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MIDWAY ISLANDS HISTORY

Midway Islands have become the most famous locality in the northwestern part of the Hawaiian archipelago. This atoll crowns the summit of one of the last peaks in this huge mountain chain. It is 1150 nautical miles (1300 statute miles) northwest of Honolulu, 90 miles beyond Pearl and Hermes Reef, and 50 miles east of Kure, the final island of the chain.

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The atoll consists of a nearly circular rim of coral reef, about 5 miles in diameter, enclosing a lagoon, the central portion of which ranges in depth from 25 to 50 feet, surrounded by a considerable expanse of shallower water. Much of the reef, especially on the northeast, forms a continuous flat-topped wall, six to fifteen feet wide and standing some five feet out of the water. Some of it consists of irregular rocks, just about reaching the surface, and the west side, to the north of Seward Road, which gives entrance to Welles Harbour, is open, with only a few patches of reef.

Close to the southern rim of the atoll lie two low islands. Sand Island, the larger, measures a mile and a half long by a mile wide, and has a hill which reaches a maximum elevation of 43 feet, topped by a light. Formerly composed of nearly bare sand, man has planted grass, shrubs and trees upon it until now much of it is well wooded. Eastern Island is triangular in shape, about a mile and a quarter long by three-quarters of a mile wide. Composed of more compact soil, it has supported a growth of low shrub, including native species, since long before its discovery, and consequently it has been called Green Island. Between these two there used to be a small passage, with a break in the south reef, such that a row boat might get through into the lagoon.

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Midway was discovered July 8, 1859, by Captain N.C. Brooks of the Hawaiian barque Gambia, and by him called Middlebrook Islands. An account of this discovery, reprinted from the Polynesian of August 13, 1859, appears in the Paradise of the Pacific for October, 1936 on page 23. Captain Brooks took possession of the two islands in the name of the United States, a peculiar proceeding in view of the flag of his vessel, owned by B.F. Snow of Honolulu. Had he given the editors of the Polynesian a less glowing account of the new discovery, we would be inclined to believe the story that Captain Brooks kept the discovery secret so that he might sell the information to the North Pacific Mail and Steamship Company, who were on the lookout for a mid-Pacific coal depot for the vessels on the oriental run.   

However that may be, the Pacific Mail Steamship Company did learn about the atoll, and eight years later succeeded in having the American government send the U.S.S. Lackawanna to make a careful survey. With considerable ceremony, on Wednesday, August 28, 1867, in compliance with the orders of the Secretary of the Navy, formal possession was taken of what was termed Brooks' Island. Wrote Captain William Reynolds, Commander of the Lackawanna:

"It is exceedingly gratifying to me to have been thus concerned in taking possession of the first island ever added to the dominion of the United States beyond our shores, and I sincerely hope that this will by no means be the last of our insular annexations. I ventured to name the only harbour at this island after the present Honourable Secretary of the Navy (Welles), and to call its roadstead after the present Honourable Secretary of State (Seward)."

In 1870 the United States Congress appropriated $50,000 to be spent in blasting a 600-foot wide ship channel through the reef into the lagoon, doubtless at the insistence of the Pacific Mail Steamship Co., and based on observations made by the Lackawanna. The U.S.S. Saginaw was detailed to carry the divers and equipment to Midway, arriving there on March 24, 1870. Dredging operations proceeded during the summer of 1870, but weather was so bad that at the end of the seven months little had been accomplished, the funds were nearly exhausted, and the project had to be given up.

A full account of how the Saginaw was wrecked on Kure Island, on its way back to Honolulu, has been given by George H. Read, in his book the "Last Cruise of the Saginaw."

On November 16, 1886, the little fishing schooner General Seigel, Captain Jacobsen, at anchor in Welles Harbour, was hit by a sudden gale and went to pieces on the reef. The gruesome adventures of its seven castaways, and how one of their number, Adolph Jorgensen, was left behind by his companions, is a well-known story, made famous by "John Cameron's Odyssey." So also is the story of the manner in which, when Jorgensen was about to be rescued by the 467-ton schooner Wandering Minstrel, that vessel also was wrecked in almost the same spot. Five of the crew made off in one of the boats and were never heard of again. John Cameron, Jorgensen, and a Chinese boy, in another of the boats, succeeded in making the trip from there to Jaluit via Mille Island, 1540 miles away in the Marshall Islands. Captain F.D. Walker appeared to have intentionally wrecked the Wandering Minstrel on Midway, and Jorgensen was not such a bad fellow, just a little pupule. On the other hand, if we accept the statements of Captain and Mrs. Walker (one version of her account appears in the Paradise of the Pacific for November, 1936, pages 27-29), Jorgensen was a killer, and Cameron was but little better.

