He was born May 19, 1835 at Fisher’s Grant, Pictou, Nova Scotia, Canada; he later went to work with for his brother, Daniel Foster, in his shipbuilding business in Warren, Bristol County, Rhode Island in the 1850s.
In 1857, Thomas R Foster and his brother Daniel decided to move to Hawaiʻi to try the shipbuilding business in the Pacific. It appears that Thomas Foster was the main brother involved in the Shipbuilding business in Hawaiʻi.
Foster met and married Mary Elizabeth Mikahala Robinson, the eldest daughter of James Robinson, the prominent local ship builder in 1861 (they did not have any children.)
With financial help from Mary’s father, the Fosters bought property near the intersection of Nuʻuanu Avenue and School Street. There, they built a modest residence and settled down. (Wallworth)
(Later (1880,) the Fosters purchased the neighboring property owned by Dr William Hillebrand, a German physician and botanist who built his home here and planted trees and a variety of other plants. Upon Mary’s death (December 19, 1930,) the property was bequeathed to the City of Honolulu, to be known as Foster Park (now known as Foster Botanical Garden.))
On March 4, 1866, the German barque Libelle, on voyage from San Francisco to Hong Kong, grounded on the east reef off Wake Island. Several vessels went to Wake Island to salvage the cargo, which included several hundred flasks of quicksilver.
The sloop Hokulele, with a party headed by Foster, left Honolulu May 9, 1867, reached Wake on May 31st, left there June 22, and returned to Honolulu July 29, 1867 with 247 flasks of quicksilver. (Quicksilver is otherwise known as mercury, the only metallic element that is liquid at standard conditions for temperature and pressure.)
Steamship companies played an important role in the Kingdom of Hawai`i, even though steam navigation actually got off to a slow start; the first steamer was the American twin-screw steamer Constitution that arrived at Honolulu on January 24, 1852. (NOAA)
Then, the legislature passed ‘an Act to Promote Inter-Island Steam Communication,’ approved by the king on September 18, 1876. This law authorized the minister of the interior to contract with responsible parties “to maintain a suitable steamer of not less than 500 tons register … in the inner-island service … for a period not to exceed ten years.” (Kuykendall)
Foster began his company in 1878, two years after the signing of the Reciprocity Treaty with the United States by the Kingdom of Hawai‘i. Incorporated as the Inter-Island Steam Navigation Company in 1883, Foster’s firm followed that of Samuel Gardner Wilder, Sr., who began the similar Wilder Steamship Company in 1877. (Chinatown)
In response to increased needs, three local steamship companies soon emerged as corporations: Wilder Steamship Company (Wilder,) Inter-Island Steam Navigation Company (Foster) and Pacific Navigation Company (Amos F Cooke.) (Pacific Navigation experienced costly setbacks due to a number of shipwrecks and folded in 1888.) (NOAA)
Inter-Island operated the Kauai and Oʻahu ports plus the Kona, Kaʻū, Kukuihaele, Honokaʻa and Kūkaʻiau ports on Hawaiʻi. Wilder took Molokai, Lānaʻi and Maui plus all ports on Hawaii, including Hilo, not served by Inter-Island.
Both companies stopped at Lahaina plus Maalaea Bay and Makena on Maui’s leeward coast once. Inter-Island’s service to Lahaina started in 1886. Both fleets were enlarged over time. (Hawaiian Stamps)
In 1905, the two companies, under the leadership of John Ena (1843-1906), a former clerk of Chinese-Hawaiian parentage, merged under the Inter-Island name. (Chinatown)
When airplanes came to the Hawaiian Islands, the Inter-Island Navigation Company founded a subsidiary, Inter-Island Airways. Hawaiʻi’s first interisland passenger service was launched on November 11, 1929.
In the late-1940s, Inter-Island Steam Navigation Co became the target of a federal anti-trust suit. The government won its case and broke the company into four companies: Inter-Island Steam, Overseas Terminals, Hawaiian Airlines and Inter-Island Resorts. (GardenIsland)
Foster died in 1889; the Inter-Island Steam Navigation Company built their headquarters on Merchant Street in 1891 and inscribed their building with Foster’s name in his memory.