Midway Atoll was created about 28,000,000 years ago when lava flowed from a hot spot in the earth’s crust to form a volcanic island. Over millions of years, wind and water eventually eroded the island. 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 Midway Atoll, were formed by shifting coral sands within the reef.
On July 5, 1859, Midway Atoll was discovered by Captain N.C. Brooks of the Gambia. 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 Hawaii. In 1867 the atoll became the first offshore islands annexed by the United States government and was renamed Midway Atoll.
In January 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt placed Midway under the control of the Navy Department. A few months later, the Commercial Pacific Cable Company brought in the first permanent residents of Midway. Their mission was to install and maintain a trans-Pacific telegraph cable—part of the first round-the-world communications cable. The cable company used concrete and iron to construct four two-story buildings which still remain today and are eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. The natural landscape of Midway was dramatically altered when the cable company shipped in 9000 tons of soil (full of alien seeds and pests) from Hawaii and Guam. Gardens were started and non-native ornamental trees and flowers were planted. Consequently, many non-native species made their way to Midway including ironwood trees (planted as windbreaks), Norfolk Island pines, golden crown-beard, ants, cockroaches, termites and centipedes. Even Midway’s canary population dates back to the era of the cable company. In 1910, some pet canaries belonging to an employee of the cable company were released and the canary population now stands at about 500.
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.
By 1940, the United States was preparing for the possibility of war and the stage was being set for the most famous chapter in Midway’s history. In 1941, a Naval Air Station was commissioned on Midway and crews began construction of runways, power plants, barracks and a hospital.
On December 7, 1941, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Midway became the next target of the Japanese. A bombing attack resulted in the death of four Americans including First Lieutenant George Cannon who was the first marine in World War II to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor. Also hit were the hospital, seaplane hangar and power plant.
The Battle of Midway, from June 4-6, 1942, represented a critical turning point for the U.S. during World War II and resulted in a devastating defeat for the Japanese. Due to some masterful code breaking, the U.S. had advance notice of an imminent attack on Midway. Although the U.S. attack teams were outnumbered and initially outmaneuvered by the more up-to-date Japanese aircraft, U.S. dive bombers were eventually able to score direct hits on the four Japanese carriers causing massive damage and the sinking of all four ships. The Japanese Navy was never able to fully recover.
Several historic monuments commemorating the brave soldiers who fought and died during World War II have been erected on Sand and Eastern Islands. In September 2000 the Secretary of the Interior designated the lands and water of Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge as the Battle of Midway National Memorial.
Midway continued its vital military role as a strategic location in the middle of the Pacific. It was a convenient refueling stop on transpacific flights as well as an important stop for Navy ships and submarines. Midway was also the site of a secret meeting in 1969 between President Nixon and President Nguyen Van Thieu of South Vietnam.
In 1988, the Navy invited the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to establish a National Wildlife Refuge on Midway to protect its wildlife. The jurisdiction of Midway was transferred from the Navy to the Department of the Interior in 1992 at which time the Navy began a massive environmental cleanup: buildings were demolished and antenna lines, bright lights and toxic soil removed. A rat eradication project was also successful. The U.S. Navy officially left Midway on June 30, 1997.
In 1996, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Midway Phoenix Corporation, under a Memorandum of Agreement, started a partnership in order to implement a visitors program. During this time, visitors were able to join a tour which focused on Midway’s unique history and abundant wildlife and included options for scuba diving, snorkeling and deep-sea fishing. Citing high operating costs, Midway Phoenix ended the partnership in early 2002.
With the recent approval of the Visitor’s Service Plan for Midway Atoll by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service this extraordinary place is once again open to visitors on a limited basis. For information on the Visitor's Plan and the 2012 visitor season schedules, please click on this link to the FWS Midway Atoll Refuge site: www.fws.gov/midway/visit.html