All harbor work is inherently risky, but the
transfer of pilots on to and off of massive,
ocean-going vessels is particularly
treacherous.Here Captain Ed Enos
climbs down off the container ship
Navigator after piloting it out of
Captain Lyman, an affable old salt with a breezy sense of humor and a permanent squint, wistfully recalled for me the days when the harbor was recognized as central to daily life in the Islands. “When the passenger ships like the Lurline would come in, Pier 10’d be crowded with people, streamers coming down, kids running to catch ’em, coin divers in the water, entertainers, newspaper reporters, forty lei-sellers out front. And this was a weekly occurrence, sometimes more. Every morning at 5:30, KGU radio would broadcast the day’s instructions to the longshoremen: ‘Gang A to Pier 1 to discharge hides, Gang E to Pier 19 to backload pineapple…’ Everyone would hear it. If your dad or uncle wasn’t a longshoreman, then you knew someone who was. Before jet airplanes started coming—don’t get me wrong: I love the convenience of flying, I just hate what it did to the harbor—in those days, everyone was aware of
Indeed, there were few more aware of the waterfront than Captain Lyman, whose knowledge of its history and lore was—is—legendary. Pre-contact, Honolulu was a remote fishing village called Kou, probably named for a local chief. It was apparently not a very nice place. The ali‘i avoided its heat and dust, preferring the shady palms and good surf of Waikiki. Since the Hawaiians didn’t need a harbor for their shallow-draft canoes, Kou didn’t get much attention until Captain William Brown of the H.M.S. Butterworth became the first European to navigate the narrow entry in 1794. Brown is credited with naming the place “Fair Haven,” which translates back into Hawaiian roughly as Honolulu. The discovery of a protected deepwater anchorage in the mid-Pacific made Honolulu the new darling of international commerce. The trade became so economically, politically and strategically important that in 1803, Kamehameha I moved his residence to Honolulu, setting up at Pakaka Point—near where Aloha Tower is today—to keep his eye on business. He didn’t stay long—the noise and filth of the growing town drove him out by 1812—but the savvy ruler saw that he could turn a profit by levying fees and charging for piloting services, which in the early1800s meant towing the ships in by outrigger canoe.
Within a couple of decades, a tiny island backwater became the “Crossroads of the Pacific,” first as a vital nexus in the fur trade involving the Pacific Northwest, China and New England. Hawai‘i’s only export
commodity—salt—happened also to be useful in curing the hides. In the early 1800s, Honolulu became the center of a short-lived but profitable sandalwood trade which collapsed in the early 1820s when the resource was exhausted. Fortunately for the growing city, whaling arrived to fill the vacuum in 1820, sparking rapid commercial growth that continued well into the middle of the 19th century; major harbor improvements, including dredging and wharf construction, took full advantage of the boom. When the bottom fell out of whaling in the 1860s, sugar took up the slack. The improved harbor supported the development of Hawai‘i’s agriculture and tourism industries, and the harbor grew with them.