LITTLE-KNOWN BAKER ISLAND BAKES IN EQUATORIAL SUN

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By Steve Pendleton Pacific Magazine January/February 2000

Special to the Pacific Islands Report

The American flag flies over some remote places. None, however, is perhaps as inconspicuous to most Americans as Baker Island.

Perhaps that’s justly so, for not much has happened on this tiny Pacific isle (about two-thirds of a square mile, or about 2-1/2 times the size of the Mall in Washington, D.C.).

About its only claim to fame is the proximity to Howland Island, the place Amelia Earhart was trying to reach when she disappeared on her celebrated round-the-world flight in 1937.

Baker is uninhabited today. There are several reasons for this. First, the place is pretty forbidding. Being near the equator (about 13 minutes north of it), it is hot and has little rainfall (about 25 inches a year). Freshwater wells are polluted and there’s only one small landing spot for boats. There are no trees and what vegetation exists is sparse.

Baker serves as a wildlife refuge. There are many sea and shore birds that nest and feed here, so visiting the island is by permission only. That’s usually restricted to scientists and educators and the crews of whichever U.S. Coast Guard cutters visit each year. The island is officially under the control of the Fish and Wildlife Service of the U.S. Interior Department.

The island, itself, is rather featureless. It lies in the shape of an oval with a straight shoreline to the south. There’s a reef 100 to 200 yards wide around most of it, making landing a problem. There’s a slight rise inland from the coast, getting up to about 20 feet in elevation. In the center is a small depression.

In these aspects, Baker is a lot like other islands in the area such as Jarvis, Enderbury, Vostok and Flint.

Were you to visit today, Baker would provide a singularly uninviting scene. There’s a day beacon to warn vessels of the island’s existence, the remains of a wartime landing strip, the ruins of a small cemetery and what’s left of a few houses that colonists lived in.

Much of the interior has been stripped to brown coral outcroppings from mining. Interspersed with this are the bird’s nesting grounds.

Uninviting as it is, Baker has been the scene of several periods of settlement and use. This wasn’t the case, however, for the Polynesian natives of the area. Baker is one of the few Pacific islands that has provided no artifacts of native settlement. Strangely, its closest neighbor, Howland, does have some such relics.

It’s debatable as to who can claim discovery rights for Baker. Captain Starbuck in Lopez may have discovered it in 1825. He called it "New Nantucket." But, the name that stuck (it also was known as Phoebe) was given by Captain Baker of the whaler Gideon Howard, saw it in 1832.

Baker did have one useful asset, the early visitors noted. It was full of guano. This was, of course, a very useful fertilizer, although the bird droppings from Baker were used for a different purpose.

From it was manufactured phosphorus, which was used to make the lighting tips of safety matches. So, for many years, Baker’s birds seem to have been responsible for lighting America’s fires.

The existence of guano led to the first United States claim on Baker. In 1855, samples were taken from the island for testing. According to the Guano Act of 1856, passed by the U.S. Congress, when phosphate (from guano) was discovered on an otherwise unoccupied and unclaimed island, and the island was occupied by an American citizen, the island could be considered a U.S. possession.

Under this law, many of the central Pacific islands were claimed by the U.S., even some that had no guano deposits.

In 1858, the exploration of the deposits was begun by the American Guano Co. and a subsidiary, Phoenix Guano Co. Men and supplies were carried from Honolulu by schooner, which visited about four times a year.

The workings were extensive. On Baker, a 400-foot wharf was built to get the guano over the reef. A gale later destroyed the wharf. Tramways were built into the interior. Their ruins were still visible before World War II.

Luckily we have a picture of what life was like on Baker at that time. An anonymous writer, obviously an overseer, had an article published about the island in London’s Nautical magazine in 1970.

The writer obviously liked the weather on Baker. He noted that ocean breezes tempered the equatorial heat, which rarely topped 90 degrees F. Occasionally, however, a windless day would occur and the heat could get oppressive. He noted that dust storms in the interior, with accompanying dust devils, were common. These storms tended to pollute the water supply, which was maintained in catchments.

One activity that occupied his leisure time was searching for seashells. He found many cowries, areos eyes and two-foot-long bivalve shells. There were many crabs in the way and he had to wear sturdy shoes for fear of stepping on sharp-spined sea urchins.

Rescue of a Chinese junk

During probably the late 1860s, the most exciting event was the rescue of a Chinese junk. This vessel had been blown off course by a storm along the China coast and had drifted across the Pacific for 10 months before ending up at Baker. Of the nine original crewmembers, only two were still alive -- both in a pitiable state.

The American guano interests ended operations in the 1870s. But, from 1886 to 1891, the island was reoccupied. This time the diggings were run by J.T. Arundel, the British firm that also conducted mining and copra plantation operations on some of the other Phoenix Islands, such as Flint and Caroline. At its height, this operation employed about 100 men from Niue and the Cook Islands.

Once the diggings closed down for good, Baker lay neglected and forgotten for the first one-third of the 20th century. After all, it couldn’t sustain coconut plantations and there was no harbor. Then, in the early 1930s, tiny ocean specks like Baker suddenly attained international importance.

Importance to aviation explored

The reason lay in the air. Commercial air travel was becoming more important internationally. These central Pacific islands provided possible way stops for flights between the U.S. and Australia and the Orient.

Baker was one of the places considered for airport construction. It had a good location, at 2,575 kilometers (1,600 miles) south of Hawai‘i and nearly halfway to Australia. And, it was claimed by the U.S.

In 1934, the American ship USS Astoria visited, mostly to reaffirm American interest. (The ship also visited other likely sites, such as Kingman Reef. Stamp collectors interested in the area look for commemorative covers that were prepared aboard the ship.)

Although they didn’t at first admit to their backing, Pan American Airways organized an exploration of these central Pacific islands in 1935. It sailed in the schooner Kinkajou, captained by C. Frick. The expedition was led by Francis Coman, who had been with Admiral Byrd in the Antarctic (quite a change, no doubt). The expedition was paid for by Pan Am’s representative, Harold Gatty.

On Aug. 8, 1935, Kinkajou visited Baker and it was deemed unsuitable at that time for stopover service. The main reason was the steep ocean drop-off outside the reef. Since Pan Am was using seaplanes at the time, a protected area was needed for landing and take-off.

However, Baker still could be valuable to the U.S. in the future. Later in 1935, therefore, four Hawaiians were landed as colonists. They proceeded to build houses at the landing area, which was given the name, "Meyerton."

Under Japanese attack

The colonists later found themselves in harm’s way, having been the subject of air and sea attacks by the Japanese in early 1942. They were safely evacuated that February.

Being to the east of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands, Baker could serve as a support area for American men fighting there. From September 1943 to May 1944, 120 officers and 1,200 men found themselves on Baker. Their job was to construct and maintain a military airfield.

About the only reminder of those days that is left, besides the airstrip, is military mail, which used the Army Post Office number 457. Covers of that number are among the scarcest of the Pacific campaign, and bring high prices form collectors.

After the war, Baker was briefly the site of a Coast Guard LORAN navigational aid station. Since then, no one has lived there.

Group seeks "liberation"

Strangely, even though it is so isolated and little-known, Baker has entered the Internet age. There is a website called the "Baker Island Liberation Front" that advocates "independence for the oppressed people of Baker Island." This site is run by "President and Dictator for Life" Lord Baker of Florida. Obviously, there are some disaffected Bakers in this world.

(SEE: http://www.metro2000.net/~stabbott/Visithowlandbaker.htm)

This tiny American dot probably will continue its little-known existence into the future, important now only to the birds, visiting scientists and possibly for its 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone. That controls a lot of ocean.

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