Over the years, the face of Pearl Harbor has changed dramatically. When the first Westerner, British seafarer Captain James Cook, came to the islands in 1778, a coral reef barred the entrance of the place known as Wai Momi, making it unsuitable as a port for deep-draft shipping. At that time, nearby Honolulu Harbor was an infinitely more hospitable destination.
It wasn’t until 1826 that the US Navy had its first contact with the Hawaiian Islands, when the schooner USS Dolphin sailed into port. After that, it took more than 13 years for the Navy to begin to recognize the potential of Pearl Harbor.
During a routine survey of the area in 1840, an enterprising naval officer determined that the deep inner harbor could be accessed by completely removing the obstructing reef.
Despite gaining exclusive rights to Pearl Harbor in 1887, the US did not make any attempt to take advantage of their claim on this strategic estuary until well after the turn of the century.
It wasn’t until the capture of Manila during the Spanish-American War, when the US needed to establish a permanent way station in the Pacific to maintain control of the Philippines.
Then, for the first time, the American government began to understand the strategic importance of O‘ahu. Annexation soon followed, but even then, little was done to fortify the area or capitalize on the vast potential of Pearl Harbor.
Finally, beginning in 1902, the entry channel was dredged, deepened, and widened to clear an opening at the entrance of the Harbor. Congress did not officially create a naval base at Pearl Harbor until 1908. (NPS)
“Cutting the channel through the reef that has for so many years closed Pearl Harbor to navigation, is a task so quietly and withal so speedily done, that half the people of Honolulu have come to think of the great work in that section of the island as a part of the day’s routine.”
“What effect this new harbor will have on the future events of the world no one can exactly forecast. But we do know that this harbor will be a pivotal point about which great incidents of the world’s history will revolve.”
“Pearl Harbor will be the assembling place for great fleets of warships. Let us hope that never during the present century will these fleets be called upon to go forth to battle, but whether they do or not, may they at all times be the barrier of protection for an ever-increasing American influence and an ever-expanding American commerce carried in American merchant ships.” (Evening Bulletin, December 14, 1911)
“Upon the completion of the dredging operations of Pearl Harbor bar, December 14, 1911, an official entry into the lochs was made by Rear Admiral Thomas in the flagship California, Captain Harlow, and the occasion of joyful recognition of the important event, the end of a great work.” (Thrum, 1912)
On board the California on December 14, 1911 was the first and last President of the Republic of Hawaii Sanford Dole, and Queen Lili‘uokalani the last monarch of the Kingdom of Hawaii. (Neuman)
“The Queen is delighted over the prospect of a trip on the flagship and is looking forward with deep interest to seeing the waterway really open to the navigation of big ships of war, for it was during the reign of her brother, King Kalākaua, that the cession of Pearl Harbor to the United States was made by treaty.” (Pacific Commercial Advertiser, December 13, 1911; Van Dyke)
“Queen Lili‘uokalani, accompanied by, Colonel ʻIaukea, Mrs ʻIaukea and Mr and Mrs ED Tenney, arrived shortly after 9 o’clock. Her Majesty looked well and seemed to take an eager interest in the proceedings. She was met at the head of the gangway by Admiral Thomas, who graciously took the aged hand and assisted her on to the deck of the warship.”
“The queen was led to a seat, and then the officers of the man-of-war and the guests were presented to her. The queen chatted of the trip about to be taken and contrasted it with some she had made to Pearl Harbor many years ago.” (Hawaiian Star, December 14, 1911)
Also along for the ride was Sun Fo, eldest son of Sun Yat-Sen – who eventually lead the revolution in China which ended two-thousand years of imperial rule. Sun Yat-Sen would be elected the first President of the Republic of China two weeks later on December 29. (Neuman)
The USS California transited the channel entrance to Pearl Harbor and effectively opened the historic port to the world. The ship that took center stage on that morning should not be confused with the battleship California, or BB-44, which found herself on Battleship Row in 1941.
This California was an armored-cruiser weighing in at about 14,000 tons and laden with eight, six and three-inch guns. Her entrance into Pearl Harbor was historic because she was the first large warship to enter the harbor following extensive dredging of the channel. (Neuman)
From the early days of the 20th century, it was clear that Japan was taking her place as a world power. This shift led the US to move a significant portion of her naval forces to the Pacific. Pearl Harbor was a focal point of the transition, becoming the home port for much of the Pacific Fleet.
And so the pieces of this historic puzzle came together. In a matter of time, the very action taken to protect America from this potential threat would be the thing that made her vulnerable to it.
Throughout its history, Pearl Harbor has been revered as a place of great value. In the beginning, it physically yielded sustenance for the Hawaiian people. Later, it empowered America to conquer her enemies. (NPS)