When whaling was strong in the Pacific (starting in 1819 and running to 1859,) Hawaiʻi’s central location between America and Japan whaling grounds brought many whaling ships to the Islands. Whalers needed food and the islands supplied this need from its fertile lands.
In those days, European and East Coast continental commerce needed to round Cape Horn of South America to get to the Pacific (although the Arctic northern route was shorter and sometimes used, it could mean passage in cold and stormy seas, and in many cases the shorter distance might take longer and cost more than the southern route.)
As trade and commerce expanded across the Pacific, numerous countries were looking for faster passage and many looked to Nicaragua and Panama in Central America for possible dredging of a canal as a shorter, safer passage between the two Oceans.
Finally, in 1881, France started construction of a canal through the Panama isthmus. By 1899, after thousands of deaths (primarily due to yellow fever) and millions of dollars, they abandoned the project and sold their interest to the United States.
After Panamanian independence from Colombia in 1903, the US restarted construction of the canal in 1905. Finally, the first complete Panama Canal passage by a self-propelled, oceangoing vessel took place on January 7, 1914.
The Panama Canal is a 51-mile ship canal in Panama that connects the Atlantic Ocean (via the Caribbean Sea) to the Pacific Ocean. The canal cuts across the Isthmus of Panama and is a key conduit for international maritime trade. The American Society of Civil Engineers named the Panama Canal one of the seven wonders of the modern world.
The first cargo ship passing westward through the Panama Canal to call at Honolulu was the American Hawaiian Steamship Company’s SS Missourian commanded by Captain Wm. Lyons, on September 16, 1914.
By 2008, more than 815,000 vessels had passed through the canal, many of them much larger than the original planners could have envisioned; the largest ships that can transit the canal today are called Panamax.
OK, so what does this have to do with Hawaiʻi?
In 1893, the Rev. Sereno Bishop of Hawaiʻi spoke of the commercial relationship between Hawaiʻi and the future isthmian canal: “Honolulu is directly in the route of a future part of heavy traffic from the Atlantic to the Pacific which is waiting for the creation of a canal. Trade to and from China and Japan will use the canal route.”
“Impending commerce using the future canal will have serious importance to the political relations of the Hawaiian Kingdom. Honolulu will be a convenient port of call for China-bound California steamers.”
“The opening of the canal will increase Hawaii’s importance as a coaling and general calling station. Tremendous new cargoes of supplies that will cross the Pacific, because of the canal, will need shelter and protection at a common port of supply – Honolulu.” (Historic Hawaii Review)
In 1900, Alfred Thayer Mahan, a US Navy flag officer, geostrategist and historian (called “the most important American strategist of the nineteenth century,”) believed that the American line of communications to the Orient was by way of Nicaragua and Panama, as that of Europe was by the Suez.
Mahan saw that the Caribbean, areas surrounding the future canal, Hawaiʻi and the Philippines composed the strategic outposts for the future isthmian canal.
Mahan also stated, “Whether the canal of the Central American isthmus be eventually at Panama or Nicaragua matters little to the question at hand…. Whichever it be, the convergence there of so many ships from the Atlantic and Pacific will constitute a centre of commerce”. (Hawaii Historical Review)
In 1912, this strategy and declaration was claimed in an article in ‘Paradise of the Pacific’ that Hawaiʻi was truly deserving of the name, “Crossroads of the Pacific”.
The Chamber of Commerce of Hawaiʻi promoted the idea, naming its early-1900s official publication “Honolulu At the Crossroads of the Pacific.”
Testimony in Washington, DC, in 1915, noted that the opening of the canal would affect Hawaiʻi in two ways: traffic to and from the Orient would use Hawaiʻi as a way-station for supplies and instructions; and Hawaiʻi would also be a destination for freight, passengers and tourists.
Later, when Navy Commander John Rodgers and his crew arrived in Hawaiʻi on September 10, 1925 on the first trans-Pacific air flight, they fueled the imaginations of Honolulu businessmen and government officials who dreamed of making Hawaiʻi the economic Crossroads of the Pacific, and saw commercial aviation as another road to that goal.
Two years later on March 21, 1927, Hawaii’s first airport was established in Honolulu and dedicated to Rodgers.
1959 brought two significant actions that shaped the present day make-up of Hawai‘i, (1) Statehood and (2) jet-liner service between the mainland US and Honolulu (Pan American Airways Boeing 707.)