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McKean is the northwestern island of the Phoenix group. It lies 216 nautical miles south of the equator, 135 miles W.N.W. of Hull Island, 150 miles W.S.W. of Canton Island, and 70 miles N.N.E. of Gardner Island.
It is a flat sand and coral island with an oval outline, less than half a mile long (north and south), by 800 yards wide. Like other "pancake" islands, the beach, which is largely composed of beach rock and coral shingle, rises steeply to a crest, 15 to 17 feet high (highest on the north). Within this rim the land is depressed.
On McKean this basin has been increased in depth by extensive guano digging (1859 to 1870), so that, as John T. Arundel so aptly described it, March 3, 1885, in a lecture before the Geographical Society of the Pacific, at San Francisco, it and Phoenix Island "now resemble empty plates."
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The island is surrounded by a fringing reef, 100 to 200 yards wide, the inner 30 yards or so of which dries at low water. There is no harbour, but the guano diggers were agreeably surprised to find anchorage so good that they did not require the elaborate system of buoys and cables needed at most other guano islands. Landing is comparatively easy near the middle of the west side, best just after high tide.There are no trees on McKean, the vegetation consisting of such low herbs as Portulaca, Sesuvium, and Lepturus bunchgrass.
The centre of the island contains a salty lagoon, the size of which is variable, it having been reported at times as quite dry. It fluctuates even from hour to hour, with the tide, although there is no surface connection with the sea. It is obvious that the lagoon fills the area where the guano was dug, for traces of the tram roadbed can be seen across the basin.
The most conspicuous objects on the island are the ruins of the buildings built by the Phoenix Guano Company. these consist of numerous stone walls on the west side. The highest point is a wall about seven feet high, its top, perhaps, 22 feet above sea level.
Near the middle of the north side, just behind and parallel to the beach crest, there is a curious trough-life depression, about 160 yards long, with steep sides, looking as if it had been dug and laced by human hands; but for what purpose?
Bird life is very abundant, made up entirely of sea and migratory species, terns predominating. Hermit and other crabs, lizards, and small insects are common.
McKean was named by Commander Charles Wilkes, at the time of his visit on the U.S.S. Vincennes, of the U.S. Exploring Expedition, August 19, 1840. He states in his "Narrative" that he named it M'Kean for the man who first sighted it, but in the published list of officers and men it was found only M'Keen, ship's cook.
It is very likely that several whalers and perhaps other vessels had previously visited the island, for the position of an unnamed island in the list of whalers' discoveries, tabulated by J.N. Reynolds in 1828, agrees closely with that of McKean.
On March 14, 1859, C.A. Williams and Co. (which became the Phoenix Guano Co.) filed claim to McKean with the U.S. State Department, under the Guano Act of 1856. Presumably the island had been visited and formally claimed the previous February by Captain Thomas Long, at the same time he visited Phoenix Island; but it is not known whether he left his copper plate, claiming the island for the Phoenix Guano Co., then or at the time of his next visit in May, 1859.
On April 19, 1859, the American brig Agate (Captain Long) left Honolulu for Phoenix Island, to start activities for the Phoenix Guano Co. followed, April 28, by the American schooner Modern Times to carry the first load of guano. As related before, the camp was established on McKean, where 29 Hawaiian labourers, under A.M. Goddard, loaded the Modern Times in 45 days, that vessel sailing for the States on August 15. It was followed by the ship White Swallow (Captain Crosby) in August, and the American clipper ship Aspasia (Captain Sisson) in September.
The supply ship Agate visited the island four or five times a year. Loading guano was so easy that even it carried away 30 to 100 tons during its early fleeting visits. The brig Josephine (Captain W.C. Stone), supply ship of the rival American Guano Co., also dropped from time to time, to see what was going on. Thus we have extensive reports of guano activities during the next ten years. No wrecks are recorded.
Guano digging ceased on McKean in 1870. The Kamehameha V, which succeeded the Agate as supply ship, stopped there February 20, 1870, and on its June and September trips arrived at Honolulu with many more labourers than she took out. The C.M. Ward (Captain James W. Hatfield), which replaced the Kamehameha V, visited Phoenix, Enderbury, Baker and Howland on her August trip, but not McKean; and thereafter no further mention is made of stops at McKean.
The John T. Arundel Co. made no use of this island. It was leased to the Pacific Islands Co., but they also reported no guano left on it. With the return of interest in the Phoenix group, it was visited by H.M.S. Leith, in August, 1936, sovereignty of King Edward VIII being asserted by Captain O. Bevir, R.N. It was also visited in October, 1937, by H.M.C.S. Nimanoa, with the Administrative Officer of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony, under the charge of which it has now been placed.]
It was surveyed by the U.S.S. Bushnell in December, 1939. Men of the Bushnell declared that fishing in the deep water off the reef at McKean was the best they had found anywhere. The fish were both numerous and large, including tuna, barracuda, wahoo (ono), and other gamey species.