Prior to the early-1900s, most vessels were powered by sail; the absence of a fuel to move was a major factor in the flexibility of fleets. And, the carrying capacity of the sailing ship made it an indispensable element in its own logistic support.
For centuries, the most critical item of supply was water, which sailing ships found difficult to carry in sufficient quantities and to keep drinkable for long voyages. Food was somewhat less of a problem, except for its poor quality in the days before refrigeration, the sealed container and sterilization. (britannica)
The advent of steam propulsion resulted in faster and more direct travel for ships (in the early years, ships with steam engines still sailed, and used the engines only as auxiliary power – coal was burned to produce the steam to power the engines.)
The gain in control of where you were going (without reliance/variation in the wind) was a significant improvement for the long haul. But, for a time, the inordinate amount of space that had to be allocated to carry coal seriously inhibited the usefulness of early warships.
Steam warships were slow to catch on, but by the late-1850s, all new warships built by the Navy featured steam engines. The engines did not make the ships dramatically faster, and many steam ships continued to use sails preserve fuel on long trips. These ships looked and functioned much like ships from the age of sail except for the tell-tale smokestack rising above their decks. (Bailey)
The replacement of sailing ships with steam led to a requirement for fuel to be widely available. Ultimately, this produced the need for numerous coaling stations – places where the ships replenished/refueled their supply of coal.
Noting the need for a refueling site in the Pacific, Captain AT Mahan noted, “To any one viewing a map that shows the full extent of the Pacific Ocean, with its shores on either side, two circumstances will be strikingly and immediately apparent. He will see at a glance that the Sandwich Islands stand by themselves in a state of comparative isolation, amid a vast expanse of sea”.
“From San Francisco to Honolulu, 2,100 miles easy steaming distance, is substantially the same as from Honolulu to the Gilbert, Marshall, Samoan, Society, and Marquesas groups (the nearest inhabited islands,) all under European control”.
“Too much stress cannot be laid upon the immense disadvantages to us of any maritime enemy having a coaling station well within 2,500 miles of every point of our coast line from Puget Sound to Mexico. Were there many others available we might find it difficult to exclude from all. There is, however, but the one.”
“Shut out from the Sandwich Islands as a coal base, an enemy is thrown back for supplies of fuel to distances of 3,500 or 4,000 miles – or between 7,000 and 8,000, going and coming – an impediment to sustained maritime operations well nigh prohibitive.”
“It is rarely that so important a factor in the attack or defence of a coast line – of a sea frontier – is concentrated in a single position, and the circumstance renders it doubly imperative upon us to secure it, if we righteously can.”
In the 1860s, a coaling station was established in Honolulu to refuel coal burning American ships. US warships followed a policy of cruising the Hawaiian Islands starting in 1866, and rented a coaling station for them. (globalsecurity)
The lease of land for the coaling station was the first regular US Navy shore-side presence in the Hawaiian Islands. This station practically fell into disuse shortly after it was built due to the policy that required warships to use sail power wherever possible. (navy-mil)
Then, in 1873, Secretary of War, William W Belknap, issued confidential instructions to investigate the defensive capabilities of Honolulu to Major-General John McAlister Schofield (the Barracks up the hill from Pearl Harbor were later named for him (1908)) and Lieutenant-Colonel Barton S Alexander. (Young)
General Schofield reported: “The Hawaiian Islands constitute the only natural outpost to the defenses of the Pacific Coast. In possession of a foreign naval power, in time of war, as a depot from which to fit out hostile expeditions against this coast and our commerce on the Pacific Ocean, they would afford the means of incalculable injury to the United States.”
“With one exception there is no harbor on the islands that can be made to satisfy all the conditions necessary for a harbor of refuge in time of war. This is the harbor of ʻEwa, or Pearl River. … If the coral barrier were removed, Pearl River Harbor would seem to have all, or nearly all, the necessary properties to enable it to be converted into a good harbor of refuge.”
