Shipman House
131 Ka`iulani Street
Hilo, Hawaii, 96720, United States
(808) 934-8002

Shipman House Bed & Breakfast

The History of a House and its Family

Shipman House is on Reed’s Island, originally known as “Koloiki” (little crawling).  Once surrounded by the Wailuku River and Waikapu Stream, Reed's Island is actually positioned between the past and present paths of the Wailuku River.  There is now a land bridge at the upper end, and a wood bridge spanning a steep gorge at the lower end.  In 1856, King Kamehameha IV leased it to Hilo businessman William H. Reed, who cleared part of it for cattle pastures.  Five years later, Reed purchased the 26-acre area for $200, and it became known as Reed’s Island.  It was accessed by a crude trail.  At some point, Reed offered to sell the island to his step-son, W.H. Shipman, but Willie could not afford it.

The wood bridge was made by the Berlin Iron Bridge Co. of East Berlin, Connecticut, in 1898.  The underpinnings are steel, and it was sent in sections by train to Seattle, and then shipped to Hilo in February, 1899. While unloading the bridge sections from the ship, several pieces were lost in Hilo Bay, so replacements were ordered from Honolulu Iron Works.  The bridge was completed at the end of March, 1899, and tested by taking a new 10-ton steam roller across it.  J.R. Wilson was the first to drive an automobile across the bridge, and Reed’s Island was now easily accessed.

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J.R. “Jack” Wilson owned the livery stable (horse-and-buggy rentals) in Hilo.  In the bottom block of Wai`anuenue Avenue, an ice cream shop is located in the former Volcano Stables, one of J.R. Wilson’s businesses.   From reading news articles of the time, one understands JR always had to have the biggest and the best.   He had the fastest sailing boat, the fastest race horses, and soon, the prime lot and the biggest house.  He was so competitive, he was banned from the Kapi`olani Race Track at the foot of Diamond Head in Waikiki.  He offered the first paid tours to the Volcano, and built a half-way house in the Mountain View/Glenwood area, so his passengers could refresh themselves (and spend a little more money).  JR also built the baseball park at Ho`olulu, where the civic center is today. He eventually moved to San Jose, California, and sold real estate to San Francisco residents displaced by the 1906 earthquake.

Reed’s Island was sold to a developer in 1897, and had been subdivided on paper, but until the bridge was completed, it was impractical to build there.  In 1899, JR Wilson bought the prime lot on Reed’s Island, and built what the newspapers described as “a commodious family residence” on the site. Designed by Honolulu architect Henry Livingston Kerr, who did many of the fine old homes in Manoa and Nu`uanu, it had indoor plumbing and electricity, as well as a billiard room, library, double parlour, conservatory and ballroom!  Its more than 8 acres of land included a lot of gulch and a commanding view of Hilo Bay.

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Across town, in Waiakea, WH Shipman ("Willie") leased a ranch and ran cattle.  He and his wife, Mary Elizabeth Kahiwaaiali`i Johnson Shipman, had 10 children.  Mary would ask her husband to take her for a drive past ‘that house they’re building on Reed’s Island’.  As they passed the construction site, Mary would turn to Willie, asking, “Why don’t you buy me that house?”  Willie would remove the cigar from his mouth to reply, “Can’t.” 

As time passed, the house was completed and the Wilsons moved in.  Willie’s new reply expanded to, “Can’t.  Belongs to the Wilsons.”  Not missing a beat, Mary would say, “Well, go talk to Mr. Wilson and buy me that house.” 

In February of 1901, Wilson sold the house, and a March newspaper article mentioned Mrs. Wilson's disposing of her potted palms and hanging ferns.  Mary asked Willie to take her for a drive, knowing they would drive by the beautiful mansion on Reed’s Island.  As they passed it, Mary asked Willie why he hadn’t bought her the house, to which he responded, “Well, dear, we’ve owned it for 30 days.”  They moved in that April.

Several other ladies in town had wanted their husbands to buy the house.  One told her husband to buy it while she sailed to California (or New York) to purchase furnishings for the house.  She finally returned with Persian rugs and large furniture for her new house, but it now belonged to the Shipman family. Her husband had refused to offer Wilson more than $10,000 for the house, but Willie had paid $13,000, “and Wilson made a profit.” The W.H. Shipman House was placed on the National Register in the early 1970's, and opened as a bed and breakfast in 1997 after purchase and extensive restoration by a Shipman great-granddaughter and her husband.

