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Schooners and Early Steamers of the 1850's

Early inter-island routes

A map taken from Whitney's Guide to Hawaii (1890 edition) on which the early inter-island routes are superimposed in red.

Native schooners were the mainstay of inter-island shipping well into the latter part of the 19th Century. These small craft suffered a poor reputation as they were cramped, kept irregular schedules, rarely offered palatable food and had flea ridden sleeping accommodations. Native passengers brought their own food and preferred to stay and sleep on deck. Tourists and other wealthier passengers usually joined them to escape close quarters below. Seasickness was a common misery as these little boats bobbed up and down while becalmed, sometimes for several days.

Whitney and others in authority turned to steam vessels as the salvation for keeping reliable schedules for inter-island trips. Early attempts to establish inter-island steamer routes were:

On July, 25, 1851, the Privy Council awarded a monopoly for inter-island steam transportation to Capt. William Howard, contingent upon his placing a steamer in regular inter-island service. Howard ran the steamer Constitution on a round trip between Honolulu and Lahaina on January 31, 1852, but abandoned the plan without another trip, blaming the then depressed economy for failure.

A new monopoly was awarded by the Privy Council on December 19, 1853, to The Hawaiian Steam Navigation Company, which had just completed a trial run with the side-wheel steamer Akamai (formerly the S. B. Wheeler). For nearly a year, the Akamai had a fitful career, being laid up for repairs or lack of coal much of the time, but she was popular and ran a fairly regular schedule when in service. On September 24, 1854, she sprang a leak and nearly sank so she was retired. The steamers Kalama (October 2, 1854) and Sea Bird (October 16, 1854) were put on the inter-island service to replace the Akamai but both vessels were too large and their operation was uneconomical. As the smaller vessel, the Kalama (formerly named the West Point) ran the Kauai route and the Sea Bird ran the Windward Route to Maui and Hawaii. The Sea Bird gave up the trade and left for California in April, 1855. The Kalama was declared unseaworthy but stayed in service until January 5, 1856, when she was wrecked. Neither vessel was replaced and the contract was abandoned.

With the Sea Bird and Kalama gone, inter-island transportation reverted to schooners. Prominent in the coasting trade during the 1850's were:

  • On the Maui Route, the modern schooner Ka Moi was preeminent, making regular runs between Honolulu and Lahaina, with occasional stops at Kahului. The older Maria ran between Honolulu, Lahaina and Maalaea Bay landings at Kalepolepo and Makena. The Kamehameha V serviced mostly Molokai, Lahaina, and Hana. The Moi Keiki, Warwick and Maui Hikina ran less regular routes to Lahaina from Honolulu.

  • For Hawaii, the Liholiho was the main Hilo packet, touching at Kawaihae and Kohala. Other schooners on the Hilo run included Post Boy, Kalama and Sally. Mary was a cattle boat and ran principally between Kawaihae and Honolulu. Kona was serviced by the schooner Kekauluohi and the iron schooner Alice. Only the Liholiho had a reputation for comfort and reliability on the Hawaii Route.

  • Less regular service was provided to Kauai. The Koloa packet Excel was the main vessel running between Honolulu and Nawiliwili, but she often was out of service. The John Young touched at all Kauai ports. Chance served Kaui until she was lost at Koloa in 1855. Foreign travelers were advised explicitly to carry their own provisions on these vessels.

Steamers Kilauea and Annie Laurie

Efforts to re-establish steamer service continued after the Kalama was wrecked. A new company, taking the name of the old Hawaiian Steam Navigation Company, was formed and obtained an exclusive contract for six years to operate a steamer among the islands. This company bulit a steamer to suit conditions in the Islands and on June 28, 1860, the propeller steamer Kilauea made its appearance. Her career was checkered, being laid up for repairs or lack of coal on many occasions. The Annie Laurie was a small steam schooner originally intended by her owners to run the Kauai Route. She began her runs to Kauai in October, 1862. When the Kilauea was laid up for extended periods in 1862, 1863 and 1864, the Annie Laurie was placed on the Hawaii route. In September, 1865, the Annie Laurie was badly damaged and as a consequence her engine was removed and she continued service as a schooner until she was wrecked in February, 1866. Meanwhile, the Kilauea was having her troubles. In January, 1866, she was driven ashore at Kawaihae. After a few months she was back in service but was withdrawn several times until finally in November, 1868, she was withdrawn and the islands were without inter-island steamer service for two years.