“It is to be observed that if the United States are ever to have a harbor of refuge and naval station in the Hawaiian islands in the event of war, the harbor must be prepared in advance by the removal of the Pearl river bar. When war has begun it will be too late to make this harbor available, there is no other suitable harbor on these islands.”
As a means of solidifying a site in the central Pacific, the US negotiated an amendment to the Treaty of Reciprocity in 1887. King Kalākaua, in his speech before the opening session of the 1887 Hawaiian Legislature, stated (November 3, 1887:)
“His Majesty the King of the Hawaiian Islands, grants to the Government of the US the exclusive right to enter the harbor of Pearl River, in the Island of Oʻahu, and to establish and maintain there a coaling and repair station for the use of vessels of the US and to that end the US may improve the entrance to said harbor and do all things useful to the purpose aforesaid.”
Ten years later, “Secretary Long has sent to Congress a report of the project for the establishment of a naval coaling and repairing station at Pearl Harbor, Hawaiʻi, submitted by Rear Admiral Miller, commander-in-chief of the Pacific naval station.”
“As a result of the surveys and examination Admiral Kirkland reported that … the Government should acquire possession of the whole of the Waipiʻo Peninsula, comprising 800-acres of land, if a station is to be located at Pearl Harbor.”
“Secretary Long recommend(ed) that Beckoning Point be selected as a site for the contemplated station, on account of its proximity to East Loch, which has the largest anchorage, as drydocks may be easily built, and as there is ample room for space to dock and undock vessels of any size.” (Sacramento Daily Union, April 2, 1898)
In May, 1899, a coaling station with a capacity of 1,000-tons was established and plans involved increasing that capacity 20-fold. Six months later the Naval Station, Honolulu, was established.
As an example of the coal demand for ships, the battleship USS Massachusetts burned 8-12 tons of coal per hour at full power. In order to fully stock for a deployment at sea, a warship would load thousands of tons of coal on board ship, all of it moved by hand. (Colamaria)
The US Navy dredged the first deep-draft channel into its coaling station at Pearl Harbor in 1903, and suddenly the US had a strategically important naval station in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. (Sanburn) On May 28, 1903, the first battleship, USS Wisconsin, entered the harbor for coal and water. (navy-mil)
The next decade saw steady and continuous growth. On September 23, 1912 Pearl Harbor was closed to all foreign commercial shipping, and foreign warships might enter only by special permission. (Young)
The post-World War I period was characterized by irregular growth of the Naval Operating Base. Appropriations tended to diminish with the economies of the twenties. In 1921, the Naval Station in Honolulu was forced to close because of insufficient funds. Although the Secretary of the Navy referred to Hawaiʻi as the “Crossroads of the Pacific,” nothing was being done to take advantage of its position. (navy-mil)
Networks of coaling stations were established, effectively extending the range of warships; however, the era of the steam warship powered exclusively by coal was relatively brief-lasting from 1871 until 1914.
Fuel oil was the emerging fuel technology. In the early-1900s oil refining procedures had been standardized to the point that fuel oil (bunker oil) was now a better option to feed the fires that powered the ships (plus, the bunker oil took up less storage room on the ships.) (Scott)
The USS Texas, commissioned in 1914, was the last American battleship built with coal-fired boilers. It converted to burn fuel oil in 1925 – resulting in a dramatic improvement in efficiency. By 1916, the Navy had commissioned its first two capital ships with oil-fired boilers, the USS Nevada and the USS Oklahoma.
To resupply them, “oilers” were designed to transfer fuel while at anchor, although underway replenishment was possible in fair seas. During World War I, a single oiler refueled 34 destroyers in the mid-Atlantic – introducing a new era in maritime logistics. (American Oil & Gas Historical Society)
Wartime needs called for more expansion to the Pearl Harbor base facilities. Construction began on a fourth large drydock at the location of the old Coaling Station; these went into service in 1944.