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BAKER ISLAND

Baker Island lies 34 miles south and 10 miles east of Howland, a shore to shore distance of 36 miles; and like Howland, about 1650 miles southwest of Honolulu. It is 13 miles north of the equator. All distances are sea miles.

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The island measures about a mile east and west, by 1260 yards wide. All around it, but especially on the west, the beach rises abruptly from the shore to a crest, 15 to 20 feet above sea level, forming a barrier which keeps the pounding surf out of the central basin. The west beach is sandy; that on the other three sides is largely composed of broken reef rock and sandstone shingle. A sandy point seems to be building out to the southwest, beyond the fringing reef.

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Within the crest is a basin, formerly containing a thick deposit of guano, most of which now has been removed. The surface is flat, except for some small mounds on the northeast, which are probably piles of low-grade guano, as the former tram lines lead to them. The southwestern ridge is cut in three places, where the tracks led through. On the east are two small depressions, just behind the beach, the larger of which generally contains some water.

Meyerton, the present settlement, is located atop the western barrier ridge. It was named for Captain H.A. Meyer, U.S.A. who helped establish the camps for the colonists in 1935. Here in guano days were located several houses and four brick cisterns, into which rainwater was led. All have gone now, except one of the cisterns and part of one substantial house of sandstone slabs. Bricks and slabs were used in building the lighthouse.

King-Doyle Park

"King-Doyle Park," Baker Island, 1938

Baker Island boasts of 16 species of plants, besides the ironwood trees, coconuts, and other species set out by the colonists. Five are obviously weeds which arrived with the guano diggers (two grasses, two spurge herbs, and a morning-glory vine), as they grow only near the former house sites. Lepturus bunchgrass grows best on the barrier ridge; another grass (Digitaria) and a low sedge are on the flat within; Boerhaavia, two kinds of purslane, and a few Tribulus and Sida bushes form scattered patches; and there is an occasional Triumfetta plant on the beach slope.

Bird life, in recent years, has been much less abundant on Baker than on other similar islands in the Central Pacific, due perhaps to the presence of large voracious Norway rats, which feed on small birds and eggs. The principal birds there now are frigates, boobies, and the migratory species. Hermit crabs and two kinds of widespread lizards are abundant; and marine life is a plentiful and varied.

Baker is said to have been discovered by Michael Baker, of New Bedford, who visited it in 1832 and again on August 14, 1839, in the whaler Gideon Howland, to bury an American seaman. At the time of the latter visit he raised the American flag and claimed possession of the island. Later he sold his claim to the American Guano Company.

But this was not the first discovery of the island. It was known as New Nantucket before 1821. One account states that this name was given to it by Captain Elisha Folger, of Nuntucket, who visited it in the whaler Equator in 1818. In December, 1828, Daniel Mckenzie visited it in the American whaler Minerva Smyth. The ship Loper has been there in 1826, and Captain H. Forster, in the ship Jamaica, before that. It was reported as Phoebe Island by Henry Foster, in the barque Sussex in 1843.

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Lighthouse, camp and remains of the stone house, Baker Island, 1938

Messers. Alfred G. Benson and Charles H. Judd, representing the American Guano Co., landed from the Hawaiian schooner Liholiho, February 12, 1857, to assert the company's claim to the island. The U.S.S. St. Marys (Commander Charles H. Davis) landed, surveyed the island, and took official possession in the name of the United States, in August 1857. They reported that ten whalers had touched at the island between June 21 and August 16, 1857. So frequently did whalers visit Baker during one period that it became the custom to leave messages and letters there, in a covered box, to be picked up and delivered.

J.D. Hagues, chemist with the American Guano Co., in a lengthy report on the phosphate islands calls Baker's guano deposits the finest he had seen. They were worked continuously by the American Guano Co. from 1859 to 1878, many thousands of tons of guano having been dug, carted across to the landing on tram cars, and loaded with great difficulty through the pounding surf onto schooners and clipper ships, which were moored precariously to buoys on the lee side. It is difficult to attempt to detail the activities, adventures and hardships of this period; or to tell of the many shipwrecks, although a fairly complete history has been pieced together from scattered accounts.

John T. Arundel and Co., a British firm, made this island their headquarter for guano digging enterprise in the central Pacific between 1886 and 1891.

The American colonists were landed from the Itasca, April 3, 1935. They have built a lighthouse, substantial dwellings, and have attempted to grow various plants. One sad-looking clump of coconut palms was jokingly called "King-Doyle Park," after two well-known citizens of Hawaii, who were on the Taney in 1938. The clump was the best on the island, planted near a water seep. The dry climate and sea birds, eager for anything upon which to perch, do not give trees or shrub much chance to get started.

 
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(E-mail: jane@janeresture.com -- Rev. 4th December 2012)