Coral doesn’t grow in freshwater. So, where a stream enters a coastal area, there is typically no coral growth at that point – and, as the freshwater runs out into the ocean, a coral-less channel is created.
In its natural state, thanks to Nuʻuanu Stream, Honolulu Harbor originally was a deep embayment formed by the outflow of Nuʻuanu Stream creating an opening in the shallow coral reef along the south shore of Oʻahu.
Honolulu Harbor (it was earlier known as Kuloloia) was entered by the first foreigner, Captain William Brown of the English ship Butterworth, in 1794.
They called the harbor “Fair Haven” which may be a rough translation of the Hawaiian name Honolulu (it was also sometimes called Brown’s Harbor.) The name Honolulu (meaning “sheltered bay” – with numerous variations in spelling) soon came into use.
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.
Boats either anchored off-shore, or they were pulled into the harbor (this was done with canoes; or, it meant men and/or oxen pulled them in.)
It might take eight double canoes with 16-20 men each, working in the pre-dawn calm when winds and currents were slow. In 1816 (as stories suggest,) Richards Street alignment was the straight path used by groups of men, and later oxen, to pull ships through the narrow channel into the harbor. (Richards Street was named for a man selling luggage to tourists in his shop on that street.)
A few years after, in 1825, the first pier in the harbor was improvised by sinking a ship’s hull near the present Pier 12 site. As Honolulu developed and grew, lots of changes happened, including along its waterfront. What is now known as Queen Street used to be the water’s edge.
The first efforts to deepen Honolulu Harbor were made in the 1840s. The idea to use the dredged material, composed of sand and crushed coral, to fill in low-lying lands was quickly adopted.
In 1854 the first steam tug was used to pull sail-powered ships into dock against the prevailing tradewinds.
The old prison was built in 1856-57 at Iwilei; it took the place of the old Fort Kekuanohu (that also previously served as a prison.) The new custom-house was completed in 1860. The water-works were much enlarged, and a system of pipes laid down in 1861.
Between 1857 and 1870, the coral block walls of the dismantled Fort edged and filled about 22-acres of reef and tideland, forming the “Esplanade” or “Ainahou,” between Fort and Merchant Streets (where Aloha Tower is now located.) At that time, the harbor was dredged to a depth from 20 to 25-feet took place.
By the 1880s, filling-in of the mud flats, marshes and salt ponds in the Kakaʻako and Kewalo areas had begun. This filling-in was pushed by three separate but overlapping improvement justifications.
The first directive or justification was for the construction of new roads and the improvement of older roads by raising the grade so the improvements would not be washed away by flooding during heavy rains.
Although public health and safety were prominently cited as the main desire (and third justification) to fill in Honolulu, Kewalo, and then Waikīkī lands, the fill ultimately provided more room for residential subdivisions, industrial areas and finally tourist resorts.
In the early part of the twentieth century, Kakaʻako was becoming a prime spot for large industrial complexes, such as iron works, lumber yards, and hauling companies, which needed large spaces for their stables, feed lots and wagon sheds.
An 1887 Hawaiian Government Survey map of Honolulu shows continued urban expansion of the Downtown Honolulu area.
In 1889, the Honolulu Harbor was described as “nothing but a channel kept open by the flow of the Nuʻuanu River;” a sand bar restricted entry of the larger ocean vessels. In 1890-92, a channel 200-feet wide by 30-feet deep was dredged for about 1,000-feet through the sand bar.
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.
After annexation in 1898, the harbor was dredged using US federal funds. The dredged material was used to create a small island in the harbor in order to calm the harbor and avoid constructing a breakwater. This island became what is now known as Sand Island.
In 1904, the area around South Street from King to Queen Streets was filled in. The Hawaiʻi Department of Public Works reported that “considerable filling (was) required” for the extension of Queen Street, from South Street to Ward Avenue, which would “greatly relieve the district of Kewalo in the wet season.”
A series of new 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 then at Piers 7 and 12 in 1907. Further dredging was conducted at the base of Alakea Street in 1906.
With the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914 and anticipated increased trans-Pacific shipping, government and business planned to further enlarge Honolulu Harbor by dredging Kalihi Channel and Kapālama Basin.
However, because of military concerns, the Reserved Channel connecting Honolulu Harbor to Kapālama Basin was dredged instead. This is known as the Kapālama Channel. Honolulu Harbor expanded into the Kapālama Basin and by the early 1930s Piers 34 had been constructed. Pier 35 was constructed in 1931 to provide dedicated facilities for inter-island pineapple shipments.
On September 11, 1926, after five years of construction, Aloha Tower was officially dedicated at Pier 9; at the time, the tallest building in Hawaiʻi.
Today, Honolulu Harbor continues to serve as Hawai‘i’s commercial lifeline for goods to/from Hawaiʻi and the rest of the world.
The image shows Honolulu in 1854, in a drawing done by Paul Emmert. It shows Honolulu just before these changes and the expansion of land in the downtown area (you can see people standing on the reef on the right.)