Lahaina 17Feb68 Forbes

This cover was sent in February, 1868, from Kaluaaha, Molokai, to Keaiwa, in Ka'u, Hawaii. It traveled by workboat to Lahaina, Maui and then by the inter-island steamer Kilauea to Kawaihae, Hawaii, and overland by horse through Kona to Ka'u. Kaluaaha was without stamps at the time so a 2 manuscript mark was put on the letter and it was franked at Lahaina with the 2 Scott No. 31a.

Sailing Coasters of the 1860's and 1870's

Sailing ships offered the steamers stiff competition on freight through the end of the 19th Century, even when steamers were functioning well. Steamers won the bulk of the passenger traffic, mail and some freight. But sailing ships could carry freight at less cost. In 1860, two new sailing ships were added to the coasting fleet. First to arrive was the clipper ship Emma Rooke, followed in a month by the schooner Nettie Merrill. Coasters often kept irregular and unpredictable schedules, going where paying freight took them. However, some served specific ports with a degree of regularity.

  • Kauai ports were served by the Fairy Queen (Hanalei), Kitty Cartwright, Prince (Princeville), Mary Ellen, Mary (Anahola) and Odd Fellow, among others.

  • Oahu ports were served by the Kate (Waialua), Lucy (Waialua), Mille Morris, Rob Roy and Waiola, among others.

  • Maui ports were served by the East Maui, Halawa, Iolani (Maliko), Juanita, Kate Lee (Makena), Maria (Lahaina), Moi Keiki, Nettie Merrill, Waiola and Warwick, among others.

  • Hawaii ports were served by the Emma Rooke (Kohala), Active (Hilo), Alberni (Hilo), Annie (Hilo), Emeline (Ka'u), Kohala (Kohala), Kona Packet (Kailua), Kulamanu (Ookala), Liholiho (Hilo), Live Yankee (Hilo), Marilda (Kawaihae), Mary (Kawaihae), Mary E. Foster (Hilo), Pauahi (Hilo) and Prince (Kona), among others.
Kawaihae 3 Oct68 Marilda

October 3, 1868

Sailing ships in the coasting trade filled the void created by the withdrawal of the Kilauea in 1868 until she was refit and returned to service in October, 1870.

Hono 24Jul72 Kilauea

This cover was docketed by Rev. Lyman on July 21, 1872 in Hilo and postmarked July 24 at Hilo and July 29 at Honolulu. According to the manuscript notation, it was sent by the steamer Kilauea. Notice the circled "H" cancel on the Scott No. 31a stamp.

In October, 1870, the Kilauea was put back in service under government operation. Samuel Wilder soon was put in charge and managed to operate her at a profit. The aging Kilauea continued to suffer frequent engine failure but was kept in service. In the mid-1870's interisland transportation consisted of one steamer and around 30 sailing schooners, sloops and other boats.

Proliferation of Steamers in the Late 1870's

Matters of transportation took a decisive turn in 1876. In that year, the Reciprocity Treaty between the United States and Hawaii took effect, reducing tariffs on various Hawaiian exports including, most significantly, sugar. Hawaii's economy expanded rapidly, making improvement of inter-island transportation imperative. Wilder's successful operation of the Kilauea encouraged the government to order a new steamer from Dickie Brothers in San Francisco. In August, 1877, the steamer Likelike was delivered. The government solicited bids to sell the Likelike and Kilauea and Sam Wilder purchased them under a contract that included a guarantee of free mail carriage. In March, 1878, the Kilauea was broken up. That same month the steamer Kilauea Hou was launched for Captain T. H. Hobron to run between Honolulu and the booming East Maui plantations using Kahului as its port. Wilder added two new steamers to his fleet: the small steamer Mokolii to work windward Oahu ports; and the larger steamer Lehua.

LIkelike with Hono 234_62 14Jul79

Mailed from Maui to Honolulu with a Honolulu postmark dated July 14, 1879, and directions to be taken by the steamer Likelike.

About the same time as Wilder was building his fleet, Captain Thomas R. Foster was having a rival fleet of steamers built by Hall Brothers at Port Ludlow, Washington. His steamers were the James Makee (June, 1879), C. R. Bishop (1880) and Iwalani (March, 1881).