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William Herbert Shipman’s parents were Christian missionaries sailing to Micronesia from Boston in 1854. His mother, Jane Stobie, had immigrated with her parents from Aberdour, Scotland, to New Orleans, and traveled up the Mississippi River to Illinois. Willie’s father, William C., was born in Glastonbury, Connecticut, and moved to Illinois as a boy. By the time they reached Lahaina, Jane was pregnant with Willie, and since there were no doctors in Micronesia, they were not allowed to continue their journey. Heartbroken, they remained on Maui until a missionary “station” opened up…on Hawai`i Island near South Point, in a town called Waiohinu, described by another missionary as the most inaccessible station in the Islands.  When Rev. Shipman died from typhoid in 1861, Jane and the 3 young children moved to Hilo where she opened a girls’ boarding school behind Haili Church. She later married a Hilo businessman, William Reed, who sent the children to board at Punahou School in Honolulu, and then away to college in the mid-west. Willie, homesick, took business and agriculture classes so he could return to Hawaii and help operate Mr. Reed’s Kapapala Ranch, south of Volcano.  He married Mary Kahiwaaiali`i Johnson, one of his mother’s former students, and they eventually owned 6 or 7 cattle ranches. W.H. Shipman (Willie) founded the Shipman Meat Market in Hilo, which later became the Hilo Meat Co., or Miko.

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Mary (“Mele”) Elizabeth Kahiwaaiali`i Johnson was the granddaughter of John Davis of Wales, and his pure-Hawaiian wife, Ka-uwe-a-kanoa-akaka-wale-no-haleakala-ka-uwe-kekini-o-koolau. In 1810, Davis had arrived in Hawaii in search of his uncle, Isaac Davis, trusted adviser to King Kamehameha I, who unified the islands. Kauwe’s parents, of chiefly (ali’i) status, had come to Kona from the Lahaina district of Maui around 1770. Mary’s parents were Eliza Davis and Englishman William Johnson from northern California. Born in Waimea, Mary was educated in Hilo at Mrs. Shipman’s boarding school, and in Honolulu at the Chiefs’ Children’s School.  She was known for her gracious entertaining, and the house on Reed’s Island, “the big house”, often hosted musical groups and hula performances. Her friend Lili`uokalani, Hawaii’s last queen, would enjoy a poi luncheon here, then play the Steinway piano to the delight of the other ladies. A book of the queen's compositions is available at the piano.

Herbert Shipman saves Nene
In the early half of the 20th century, the youngest Shipman son, Herbert, was visiting Mary’s sister Hannah Hind at her Pu`uwa`awa`a Ranch near Kona.  He admired Aunt Hannah’s little flock of 12 or 13 nene [nay-nay], native Hawaiian geese.  She told him they were the last known flock, as hunters and introduced animals had nearly wiped out the species.  (At one time, nene even appeared on the Volcano House menu).  Young Herbert asked to take the flock home to breed and increase their numbers, which he did.  By the late 1930’s, the flock numbered close to 40, and Herbert told his nephew, Roy Blackshear, it was risky keeping the only flock in a place vulnerable to tsunami, so he moved part of the flock to another Shipman ranch, `Ainahou, up at Volcano.  Herbert contacted Sir Peter Scott of the Wild Fowl and Wetlands Trust in England to propose sending him a breeding pair to expand the flock.  Sir Peter was willing to give it a try, but World War II broke out, shelving the plan.  In 1946, a huge tsunami hit the Island of Hawai`i, wiping out half of Herbert’s sea level flock of 44 birds.  The war ended, and in 1950, Sir Peter sent someone to get that long-promised pair.  Herbert sent his groundskeeper to fetch a male and a female nene, which were crated up and sent back to the Wild Fowl Trust with Sir Peter’s representative.  Some months later a telegram arrived saying both birds were building nests.  Uh-oh, two females.  The representative came back to pick up a male (!), and the resulting descendants have numbered in the hundreds.

The Shipmans were horticulturists who introduced many of the plants we take for granted in Hawai`i today.  Mary Shipman’s sister, Caroline Robinson, is said to have brought the first orchids to the Kingdom of Hawai`i, and Herbert Shipman, Willie and Mary’s son, brought the first orchids to Hawai`i Island, "the Orchid Isle".  There is a cutting of that original orchid, a fragrant vanda, on the property.

Before there were hotels in Hilo, famous or otherwise important visitors were put up in the grand homes, the Shipman home being the grandest. Among those visitors were Mr. and Mrs. Jack London, who arrived with a letter of introduction and stayed for five weeks in August and September, 1907, while The Snark was being repaired. The Londons referred to Mary Shipman as "Mother Shipman", and the Londons and Shipmans became lifelong friends. A copy of their letter of introduction is on display at the Shipman House. In the early 1930's, Cecil B. deMille filmed Four Frightened People in the gulch below the house, as well as on Shipman land out in Puna.