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History of Midway Atoll

By Edited Nov 12, 2016 0 0

The History of Midway Atoll pre-WWII

Midway Atoll is part of a chain of volcanic islands, atolls, and seamounts extending from Hawai'i up to the tip of the Aleutian Islands.  This chain of little areas of land in vast ocean is known as the Hawaii-Emperor chain. 

Midway is an unincorporated, unorganized US Territory and the only island in the Hawaiian chain that is not part of the State of Hawaii.  

Early History of Midway

Until 1859 only the birds and seals knew where to find Midway Atoll and there was no evidence of human visitors or inhabitants until the atoll was sighted on July 5 of that year by Captain N.C. Middlebrooks who was running the sealing ship Gambia in the area.  Middlebrooks was also known as Captain Brooks. Brooks claimed the until then, uncharted island, for the United States under the Guano Islands Act of 1856, which authorized Americans to occupy uninhabited islands and claim them for the United States for the purpose of collecting bird dung for use as fertilizer (this is before synthetic fertilizers became common).  Brooks named the atoll the "Middlebrook Islands" or the "Brook Islands" after himself.

Due to distraction caused by the American Civil War, nothing happened with Midway until the US Government sent Union slope the USS Lackawanna around the tip of South America to patrol up the US West Coast and out to the Hawaiian Islands.

One of the tasks given to Captain William Reynolds (pictured) was to  formally took possession of the atoll for the United States Government.  As part of the territorial expansion of the US, on 28 August 1867 the Lackawanna reached Midway and claimed it just as the purchase of (relatively nearby) Alaska was being completed. This was a few years before the Kingdom of Hawaii was overthrown in 1893/94 in a US sponsored rebellion, so the atoll, now called Midway, existed as a US possession outside the control of Hawaii.  The later acquisition of Hawaii as a separate territory never brought the two entities together legally. 

The annexation made Midway the first of many Pacific islands annexed by the U.S. government over the next hundred years.  The United States Navy administered the Unincorporated Territory of Midway Island until 1996 when responsibility was transferred to the Department of the Interior. 

Midway is Put to Use as a Port

 In 1871 the Pacific Mail Steamship Company started a project involving blasting and dredging a of a ship channel through the reef to the lagoon, using money allotted by the United States Congress. The idea was to establish a mid-ocean coaling station that would avoid the high taxes imposed at the Hawaiian ports (then not part of the US).   This project was in support of the company's regularly scheduled trans-Pacific steamship service running between San Francisco, Hong Kong, and Yokohama, with extended service to Shanghai. 

As an aside, the Pacific Mail Steamship service lead to an influx of Japanese and Chinese immigrants into California, bringing additional cultural diversity to the state during and after the Gold Rush.

The Midway project was considered a complete failure, and the decision was made to pull out but that also was a disaster.  The USS Saginaw had completed her assignment at Midway and decided to touch at Kure Atoll en route home to rescue any shipwrecked sailors who might be stranded there. On October 29, 1870 she struck a reef and sunk, unfound until 2003. The crew managed to transfer much of the gear to the island including a small boat that was sailed by 5 men toward Hawaii.  The boat capsized and 4 of the men were lost after 31 days and some 1,500 mi (2,400 km) at sea.  Only Coxswain William Halford survived to obtain help from the island of Kauai. Halford was brought to Oahu and the U.S. Consul there who convinced king Kamehameha V to send his steamer the "Kilauea" to rescue the shipwrecked sailors successfully.  

Cable Station Era

In 1903 the Commercial Pacific Cable Company moved workers onto Midway as part of the effort to lay a trans-Pacific telegraph cable.  The project was important to commercial communications in the era before satellites.  Before the Pacific cable project, messages had to travel across the Atlantic to the Far East via Cape Town and the Indian Ocean, or via London to Russia, then across the Russian landline to Vladivostok, then by submarine cable to Japan and the Philippines.

Commercial Pacific Cable Company used cable ships to lay undersea cable across the Pacific Ocean. The first section of cable was laid in 1902 by the cableship Silvertown from Ocean Beach, in San Francisco to Honolulu and this section began operating on January 1, 1903. Later that year, cables were laid from Honolulu to Midway, then from Midway to Guam, and then from Guam to Manila. These cables carried the first message to ever travel around the globe from U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt on July 4, 1903. He wished "a happy Independence Day to the U.S., its territories and properties . . ." It took nine minutes for Roosevelt's message to travel worldwide.The cables extended a length of 6,912 miles and the project cost approximately $12 million. 

While Midway played a critical link in the trans-Pacific cable, the Commercial workers introduced many non-native species to the island, including the canary, cycad, Norfolk Island pine, she-oak, coconut, and various deciduous trees, along with ants, cockroaches, termites, centipedes, and countless others. This altered Midway's ecosystem. 

The first permanent US Military station also arrived in 1903 when on January 20 the US Navy opened a radio station.  21 US Marines were soon stationed on Midway to protect the cable station, evict Japanese squatters and bird poachers and generally help secure the US possession. 

The Clipper Era

In 1935, the China Clippers, flying boats operated by Pan American Airlines started using Midway as a intermediate stopping point. With a much shorter range then modern aircraft, the Clippers used an island-hopping route from San Francisco to China, providing the fastest and most luxurious route to the Orient available when the alternative was weeks on a steam ship or trans-Atlantic and then overland route across Europe and Asia.

US and PI First Transpacific Air Mail Stamps 1935.jpg

Only the extremely wealthy could afford a Clipper trip because it cost more than three times the annual salary of an average American in the 1930's. Because of its remote location, it is still expensive to visit Midway Atoll.

The flying boat service between San Francisco Bay and Manila Bay required approximately sixty hours of flying time over six days with intermediate stops at Pearl Harbor, Midway Atoll, Wake Island and Guam. Midway was an overnight stop because the planes only flew during the day and were slow.  The Clippers landed in the atoll's lagoon and pulled up to a flouting platform. The passengers transferred to a small powerboat that carried them to a pier, then rode in station wagons to the Pan Am Hotel also known as the "Gooneyville Lodge" for the several million birds on the island. 

Clipper visits lasted from 1935 unto 1941 when the Pan Am service was ended due to the War in the Pacific.   All three of the Pan Am Clippers used on the Pacific route crashed and were lost by 1945, but not in the Midway area. The planes that serviced Midway were the Hawaii Clipper, the Philippine Clipper and the China Clipper.

With the attack on Pearl Harbour, the History of Midway Atoll was about to take a dramatic and bloody turn.  Midway was about to become one of the most famous patches of land in the world as the island and the sea around it saw the near defeat of the Japanese Navy and turning of the tide in the Pacific theatre of WWII.

Images of Midway Atoll

The Midway Islands west of Hawaii

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