Ookpik—Midway—JAN1965

 

This hatchling Laysan Albatross “Ookpik” at the Midway Islands in January 1965 stands as tall as he can in defense of self and the home turf when PMR engineer John M. Beetem approached too closely.

Naturalists visited Midway around the turn of the century. Henry Palmer, bird collector for Hon. Walter Rothchild, in July, 1891; and William Alanson Bryan, in August, 1902. The latter gives the last account of observations made on the island prior to the Cable Company installations, made later that same year and during 1903.

The schooner Julia E. Whalen was wrecked on Midway, October 22, 1903, while bringing supplies to the newly established cable station. The British barque Carrollton, with a load of coal from Newcastle for Honolulu, was lost on Midway, December 28, 1906. The crew was rescued by the cable ship Restorer. The Pacific Mail S.S. Mongolia went aground on the western side September 16, 1906, but succeeded in getting off again even before the arrival of the ships Buford, Iroquois, and Restorer, which went to her aid from Honolulu.

One might ask why so many wrecks have occurred on Midway. The reason is that the atoll is very low and hard to see, and also that it is subject, especially in the winter, to sudden and severe storms. Although only 400 miles further north than Honolulu, Midway is no longer in the tropics, and has a much more temperate climate, which in winter becomes quite cold. This, together with the heavy winds, which drive loose sand into every nook and corner, rule out this island as a winter resort but in summer the climate is delightful. The position of Midway is given as 28 degrees 12 minutes 52 seconds north latitude and 177 degrees 22 minutes 46 seconds west longitude.

Perhaps the outstanding fact about the natural history of Midway is the great change which Sand Island has undergone through the efforts of man. When the cable station was established there were no trees or shrubs and scarcely any herbs on the island to hold the shifting sand in place. Daniel Morrison went to Midway as superintendent of the cable station in 1906, remaining until 1921. He imported a coarse grass (Ammophila arenaria) from the wind-swept beaches near San Francisco, and with it succeeded in holding the sand in place. He set out ironwood trees (Casuarina equisetifolia) in 1907 as windbreaks, and numerous other kinds of ornamental and useful trees, shrubs and herbs. Ship loads of soil (an estimated 9,000 tons) were brought from Honolulu and used to encourage the 3-acre vegetable gardens and other useful growth. Mr. Morrison also imported canary birds and Laysan finches in 1906, and fostered the flightless rails, which also had been introduced from Laysan. The island has been turned into quite a beauty spot, with livestock, poultry, lawns, and airy spacious quarters for the cable personnel, and now a good hotel to attract the visitor, who also might be interested in the excellent fishing.

The Tanager expedition, which explored the northwestern Hawaiian islands in 1923, obtained a few specimens from Midway. To these have been added notes and specimens by Dr. D.R. Chisholm and others. There has also a lengthy record of the plants, birds, insects, and fishes of the island and its adjacent waters, some of which have been published in Bishop Museum Bulletins 26, 27, 31, and 81, and other publications.

Pan American Airways established an airport at Midway, beginning in 1935. Shops, warehouses, power plant, water tanks, and a northern hotel with large refrigerators, electric lights and other modern conveniences, were built on the northeast end of Sand Island. With the commencement of rapid and direct air service between Manila and California via Guam, Wake, and Honolulu, danger was seen of the transportation of insect pests and plant diseases. To counteract this the Hawaiian Sugar Planters' Association established an "insect filter." Fred C. Hadden, entomologist, went to Midway on November 24, 1936. His duty is to inspect and fumigate the clipper planes going in both directions. Already he has headed off insect pests which might have done considerable damage to agriculture in Hawaii. C. E. Pemberton describes this work in the Paradise of the Pacific for January, 1937; and Mr. Hadden has written an interesting article on Midway and its bird life.

During the past few years there has been a sudden awakening of interest in Midway on the part of the U.S. Army and Navy. But in keeping with our decision not to include any mention of military installations or of efforts of the enemy to destroy these, we will say nothing more. But this is not the first time that Midway has been guarded by American forces. Edwin North McClellan, writing in the Honolulu Advertiser of September 16, 1927, reminds us that in March 1904, Marines were ordered to Midway to "protect property and guard the cable employees from marauders who might visit the islands to kill the sea birds." A detachment arrived on Midway on May 2, 1904, and set up two six-pounders; but they were withdrawn in the spring of 1908.

By Executive Order, dated February 14, 1941, Midway was made a national defense area. It had been under the jurisdiction of the United States Navy Department since January 20, 1903; and never officially had been part of the Territory of Hawaii. But it is a vital link in the national defense. 

 

In June, 1942, Midway Islands was the scene of a decisive naval battle in which the United States combined fleets destroyed Japan's carrier fleet. The Battle of Midway and the Battle of the Coral Sea were the turning points for the control of the Pacific during World War II.

 

The Battle of Midway

               

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 (E-mail: jane@janeresture.com -- 3rd December 2012)