Steamship Companies and Routes

In 1883, the steamer companies incorporated. Foster's fleet became known as the Inter-Island Steam Navigation Company, Wilder incorporated Wilder's Steamship Company. A third company, the Pacific Navigation Company, operated mostly sailing ships so was not a competitive steamship force.

Mail among the islands in the 1880's and 1890's was carried almost solely by the steamers operated by these companies. Wilder and Foster ran different routes rather than engage in head to head competition. Inter-Island operated the Kauai and Oahu ports plus the Kona, Ka'u, Kukuihaele, Honokaa and Kukaiau ports on Hawaii. Wilder took Molokai, Lanai and Maui plus all ports on Hawaii, including Hilo, not served by Inter-Island. Both companies stopped at Lahaina plus Maalaea Bay and Makena on Maui's leeward coast once. Inter-Island's service to Lahaina started in 1886.

Both fleets were enlarged over time. Wilder's obtained the Kinau, Hawaii, Claudine, Helene, Maui and Kilohana, but lost the Likelike in 1897 to a reef. Inter-Island acquired the Planter, W. G. Hall, Mikahala, Ke Au Hou, Mauna Loa and Noeau, but lost the Planter and Mikahala to accidents.

1890 mail routes

Routes of the Steamship companies in 1890, superimposed on the map from Whitney's Guide (1890). Wilder's routes (green lines) served Maui, Molokai, Lanai and Hawaii ports in Kohala, North Hilo, South Hilo and Puna. Inter-Island (blue lines) served Kauai, outer Oahu, Maui ports of Lahaina and Maalaea Bay and Hawaii ports in Ka'u, Kona and Hamakua. Schedules were published people could anticipate when vessels were to arrive or leave any given port.

UPSS 6a Hall 4Mar86

Inter-Island Steamship Co. steamers carried marking devices in the 1880's with the legend "HAWAIIAN MAIL SERVICE." This cover from the W. G. Hall is dated March 4, 1886 on a UPSS 6a postal envelope. The stamped initials "H. W." probably refer to a member of the Waterhouse family, prominent in 19th Century Hawaiian affairs.

Hono 10Apr95 75 Makee

A cover from Honolulu to Lihue, Kauai, mailed April 10, 1895, and marked to go by the Inter-Island steamer James Makee.

By about 1880, steamer routes and schedules had reached the point where they carried all the mail to the exclusion of the various sailing coasters.

  • On the Kauai Route, Inter-Island Steam Navigation's steamers ran the routes. James Makee was a regular steamer serving Kauai. Planter worked the southern Kauai ports and Niihau until she was wrecked on a reef at Niihau on January 27, 1886. W. G. Hall was withdrawn from the Oahu route to take Planter's route. When Mikahala arrived and was placed in service on January 12, 1887, she became the regular Kauai packet. C. R. Bishop also ran the Kauai route from 1891 until she ran aground at Nawiliwili and was lost on January 31, 1894. The new steamer Ke-au-hou arrived on October 31, 1894, to take over the southern Kauai and Niihau route. No-e-Au was a standby vessel from the time she was put in service on January 10, 1897, and sometimes served Kauai. In addition to carrying mail between Kauai and Honolulu, the steamers supplemented the overland mail service by carrying mail from port to port.

  • Oahu ports were mainly served by Inter-Island steamers. However, mail usually was handled by the overland routes. The horse carriage to Waialua took over all mail to Waialua, Kahuku and northern Koolau in 1891. By 1895, the Oahu Railway was carrying all the mail to Waialua. W. G. Hall ran the Oahu route until she was diverted to the Kauai route after the loss of Planter in January, 1886. Oahu was left with less reliable service and was dependent in part on plantation steamers. Kaala was working western and northern Oahu ports starting in 1888. Kaala was owned by H. A. Wideman for service to his Waianae ranch and plantation until he sold it to Inter-Island in May, 1889. She ran aground at Kahuku on January 19, 1898. C. R. Bishop and Waimanalo were working Oahu routes in 1889. Waimanalo was owned by principals of the Waimanalo Sugar Co. for service to its landing until she was sold to Inter-Island on March 3, 1896 and renamed Kaena. She took mail to Kanehoe and Waimanalo until the Pali carriage road was completed in 1898 when the overland service took over all the mail to southern Koolau.

