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History of the Atlantic Cable & Undersea Communications
from the first submarine cable of 1850 to the worldwide fiber optic network

Midway Island

Although popularly known as Midway Island, Midway is in fact a circular atoll, about 6 miles in diameter, enclosing two islands, Sand and Eastern. Both were originally sand patches covered by sparse, tough shrub. On Eastern Island, guano had accumulated. As a result of years of experiment, the cable company, aided by the United States Department of Agriculture, discovered that a type of wire grass found on the sand dunes near San Francisco would bind the sands of Midway, and, with this as a starter, it became possible to plant ironwood trees from the Hawaiian Islands and eucalyptus from Australia. As a result, by 1934 Sand Island supported a grove of 40-foot ironwoods, subsidiary growth including grass, and truck gardens about the cable station. At the northeast end of Eastern Island, stood three or four scrub trees. Throughout both islands there grew the scaevola bush--locally described as a dwarf magnolia because of its leaves--and on all sides were to be encountered the ubiquitous "gooney-birds," actually albatrosses, together with several other species: flightless rails, moaning birds, gannets, frigate birds, terns, and boatswain birds, to name the most common.

Of the two islands, Eastern is the smaller and lower, being one-and-one-quarter miles long and but 12 feet above sea level at its highest point. Sand Island, however, attains a height of 39 feet and is almost two miles in length. Both islands lie in the south half of the lagoon, close aboard the reef. Welles Harbor, the prewar roads, and entrance to the lagoon is just west of Sand Island, the western of the two islands, but a new entrance to the lagoon, Brooks Channel, between Sand and Eastern Island, was dredged in 1938, and is now the only one in use.

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.

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.

As the first permanent residents of Midway Atoll, the employees of the Commercial Pacific Cable Company hold a unique place in Sand Island’s history. In the early 1900s, they transformed part of a barren sandy island into what by 1939 was nicknamed “Cable City” and “the Sunday Park of Midway.”

The original contingent of Commercial Pacific Cable Company employees arrived on April 29, 1903, and included the first superintendent of the cable station, Ben W. Colley, and his staff, as well as several carpenters. They immediately built five small temporary frame buildings used as a Cable Company office, mess, staff quarters, servants quarters, and storeroom. “Temporary” was an accurate description, for in February 1905 they finished building the five reinforced concrete buildings that still stand today on Sand Island.

Cable House at Midway, August 2008
Photograph by Kirsten McCully, Midway Atoll Coral Reef Research Project
Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-
Noncommercial- No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License.

The buildings were constructed from plans drawn by San Francisco architect Henry Meyers. Their design was inspired by tropical architecture with a second story living space, wide verandahs, and covered porches.

According to a 1922 report by the superintendent of the cable station, one of the buildings served as the

“... Cable Office and contains all the apparatus and equipment necessary to the operation of two cables. The other four two story buildings are used as Quarters for Superintendent and family, Staff sleeping quarters, Mess and recreation building, and Chinese servants quarters. The basements are used for the storage of provisions, Laundry, Machine shop, etc.”

The mess building featured an icemaking plant that could freeze 300 pounds of ice daily and a freezing room that held up to 3,000 pounds of beef. Another storage area had space for 20 crates of fruit. These sizeable storage facilities for an average of 24 staff members were undoubtedly necessary, since resupply vessels were sent to Midway only once every 3 months, and in heavy seas, sometimes could not enter the lagoon.

The newly reroofed mess/recreation hall and staff quarters building. Photo by Rob Shallenberger

Additional buildings were erected to store up to 50 tons of coal, as well as calcium carbide and oil. The original temporary buildings were used for extra laborers’ quarters, a carpenter shop, a feed and grain store, and for poultry and cattle. A 1938 Navy report indicated the Cable Company currently had 2 cows, 1 Holstein bull, 10 pigs, 50 turkeys, and 250 chickens to support their employees.

