Formation: Forged by Fire, Carved by Wind and Water
Kuaihelani (Hawaiian name for Midway Atoll meaning “the back bones of the heavens”) was formed about 28 million years ago when lava flowed from Lōʻihi (hot spot in the earth’s crust located south of the Big Island that is a continuing source of energy for the Hawaiian archipelago). Once a “high island,” millions of years, wind, and water gradually eroded Kuaihelani. As its weight pushed downward on the earth’s crust, the island became submerged. The growth of corals resulted in the formation of a circular reef around the former volcanic island. Sand, Eastern, and Spit, the three islands of Kuaihelani, were formed by shifting coral sands within the reef. Kuaihelani is the second-to-last atoll in the Northwestern Hawaiian chain; only Hōlanikū (Hawaiian name for Kure Atoll) lies farther to the west.
Native Hawaiians: Strong Spiritual and Cultural Connections
Archeological evidence shows Native Hawaiians visited Mokumanamana and could have lived seasonally on Nihoa, the largest of the elevated land masses in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Traditional chants and oral histories indicate strong spiritual and cultural connections to these remote atolls. As the only island in the chain accessible by air, Kuaihelani, and in addition to Nihoa and Mokumanamana, has become a place where small groups of Hawaiian cultural practitioners have gathered to explore and deepen those connections. Learn more on the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument website.
Annexation: Guano Leads to Designation as a U.S. Territory
On July 5, 1859 Captain N.C. Brooks, on the vessel Gambia, was the first recorded non-native to visit Kuaihelani. He named the islands the “Middlebrook Islands” and claimed them for the United States under the Guano Islands Act of 1856 which authorized Americans to temporarily occupy uninhabited islands to obtain guano. Consequently, Midway is the only atoll in the Hawaiian Archipelago that does not belong to the State of Hawaiʻi. In 1867, the atoll became the first offshore islands annexed by the United States government and was renamed Midway Atoll.
Early 1900s: Cables and Clipper Ships Open Midway to the World
In January 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt placed Midway Atoll under the control of the U.S. Navy. A few months later, the Commercial Pacific Cable Company brought in the first permanent residents of Midway Atoll. Their mission was to install and maintain a trans-Pacific telegraph cable as part of the first round-the-world communications system. The cable company constructed four two-story buildings. The natural landscape of Midway Atoll was dramatically altered during this period by the intentional and accidental introduction of many non-native plants and animals.
In 1935, the Pan American Airlines Flying Clipper Seaplane began using Midway Atoll as a rest stop and refueling station for its trans-Pacific flights. The Clipper planes landed in the lagoon. To house its passengers the airline built a 45-room hotel (named the “Gooneyville Lodge”) which was later used by the military during World War II. Streets and piers were also built at this time. The hotel and staff cottages were later demolished. For a peek into the past, check out F.C. Hadden’s Midway Islands, which was published in 1943; read the book in its entirety here.