  • On the Maui and Molokai Route, Wilder's had the main service for most Maui and Molokai ports. Wilder's steamers ran a "milk run" stopping at Molokai ports before arriving at Lahaina on the run from Honolulu. From Lahaina, they proceeded around northern West Maui to Kahului and thence to Hana or Kipahulu and then retraced their route stopping at various ports along northern East Maui, Kahului, Lahaina and Molokai. Mokolii was on this route from about 1879 onward. The steamer route along the northern East Maui augmented the often unpredictable overland route between Hana and Haiku. When overland service between West Maui and Wailuku/Kahului was terminated in 1888, the steamers carried all the mail from Lahaina to Kahului or other parts of Maui. Kilauea Hou was running a direct route from Honolulu to Kahului from 1878 under ownership of Capt. Hobron until transferred to Wilder's in 1885 and continued working that direct route under Wilder's ownership. Wilder's steamers running between Honolulu and the Big Island stopped at Lahaina and ran down the Maalaea Bay side of Maui, stopping at Maalaea Landing and Kihei. Kinau arrived in 1884 to work this route. When Claudine arrived on August 4, 1890, she was put on Wilder's Big Island routes. Kilohana had a brief career serving Maui ports from late 1898 to December 10, 1899, when she ran onto the reef at Lahaina and was lost. Starting in 1886, Inter-Island's vessels also stopped at Lahaina, Maalaea Bay and Makena on their routes to or from the Big Island.

  • Hawaii ports were served by steamers belonging to both Wilder's and Inter-Island. Mahukona, Kawaihae and Hilo were the Big Island's major ports and they were served by Wilder's, along with Paauhau, Paauilo and Laupahoehoe in Hamakua. Inter-Island got Kona ports, Ka'u ports and the Hamakua ports of Kukuihaele, Honokaa and Kukaiau. Wilder's used Claudine, Lehua and Kinau for the Mahukona and Hilo route. Hawaii ran this route starting late in 1899 when Wilder's moved her to coasting service from its foreign routes. On this route, Wilder's steamers left Honolulu and stopped at the Maui ports of Lahaina, Maalaea Bay and Makena and then proceeded to Mahukona and Kawaihae. From Kawaihae, the steamers turned north, passing Mahukona and rounding Upulo Point at the north end of Hawaii and running for Hilo along the Kohala and Hamakua coasts, stopping at Laupahoehoe. Weather sometimes made Hamakua landings problematic and the steamers would land mail wherever they could, causing consternation to local postmasters who had to hire people to bring the mail to the proper place. Visitors for Kilauea Crater took coaches from Hilo through Olaa to the volcano. For Inter-Island's routes, Planter, C. R. Bishop and W. G. Hall were on the Ka'u route at various times. On this route, Inter-Island vessels left Honolulu stopping at Lahaina and Maalaea Bay on Maui and then proceeding directly to Kailua, Kona. From Kailua, the steamer went south stopping at the Kona ports of Napoopoo on Kealakekua Bay, Hookena, Hoopuloa, rounding South Point, touching at the Ka'u port of Honoapo and finally arriving at Punaluu, Ka'u, the terminus of the route. From Punaluu, five mile railroad took passengers to Pahala and then coaches hauled the visitors to the volcano from the Ka'u side. Planter worked the route before being put on the Kauai route. C. R. Bishop was on the route from time to time and W. G. Hall was the main steamer on the route after she was relieved of the Kauai route sometime around 1894. From 1881 onward Iwalani was familiar on Inter-Island's Hamakua Coast route.

Apart from Messrs. Wilder and Foster, George S. Beckley stood out as another personality among the steamer people. Beckley, known popularly as Admiral Beckley, was the chief purser for Wilder's fleet and his name is seen often on postcards announcing the expected arrivals and departures of Wilder's steamers at Maui landings.

Mails used by the steamship companies or designating their ships are addressed in Transportation Marks.

UX1 Kahului 255_12 5Jan89 back

Back of a UX1 postcard mailed from Honolulu on January 4, 1889 to Kahului, Maui to announce the expected departure of the steamer Kinau from Maalae Bay.


  • Thomas, Mifflin, Hawaiian Interisland Vessels and Hawaiian Registered Vessels, Seacoast Press, Santa Barbara, 1982. Essential for interisland route information.

  • Thomas, Mifflin, Schooner from Windward, University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu, 1983. Essential reference for interisland routes and mail carriage.

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