Early on, Waikiki was the Royal Center; Royal Centers were where the aliʻi resided. Aliʻi often moved between several residences throughout the year. The Royal Centers were selected for their abundance of resources and recreation opportunities, with good surfing and canoe-landing sites being favored.
Waikiki had better surfing, greater proximity to the ocean for deep sea fishing, inland pools suitable for fishponds, a smooth, sandy plain for houses, and many channels through the reef leading to sandy shores, so convenient for beaching canoes.
At Honolulu, for canoe landings, Honolulu Harbor was limited; according Levi Chamberlain in the first half of the nineteenth century, the area in what is now Pier 12 “was the only place where the natives could bring in their canoes.” (Stokes)
But the Western sailing ships that started calling at Hawai‘i had too deep of drafts to maneuver into Waikiki. In 1794, Honolulu Harbor, also known as Kuloloia, was entered by the first foreigner, Captain William Brown of the British schooner Jackal, accompanied by Captain Gordon in the sloop tender Prince Lee Boo.
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.)
In 1809, Kamehameha I, who had been living at Waikiki, moved his Royal Residence to Pākākā at Honolulu Harbor. (Today, the site is generally at the open space now called Walker Park at the corner of Queen and Fort streets (ʻEwa side of the former Amfac Center, now the Topa Financial Plaza, near the fountain.))
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.)
John Whitman noted in his journal (1813-1815,) “… Honoruru is the most fertile district on the Island. It extends about two miles from the Harbour where it is divided into two valleys by a ridge of high land. The district is highly cultivated and abounds in all the productions of these Islands.”
“The village consists of a number of huts of different sizes scattered along the front of the Harbour without regularity and the natives have lost much of the generous hospitality and simplicity that characterize those situated more remotely from this busy scene.”
Whitman goes on to note, “… everything necessary for the subsistence and comfort of man is found in the (Nuʻuanu) valley, watered by a rivulet it produces the best taro in great abundance, the ridge dividing the taro patches are covered with sugar cane.”
“The high ground yields sweet potatoes and yams and all the other productions of the Island are found in the various situations and soils adapted to their nature.”
“One of the finest ‘Ulu-maika’ places on the islands was the one belonging to Kou (what is now downtown Honolulu.) This was a hard, smooth track about twelve feet wide extending from the corner on Merchant and Fort Streets … along the sea ward side of Merchant Street to the place beyond Nuʻuanu Avenue … Kamehameha I is recorded as having used this maika track.” (Westervelt)
In 1815, Kamehameha I granted Russian representatives permission to build a storehouse near Honolulu Harbor. But, instead, directed by the German adventurer Georg Schaffer (1779-1836,) they began building a fort and raised the Russian flag.
When Kamehameha discovered the Russians were building a fort he sent several chiefs (including Kalanimōku and John Young (his advisor,)) to remove the Russians from Oʻahu by force, if necessary.
The partially built blockhouse at Honolulu was finished by Hawaiians under the direction of John Young, and mounted guns protected the fort. Its original purpose was to protect Honolulu by keeping enemy or otherwise undesirable ships out. But, it was also used to keep things in (it also served as a prison.)
By 1830, the fort had 40 guns of various calibers (6, 8, 12 and probably a few 32 pounders) mounted on the parapets. Fort Kekuanohu literally means ‘the back of the scorpion fish,’ as in ‘thorny back,’ because of the rising guns on the walls. In 1838 there were 52 guns reported.
Fort Street is named after this fort; it is one of the oldest streets in Honolulu. Today, the site of the old fort is the open space called Walker Park, a small park at the corner of Queen and Fort streets (also fronting Ala Moana/Nimitz.)
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.
In the late-18th and early 19th centuries most vessels sailing through the North Pacific stopped for supplies at the Hawaiian Islands. Boats either anchored off-shore, or they were pulled, towed or tracked into the harbor (this was done with canoes; or, it meant men and/or oxen pulled them in.)
The harbor’s narrow entrance and channel were always a problem for vessels entering. The small inter-island schooners could negotiate it without help, but the larger foreign vessels were towed in – first by their own boats and later by double-canoes.
This might take eight double canoes with 16-20 men each, working in the pre-dawn calm when winds and currents were slow. Otherwise you had to contend with tradewinds blowing out of the harbor.
In 1816, Richards Street alignment was the straight path and served as the inland tow-path for Governor Kekūanāo‘a’s ox-team as it drew the larger vessels up the narrow channel into the harbor.
The ox team waited on the eastern point of the harbor entrance until connected by a towline with the vessel anchored in the deep water outside. The towline 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 towline had drawn the vessel right into the basin. (Clark)
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 1845, Commander Charles Wilkes criticized the city of Honolulu 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.”
“The boundaries of the old town may be said to have been, on the makai side, the waters of the harbor; on the mauka side, Beretania street; on the Waikiki side, the barren and dusty plain, and on the Ewa side, the Nuʻuanu stream. There were few, if any, residences other than the straw houses of the natives mauka of Beretania street.”
It wasn’t until 1850 that streets received official names. On August 30, 1850, the Privy Council first officially named Honolulu’s streets; there were 35‐streets that received official names that day (29 were in Downtown Honolulu, the others nearby.)
At the time, the water’s edge was in the vicinity of what we now call Queen Street. Back in those days, that road was generally called ‘Makai,’ ‘Water’ or Ali‘i Wahine.’ (Gilman)
‘Broadway’ was the main street (we now call it King Street;) it was the widest and longest ‐ about 2‐3 miles long from the river (Nuʻuanu River on the west) out to the “plains” (toward Mānoa.) (It was also referred to as ‘Ali‘i and ‘Chapel,’ ‘Halepule,’ ‘Church’ (due to Kawaiahaʻo fronting it.)
To date, 17 of those original names have survived the passage of time: Queen, Richards, School, Smith, Victoria, Young, Mauna Kea, Merchant, Mission, Nuʻuanu, Punchbowl, Beretania, Fort, Hotel, Kīnaʻu, King and Marin. (Gilman)
Some of the earlier-named streets that are no longer in use include, Garden, Crooked Lane, Printers Lane, French Place, Palace, Stone House, Eden House and Kaʻahumanu.
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.)
in 1857, the fort was dismantled; its massive 12-foot walls were torn apart and used to fill the harbor to accommodate an expanding downtown.
To replace the prison that was once in the fort, in 1856-57 a new prison was built at Iwilei. (It was where the Salvation Army building is on Nimitz – it’s the old Love’s Bakery building.) 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.