Joseph James Fern, Honolulu’s First Mayor

By Helen G. Chapin

Photo: Joseph J. FernA city and county government system for Honolulu was decreed by the Organic Act of 1900. But the oligarchy, protective of its power, resisted until, under pressure from Washington, a mayor’s post was created in 1907. The two principal candidates were John C. Lane, Republican, and Joseph James Fern, Democrat. Colorful election rallies featured bands and hula dancers. There was a heavy voter turnout.

Born in Kohala on the Big island in 1872 into a Hawaiian family of modest means, Joe Fern had only rudimentary schooling. Self-taught, he rose from bullock cart driver to shipping master for Inter-Island Steamship Co. Campaigning in Hawaiian, Japanese, Chinese, Portuguese, and English, he won a seat on the Board of Supervisors. In 1908 he ran for mayor. With rampant appeals to ethnic prejudice, oligarchy-owned papers ridiculed and sneered at Fern’s English and manners. The Advertiser prematurely headlined Lane’s victory and had to retract—Fern was the winner, by seven votes.

Warm-hearted, welcoming, with a sense of humor, Fern brought his personal style to City Hall. He built a city government and proposed acquiring land for parks and playgrounds. A devout Catholic twice widowed, he lived modestly on Alapa‘i Lane and reared fourteen children. He was mayor until 1919, except for one term that he lost to Lane. Suffering from diabetes, Fern died in 1920. Thousands mourned him. Fern Elementary School and Playground are named in his honor.

Further Reading

For more about Joseph J. Fern, see Donald D. Johnson’s article, “Joseph James Fern, Honolulu’s First Mayor,” Hawaiian Journal of History, 9 (1975) 74-100.