His story starts in 1820, when his great grandfather, Andrew Henri Blanchard (captain of the brig Thaddeus that brought the first company of Protestant missionaries to Hawaiʻi) married Koloa, a Molokaʻi chiefess.
Fast forward a couple generations and John “Johnny” Henry Wilson was born December 15, 1871 to Charles Burnett (CB) Wilson and Eveline (Townsend) Wilson.
His parents’ friends included the John and Lydia Dominus and Kalākaua. “We had known Mr. Wilson quite well as a young man when he was courting his wife. My husband and myself had warmly favored his suit; and, with his wife, he naturally became a retainer of the household, and from time to time they took up their residence with us.” (Liliʻuokalani)
During her imprisonment, Queen Liliʻuokalani was denied any visitors other than one lady in waiting (Mrs. Eveline Wilson – Johnny’s mother.) Johnny would bring newspapers hidden in flowers from the Queen’s garden; reportedly, Liliʻuokalani’s famous song Kuʻu Pua I Paoakalani (written while imprisoned,) was dedicated to him (it speaks of the flowers at her Waikiki home, Paoakalani.).
Johnny Wilson attended Fort Street School and St. Alban’s College (forerunners to the present McKinley and ʻIolani High Schools.)
He had a short stint working for Dillingham’s Oʻahu Railway and Land Company – there he had interest in being a civil engineer. In 1891, with financial support from Liliʻuokalani, Wilson was in the first class of Stanford University – there, he was known as “Kanaka” Wilson.
Back in Hawaiʻi, in 1897, Johnny and fellow Stanford student Louis Whitehouse won the bid to expand and construct a ‘carriage road’ over the Pali. Ground was broken on May 26, 1897 and the road was opened for carriages on January 19, 1898. (Later, the Pali tunnels were completed and the old road abandoned – on August 1, 1961, Mrs. Jennie Wilson (his wife) led the dedication ceremonies.)
Wilson and Whitehouse also won the contract to extend Benjamin Dillingham’s railroad around Kaʻena Point. To keep the bid low, they carried laborers, equipment and supplies to the site and freight back by boat – on October 14, 1897, the place where the first Japanese laborers landed for this job is known to this day as “Yokohama Beach.” (ascehawaii)
He and his wife, Jennie “Kini” Kapahu (previously a court dancer) toured the continent in 1900 with their Hawaiian Village hula troupe. (Kini Kapahu claimed that she was the ‘first girl to leave Hawai‘i to go as a dancer in the mainland’.)
Wilson got involved with politics and is credited as being the most important Democrat in the first half of 20th-century Hawaiʻi; his name is used with Jack Burns in the party movement. He was in a meeting on April 30, 1900 that organized the Democratic Party of Hawaiʻi.
His initial political campaign in 1918 met with failure. Mayor Joe Fern, Honolulu’s first Mayor, appointed his good friend Wilson as road supervisor for the Honolulu district. Later, Wilson succeeded Fern as Mayor, following the illness and death of Fern.
Fern died on February 20, 1920; the Honolulu Board of Supervisors voted in Wilson on February 25, and he was sworn in as Mayor on February 29. He would serve three stints as mayor: 1920 to 1927, 1929 to 1931 and 1946 to 1954. (From 1941 to 1946, he was Director of Public Works.)
Honolulu Hale was an idea started by Joseph J Fern, but he died before it came to fruition. Mayor Wilson carried on Fern’s dream; Honolulu Hale was finally completed in 1928.
Wilson foresaw the growth on the windward side and excavation commenced on January 8, 1954 on the “Kalihi Tunnel.” Near the end of May 1954 tunnel excavation transitioned from rock to “earth” – in the summer of 1954, several tunnel collapses and surface sinkholes subsequently led to a large collapse on August 14 that killed five construction workers.
Construction ceased while they considered alternative methods of completion. Tunnel excavation restarted in February 1956 and the first half-mile tunnel was open to two-way traffic in 1958; both tunnels were fully operational by November 1960.
Initially known as the ‘Kalihi Tunnel,’ and often called the Likelike Tunnels, they are named in honor of John H Wilson. (1998 brought the completion of H-3 (and the Tetsuo Harano Tunnels – named after a longtime state highways administrator.))
In addition to the John H Wilson Tunnels, the John H Wilson Elementary School on Kilauea Avenue and the adjoining Wilson Playground at Papakōlea in Waiʻalae Nui Valley are named for Wilson.
Johnny Wilson passed away on July 2, 1956 at the age of 84.