Honolulu, by the end of the 19th century, was densely populated. Overcrowding and unsanitary living conditions were of great concern.
In part because of the 1900 plague and the Chinatown fire, residents began moving away from the city and into the surrounding valleys, wanting to escape from the overcrowded city into the quiet and serene rural areas.
With the introduction of the railway, trolley system, and the construction of new roads into the Honolulu area, transportation and accessibility into the city was made easier, thus affording residents with an easier commute.
There was a trolley that traveled from Waikiki into Manoa Valley along Oahu Avenue, and another that traveled along Nu‘uanu Avenue from town into the Nuuanu Valley. The introduction of automobiles, and construction of finished roadways also made travel easier.
Before the construction of the Pali Road, residents living on the windward side of Oahu would travel over the Ko‘olau Mountains by foot, along a treacherous path, to reach Honolulu.
In 1876, improvements were made to the trail to allow horses access to the trail as well. Regardless of these improvements, the trail was still quite dangerous, and took time to travel.
In 1897, plans for the construction of Pali Road were initiated. Engineered by Johnny Wilson and Lou Whitehouse, after its completion, it was considered one of Oahu’s major roadways.
Pali Road, connecting with Nuʻuanu Avenue (the present Pali Highway), officially connected the windward side of the island with downtown Honolulu. The development of this road allowed for greater accessibility into the valley.
In order to support the growing populations in dense areas in Honolulu, reservoirs and sophisticated systems were developed to collect and transport water to these areas.
By 1890, there were already two reservoirs in place in Nuʻuanu Valley, and a third one was under construction. Plans for a fourth reservoir was underway after the 1891 drought, and construction on this reservoir began in 1905.
With the area’s water system development, it supported the lifestyles of those living in the valley area. This area was one of the first on O‘ahu to be developed as a residential subdivision. It was called the Dowsett Tract.
The Dowsett Tract was named after the family that once owned the land. James Isaac Dowsett was born to Samuel James Dowsett (born in Rochester, Kent, England 1794 – lost at sea in 1834) and Mary Bishop Dowsett (Rochester, Kent, England; 1808 – 1860) in Honolulu, December 15, 1829.
Samuel and Mary married in Australia. A ship captain, Samuel did shipping business in Australia and was into whaling. Samuel first arrived in Hawaiʻi in 1822 when he was first officer of the “Mermaid,” accompanying the “Prince Regent,” a gift-ship from King George IV of England to King Kamehameha I, promised to the King by George Vancouver.
Samuel returned with his wife on July 17, 1828, arriving on the brig Wellington; they set up their home in Hawaiʻi at that time. Samuel and Mary had 4 children, James, Samuel Henry, Elizabeth Jane and Deborah Melville. James Isaac Dowsett was the first non-missionary white child to be born in Hawai‘i.
With his father’s disappearance, James Dowsett started working from the young age of twelve, and had a strong work ethic that would help him become a successful businessman.
He was active in the whaling and lumber industry, owned a fleet of boats that operated between the islands, and had extensive ranching investments. In his youth, Dowsett was a playmate of Kamehameha IV, Kamehameha V and Lunalilo.
Dowsett married Annie Green Ragsdale of Honolulu, and together they had thirteen children. “He was a quick thinker and an excellent reasoner and while not a talkative man was always willing to supply any information from his great storehouse that might be useful to another or that might interest an inquirer.”
“He knew the town, the people and the country. He never left the Islands but once in his whole life and then four days in San Francisco was enough of life in foreign parts. He was a perfect encyclopedia of history and biography not only of Honolulu and Oahu, but of the entire group.”
“The common suggestion to one in search of obscure historical data was to go to Mr. Dowsett and he never failed. He could always supply day and date and all required details.” (Hawaiian Gazette, June 17, 1898)
Dowsett took on Chung Kun Ai as his protégé, allowing Ai to use a portion of his warehouse, and Ai started importing cigars, tea, peanut oil, shoe nails and other items. Ai and others later started City Mill, a rice milling and lumber importing business in Chinatown, Honolulu. The City Mill building on Nimitz was dedicated to Dowsett.
“Dowsett saw the grass hut replaced by the stone business block and the taro patch filled up for mansion site. He saw the little paths become fine streets and the broad and barren plains thickly populated districts. He saw the life of a nation change. … Through all this he was a close observer and always on the side of what was right and just.” (Hawaiian Gazette, June 17, 1898)
Dowsett died on June 14, 1898; “news of the death of Mr. Dowsett had been sent all over the Island and the Hawaiians in large numbers joined the throng of haoles calling to pay respects and offer consolation.”
“The older Hawaiians could not restrain themselves at all and gave vent to floods of tears and to strange wailings. They were overpowered and overcome by the thought that no more would they have the friendly greeting, the certain and reliable advice or the material assistance of the one who had been their reliance at all times and upon all occasions for so many years.” (Hawaiian Gazette, June 17, 1898)
After his death in 1899, James Dowsett’s heirs formed The Dowsett Company, Ltd. to help manage his extensive Hawaii property, including Dowsett Tract.
The Dowsett Tract was 273 acres of land in Nuʻuanu Valley. On October 4, 1912, the Dowsett Company subdivided the property into two lots (A and B). In June of 1916 – September 1916, the property was subdivided into 57 lots.
The Niniko ʻauwai runs through the development, providing fresh drinking water for virtually every land parcel contained within the triangular portion of land bounded by Nuʻuanu Avenue, Dowsett Avenue and Alika Avenue. Dowsett Avenue and Ragsdale Place in Dowsett Tract and Highlands in Nuʻuanu are named after James and Annie.
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Maya Pueo von Geldern says
Fantastic article! James I. Dowsett was my great-great-grandfather. What a wonderful article to come across. Thank you!
Andy McLanahan says
My name is Andy McLanahan and I grew up at 3477 Kahawalu Dr. (the big white house on the hill). My father bought the home from the Collins family in 1952. I never knew the history of the Dowsett tract. I knew they grew pineapples behind our home. When I was young we had a boys club the “Dowsett Highlanders”. My father was in naval intelligence during the war and came across a Japanese Map that had our home as a landmark so the fighter pilots knew the were in Nuuanu Valley. I live in Utah now, but Nuunau will always be my home. Thank you again for the research.
When you include the history of this neighborhood, it is the best place to live. The long time occupants are friendly and so willing to share what they know. Things are changing with new owners. I am hoping its character is kept with properties passed down to descendants.