A 1923 inventory of Midway’s structures by a scientific expedition aboard the USS Tanager includes the following description:

“Houses. 4, 2-story, 25’ x 80’ reinforced concrete on steel ‘I’ beams, porches all around cor. iron roof, 20 rooms ea. Ice plant, wood, 15’ x 15’, 1/4 ton capacity, Bunk house, wood, for help, 1 story, 1 wooden bungalow, 12 outhouses, barns and sheds, small, wood.”

Like any of us trying to make our homes more “livable,” the first Cable Company employees soon set about landscaping their compound. Superintendent Colley planted naupaka or Scaevola, various grasses, ironwood trees, and coconuts to prevent the shifting sands from encroaching on buildings and walkways.

Each time the supply ship came from Honolulu, it brought soil to create a vegetable garden. By 1922, about an acre of ground near the cable station was being used as a kitchen garden.

“[A] good supply of fine vegetables [was] always available for the station use. Irish and Sweet potatoes, Beets, Onions, Turnips, Carrots, Cabbage, Lettuce, Beans, Peas, and Tomatoes are grown regularly. Melons are also adapted to conditions.”

Trees were brought to Midway, not only to add beauty to the island but also to provide much needed shade and windbreaks. The Cable Company brought in the first ironwood trees – now considered a pest species on the atoll – in 1902, and within 4 years had reportedly planted thousands of them. Flowers also grew well, as a 1938 visitor notes:

“The general effect of grass and flowers, contrasting with the white walled, black trimmed buildings is . . . quite pleasing.”

During World War II, the Navy took over most of the cable station buildings, except for the superintendent’s residence and the Cable Office building. Over the years, the buildings were fairly well maintained, but as the Naval Air Facility was closed and priorities turned to cleaning up environmental contaminants, the facilities quickly deteriorated in Midway’s harsh climate.

Today, these historic structures lack their “Sunday dress,” but their elegant lines and classic structure still whisper of their more glorious days. Surrounded by thousands of nesting albatross, these remnants of the early days of the Commercial Pacific Cable Company fascinate today’s visitors to Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge. One of the frequently heard pleas of our guests is to “please restore these beautiful old buildings.”

Although our hearts are with them, the government’s checkbook is limited. A “Save America’s Treasures” grant enabled the Fish and Wildlife Service to complete a condition assessment report and restoration plan for each of the buildings, and for one of the buildings (the mess hall), replace the roof and demolish interior modifications made since it was constructed. Much of the historic preservation work on Midway is being accomplished with the active participation of paying guests on programs conducted by the Oceanic Society.

We are searching for private partners to join us in recreating Midway’s “Sunday Park,” and restoring the elegance in the midst of the Pacific that was once the Commercial Pacific Cable Company. One day, we hope to see these buildings hosting a museum recognizing the past and an educational campus for the future, so that the importance of a small atoll midway across the Pacific in America’s history is never forgotten.

Detail of the building

Connecting the World Through Midway

The world’s first global communication link was authorized by Congress in 1902, when the Commercial Pacific Cable Company was allowed to install a privately financed submerged telegraph line across the Pacific.

The line stretched from San Francisco to Honolulu, to Midway, to Guam, to Manila, and on to Japan and China. The last section of line was laid from Midway to Honolulu in time for President Theodore Roosevelt to send Independence Day greetings in the first round-the-world telegram on July 4, 1903.

On April 7, 1942, the cable connecting Midway and Guam was severed to prevent any “subversive communication” as Japan gained strength in the Pacific. The Midway to Honolulu cable played a crucial role in what was to become the Battle of Midway: a message was sent via the secure cable ordering Midway to transmit via open channel a fake report of problems with its fresh water system. When the Japanese reported the next day that “AF” was experiencing problems with its water system, America knew that Midway was the next target of the Japanese Navy.

Some information on this page is courtesy of the US Fish & Wildlife Service, which preserves and maintains Midway.

Last revised: 1 March, 2016

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