Hawaiʻi’s streets, for the most part, started out as trails that were widened and straightened, as horses, buggies and then transit became available. In Honolulu, over time, trails headed mauka following and crossing the Nuʻuanu River, or headed southerly (to Kālia – Waikīkī) or easterly (toward Mānoa.)
Some of the present downtown Honolulu street alignments have origins dating back to 1809. It was about this time that Kamehameha the Great moved his capital from Waikīkī to what is now downtown Honolulu.
A large yam field (what is now much of the core of downtown Honolulu – what is now bounded by King, Nuʻuanu, Beretania and Alakea Streets) was planted to provide visiting ships with an easily-stored food supply for their voyages (supplying ships with food and water was a growing part of the Islands’ economy.)
On the continent or in the Islands, in the early-1800s there was limited private and public transportation and it was expensive. Thus, workers’ homes were always within two miles of downtown – less than an hour’s walk. For these reasons cities of the mid-1800s were virtually all small, dense and on the water.
In 1825, Andrew Bloxam (naturalist aboard the HMS Blonde) noted in Honolulu that, “The streets are formed without order or regularity. Some of the huts are surrounded by low fences or wooden stakes … As fires often happen the houses are all built apart from each other. The streets or lanes are far from being clean …” (Clark, HJH)
In 1838, a major street improvement project was started. Honolulu was to be a planned town. Kinaʻu (Kuhina Nui Kaʻahumanu II) published the following proclamation: “I shall widen the streets in our city and break up some new places to make five streets on the length of the land, and six streets on the breadth of the land… .” She designated her husband, Governor Mataio Kekūanāoʻa, to head the project.
In 1845, Commander Charles Wilkes criticized the city by saying: “The streets, if so they may be called, have no regularity as to width, and are ankle-deep in light dust and sand … and in some places, offensive sink-holes strike the senses, in which are seen wallowing some old and corpulent hogs.”
It wasn’t until 1850 that streets received official names. On August 30, 1850, the Privy Council first named Hawaiʻi’s streets; there were 35-streets that received official names that day (29 were in Downtown Honolulu, the others nearby.)
So, what was different about Richards Street?
Tradewinds blow from the Northeast; the channel into Honolulu Harbor has a northeasterly alignment. Early ships calling to Honolulu were powered only by sails.
The entrance to the harbor was narrow and lined on either side with reefs. Ships don’t sail into the wind. Given all of this, Honolulu Harbor was difficult to enter.
Although Bloxam said Honolulu “streets are formed without order and regularity” and Wilkes confirmed they “had no regularity in width”, early mapping notes Richards was the exception.
Richards Street is, alone of Honolulu streets, in the combination of being straight, of even width and reaching to the water-front; also it is in line with the edge of the reef bordering the harbor channel. (Clark)
In the early years, boats either anchored off-shore, or they were pulled into the harbor (this was done with canoes (it might take eight double canoes with 16-20 men each)) or it meant men (different accounts give the number from 200 to 400.)
In 1816 (as stories suggest,) Richards Street alignment was the straight path used to pull ships through the narrow channel into the harbor, working in the pre-dawn calm when winds and currents were slow.
Effectively, the street was the inland tow path.
Later, Governor Kekūanāoʻa organized an ox-team to pull the larger vessels up the narrow channel into the harbor basin.
“The ox-team waited on the eastern point of the harbor entrance until connected by a hawser (rope) with the vessel anchored in the deep water outside. The hawser necessarily was very long because the shoal water extended outward for quite a distance.”
“When all was ready, the team walked along the channel reef but, as such towing must be in straight line, on reaching the beach the cattle could only proceed straight inland until the long hawser had drawn the vessel right into the basin.” (In one account the team numbered twenty oxen.) (Clark)
“… a rope of great length was used, and it was a never-to-be-forgotten sight to see yokes of oxen, teams of horses and natives tugging at the rope. A time was consumed in making a start, but when once in motion, it was a steady walk-away.” (Brown)
In 1854 the first steam tug was used to pull sail-powered ships into dock against the prevailing tradewinds. Captain Jacob Brown was captain of the towing tug “Pele.” The “Pele” was the first steam tug used in Hawaiʻi (screw tug with thirty-horse power.)
Its primary use was for towing vessels in and out of the harbor and replaced the use of men or animals to bring ships into the harbor against the prevailing northeast tradewinds.
In 1856, the Pele was also used to tow barges about the harbor in connection with the Honolulu Harbor dredging operations. Pele served, with short interruptions, as the sole tug for shipping at Honolulu until after 1882.
Piers were constructed at the base of Richards Street in 1896, at the site of Piers 17 and 18 in 1901 to accommodate sugar loading and at Piers 7 and 12 in 1907.
The image shows an 1843 map of Honolulu. In addition, I have added other related images in a folder of like name in the Photos section on my Facebook and Google+ pages.