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Kure Island



Kure, more familiarly known as Ocean Island, is the northwesternmost island of the Hawaiian Archipelago. It is 1,200 miles northwestward of Honolulu and 56 miles west of Midway Islands.

It is an atoll, circular in outline, the reef being about 15 miles in circumference or 6 miles in greatest diameter. There is an opening through the reef on the southwest side, but only small craft can enter. Along the south side of the lagoon are one small island and two sand banks.

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Green Island is about a mile long by less than half a mile wide. It occupies the southeast corner of the lagoon. It is somewhat crescent-shaped, and is bordered all around by a nearly continuous line of sand dunes, which rise steeply from the waters edge to a height of up to twenty feet above the sea. The dunes are highest on the northeast end, those on the south and east reaching an elevation of only about ten feet. Within there is a trough depression, the floor of which is about eight feet above sea level. The western point terminates in a long sand-spit.

The dunes and most of the interior of Green Island are covered with a dense, almost impenetrable stand of beach Scaevola, a much branching, coarse shrub, with large, glossy green leathery leaves, small white "half flowers", and pithy white fruits the size of small marbles. On Green Island this shrub reaches a height of five to six feet. The shrub is called "naupaka kai" by the Hawaiians, and is a familiar low beach plant on the main islands. It has been nicknamed "beach magnolia" by persons on Midway. It is an abundant, widespread littoral plant throughout the Pacific. Toward the eastern end there is an open grassy area of about twenty acres, surrounded by the barrier of Scaevola. Here are found most of the other species which make up Kure's flora of thirteen kinds of vascular plants.

Between Green Island and the lagoon entrance there are generally two other islets, lying close to the southern reef. They are low mounds of sand and broken coral, usually devoid of vegetation. In 1923, when the atoll was visited and explored by the Tanager Expedition, the more western was about a mile long by a quarter of a mile wide, and ten feet high. The shape of all three islets differ on maps made at different periods, such as that made by the U.S.S. Lackawanna in August 1867, and that by Captain Brown, of the ship Gledstanes, published in the Hawaiian Spectator for July, 1838. This would suggest that much shifting of sand has been done by storms.

The southern portion of the reef is scarcely awash at low tide. But most of the rest of its circumference is covered with a line of coral boulders which protrude above the water. The waves break heavily on the northern and eastern curve of the reef during normal trade wind weather. At such times vessels may anchor off the west side in eight to twelve fathoms of water. At times of storms the reef must present an awesome sight.

Captain Kure, a Russian navigator, is said to have discovered the atoll, but no authentic account of this is available. The British ship Gledstanes, Captain Brown, was wrecked on the weather side of the reef, July 9, 1837. The whole ship's company lived on Green Island until December 15. Then Captain Brown and eight seamen sailed east-southeast in a schooner which they built with great toil from fragments of the wreck. After many hardships they reached Honolulu and, through the help of the British Consul, a vessel was sent to Kure which brought off the rest of the officers and crew. On September 24, 1842, the American whale ship Parker also was wrecked on Kure, the crew being rescued in a similar manner in May, 1843.

In the history of Kure the most remarkable shipwreck was that of the U.S.S. Saginaw. This vessel had been sent to Midway in March 1870, with a party of divers and engineers who were to dredge a passage through the reef into the lagoon. After the $50,000 appropriated by the United States Congress for the job had been spent, with the work only part done, the plan was abandoned. Before returning to San Francisco Captain Sicard decided to visit Kure to see if there had been any more shipwrecks on the island. The night of October 28-29 was clear and the wind fair, as the Saginaw steamed slowly across the intervening fifty miles, planning to arrive at daybreak. At 2.30 a.m. the engine was stopped. A short time later the lookout sighted breakers ahead, and the engine was started in reverse. But within a few minutes the steam connection burst, and in a very short time the helpless vessel had drifted onto the east reef. The waves pounded so hard that soon the hold was full of water, and at 5.00 a.m. word was passed to abandon ship. All of the 93 members of the crew and dredging party were gotten safely ashore, but comparatively little was salvaged from the ship before she broke up, except some water-soaked food and a small boiler, which later was very useful in distilling water. Lieutenant Talbot and a volunteer crew of four, two of whom were divers, set off in the specially decked and fitted Captain's gig. They made the voyage to Kauai in thirty days, after incredible suffering, having encountered three severe gales in which they lost their oars and provisions overboard. They were so weak that, in trying to get ashore near Hanalei the boat capsized and all but William Halford, the coxswain, were drowned. He succeeded in getting word to Honolulu, so that, through the kindness of the Hawaiian Government, the steamer Kilauea was dispatched on December 26, reached Kure on January 3, 1871, and brought the remainder of the party safely to Honolulu on the 14th.

The Dunnottar Castle, a British ship, was wrecked on Kure July 15, 1886. The crew managed to reach Kauai by boat, but several lives were lost in making a landing. As a result of this, King Kalakaua sent Colonel J. H. Boyd as his Special Commissioner to Kure. On September 20, 1886 he took possession of the island, then called Moku Papapa, for the Hawaiian government. The King caused a rude house to be built on the island, with tanks for holding water and provisions for any other unfortunates who might be cast away there. But the provisions were stolen within a year, and the house soon fell into ruins.

The provisional Government of Hawaii leased the island to the North Pacific Phosphate and Fertiliser Company for 25 years from February 15, 1894; but no extensive guano digging was done.

Kure was one of the islands acquired by the United States on July 7, 1898, when Hawaii became a Territory. In April 1909 it was made part of the Hawaiian Islands Bird Reservation.

Bird life is less abundant on Kure than on other islands of the chain. The island is overrun with rats, but they could hardly account for the scarcity of sea birds, as a peaceful balance generally is established between this kind of "Polynesian rat" and sea birds. The Hawaiian or hair seal, Monachus schauinslandi, was frequently found on Kure, and turtles are said to be common. Thirty-five species of insects were identified from specimens collected by the Tanager Expedition, which visited the atoll in April, 1923, and made a careful biological survey.

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