Last month my Rotary club went to Aloha Tower to meet with Hawaii Pacific University President Geoff Bannister. We toured the marketplace and visited some dorms, lounges and resource centers.
It was impressive. The students seem to love their new digs, and HPU reports that freshman student applications have doubled to about 2,000.
As many of my readers know, I taught at HPU for 15 years, and my “Companies We Keep” books and “Rearview Mirror” column developed serendipitously out of an assignment I gave my students that required them to meet and interview business owners.
Aloha Tower has stood on its site since 1926, so few alive today know what was there before. Few might know that one company occupied the area for the 100 years before that.
This week I thought I’d write about that.
The story begins on April 26, 1822. Liholiho, King Kamehameha II, was on the throne. The missionaries had arrived less than two years earlier. And sandlewood exports were the mainstay of the isle economy.
Two British ships — the Pearl and Hermes — were 1,000 miles to the northwest of Oahu when they ran aground on an uncharted reef.
The ships were lost, but the crews made it safely ashore in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.
James John Robinson, the Hermes’ 24-year-old carpenter, directed the crew in building a third boat from the wreckage, named the Deliverance. In a little over two months, it was ready to sail.
As they were about to depart on July 1, a British ship arrived. Forty-five of the men joined it. Twelve sailed on the Deliverance for Honolulu. It took 10 weeks, and when they arrived they had just two gallons of water left.
Most of the crew left Hawaii, but Robinson found the islands to be attractive and settled down here. He sold the Deliverance for $2,000 (about $35,000 today) and used the proceeds to start one of Hawaii’s first shipbuilding and repair companies.
It was on the waterfront, next to what is Aloha Tower today at Pier 11. Back then it was called Pakaka Point.
“Pakaka,” according to Hawaiian educator Mary Kawena Pukui, means to skim, as stones across the water.
An old map I have shows the shoreline to be much farther inland than it is today, passing just makai of Queen Street (once called Sea Street). Piers 8, 9, 10 and where Aloha Tower stands appear to be on land reclaimed from Honolulu Harbor.
James Robinson &Co. took on two partners: Robert Holt and Bobby Lawrence. Their shipyard was the first in Honolulu. It could repair two large ships at a time and employed 14 craftsmen, making it the premier facility in the Pacific.
The partners constructed a large, two-story coral rock building at Pakaka. It was the most prominent feature of the waterfront. The bottom was a large warehouse, while the second floor had offices and living quarters.
Business thrived during the next three decades when whaling fleets made Honolulu their wintering base. With whaling declining after oil was found in Pennsylvania in 1859, Robinson diversified into the lumber business and, later, shipping.
With no banks in Hawaii at the time, Robinson (called Kimo Pakaka by his friends), kept some money in a loft above the second floor but buried much of it under the ground floor.
One of my predecessors at the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, Clarice Taylor, wrote in 1952 that an employee at the company paid bills with gold coins from a wheelbarrow. He would wheel it around town with a guard and make payments.
James Robinson married Rebecca Prever in 1843. She was the 26-year-old half-Hawaiian daughter of a Maui chiefess and came to live at Pakaka. Their first daughter, Mary, was born there. Mary would later marry Tom Foster.
The Robinsons built an estate in Nuuanu a few years later and had eight more children, including Victoria, who would later marry Curtis Perry Ward.
Taylor wrote that a horse and buggy could be driven to around where Nuuanu and Kuakini streets are today. Travelers then rode horseback or walked an additional half-mile mauka to Robinson Lane.
One of the highlights for James Robinson was the visit of Prince Alfred, The Duke of Edinburgh, Queen Victoria’s second son, in 1869. A grand ball was given for the handsome 25-year-old prince at Pakaka by Robinson that was attended by King Kamehameha V and the ranking alii in the kingdom.
A child born that same year in Bernice Pauahi’s downtown home, at her urging was named after the prince: Duke Kahanamoku.
When James Robinson died in 1876 at the age of 77, he left a map to where much of his money was buried under the floor at the coral building at Pakaka.
The Robinson’s extensive family played a role in founding many local companies, including First Hawaiian Bank, Hawaiian Airlines, Oahu Rail &Land Co., Oahu Sugar, McWayne Marine Supply, KGMB, Victoria Ward Ltd. and Foster Botanical Gardens.
The business thrived for 100 years until it was torn down to build Pier 11 and Aloha Tower in 1926. This year Aloha Tower celebrates its 90th anniversary on Sept. 11.
Bob Sigall, author of the Companies We Keep books, looks through his collection of old photos to tell stories each Friday of Hawaii people, places and companies. Email him at Sigall@Yahoo.com.