The Curse of Howland Island

Those who do not remember history, said a philosopher, are condemned to repeat it. Grand Canyon river guides prove their philosophical mettle all the time by telling river stories going back to the Powell expedition. Though cynics have implied that guides occasionally stretch the truth, and though it’s well known that Mark Twain’s years as a river guide turned him into a great fiction writer, this living body of river lore has kept many guides out of trouble by reminding them of all the mishaps of the past. The importance of knowing your Grand Canyon river stories is underscored by the case of Amelia Earhart. If only Amelia Earhart had been more familiar with Grand Canyon river running history, she might not have vanished without a trace on her 1937 attempt to fly around the world.
The most challenging leg of Earhart’s flight was the long open ocean between Australia and Hawaii, too long to cross without refueling or rest. So Earhart planned to land on a tiny island, only one and a half miles long and a half-mile wide. This island would be hard to locate with the limited navigational tools of the time, yet Earhart’s life depended on it. Out of all the islands she could have selected, it may have been a bad omen that she selected an island that bore the name of two brothers who, in another great American feat of exploration, had vanished without a trace.
Howland Island wasn’t named specifically for Oramel and Seneca Howland, who left the Powell expedition and disappeared. But it was named for their family. After arriving on the Mayflower, the Howlands became the leading family of American whaling. Dozens of Captain Howlands sailed Howland whalers all over the world. (Powell historians have puzzled over why Powell referred to Oramel Howland as “Captain Howland.” Powell may only have been acknowledging a famous connection between the name Howland and the title of Captain.) Howland ships were roaming the Pacific Ocean at a time when many islands remained uncharted. Such islands could turn into critical sources of food and water, and low-lying coral reefs were deadly nighttime hazards. The Howlands charted such islands and reefs, and it was inevitable they would name an island for themselves. If the Howlands had been more patient, they might have found a more idyllic island than the one they claimed in the 1820s. Located just off the equator, Howland Island was a coral reef no higher than twenty feet, well loaded with sand, and because of its isolation, it was loaded with tens of thousands of seabirds, and thus also with some thirty thousand tons of guano. Thinking of guano mining, the British would later claim Howland Island, but due to its isolation there was no immediate reason for Britain and the u.s. to squabble over it. Sometime in the 1830s a Scandinavian ship must have wrecked on Howland Island, for when a Howland ship came through in 1841, it found the island infested with Scandinavian rats. The grim warfare between the birds and the rats only added to what one Howland called the “lonely and forlorn” feel of Howland Island.
It was the very loneliness of Howland Island that made it essential to Amelia Earhart. Within a thousand mile span, Howland Island was the most substantial piece of land. The usefulness of Howland Island was brought to Amelia’s attention by her secret admirer, Gene Vidal, the federal Director of Air Commerce. Amelia had become good friends with the other feminist hero of the age, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, and Amelia now appealed to the Roosevelts to help her develop a runway on Howland Island. Officially, the runway on Howland Island would be developed as an emergency airstrip to encourage commercial aviation in the Pacific, but Earhart biographers have little doubt it was one of many personal favors that the Roosevelts did for Amelia. If this article already sounds like fiction, then add the words of Gene Vidal’s son, novelist Gore Vidal: “Eleanor was in love with Amelia and Amelia used this to get her way over lots of things.” (Interviewed by Mary Lovell in The Sound of Wings, St. Martin’s Press, 1989). To everyone else, the name “Howland Island” may have been a meaningless name, and no Earhart historian has commented on it. But there was one person whose interest may have perked up. President Franklin Roosevelt was a former Assistant Secretary of the Navy with a broad knowledge of sea lore, and he was also the first Howland descendant to become President. The prospect of Howland Island playing a star role in an epochal American adventure couldn’t have hurt. The Roosevelts arranged for the Howland Island airstrip to be a wpa project. Some World War One bulldozers, graders, and rollers were rounded up and loaded on a Navy ship, along with a small construction crew, who under international law would constitute colonizers and thus settle the century-old conflicting claims between Britain and the United States. And when the time came for Amelia’s flight, President Roosevelt stationed a Coast Guard cutter at Howland Island to broadcast radio signals, a searchlight at night, and a smokestack plume by day.

Amelia’s first attempt to circle the world was westwardly. She made it from California to Hawaii just fine, but when she tried to take off for Howland Island, she crashed on the runway. The plane, heavily loaded with fuel, suddenly veered to the right, and she tried to correct, but the plane swung too far left and smashed the landing gear against the runway, and the plane skidded on its belly, sending out a shower of sparks, breaking the gas tank and spilling out gas. Some said it was a miracle there wasn’t a fatal explosion. Earhart’s admirers vehemently denied any mistakes in her piloting and portrayed it as a freak event.
Of course, Oramel and Seneca Howland weren’t the first Howlands to vanish without a trace. With so many Howlands roaming the seas, it was inevitable that some would vanish, sometimes through known events, but sometimes they simply vanished without a trace. All the Howlands had very nearly vanished without a trace when the first Howland, Pilgrim John Howland, had fallen overboard from the Mayflower and very nearly perished. It was also inevitable that Howlands would crash ships, such as in 1828, when Captain Edward Howland wrecked the Lyra on a reef at Oahu, the very place where Amelia Earhart would crash 109 years later. When Captain Oramel Howland wrecked his boat in Disaster Falls on the Powell expedition, it was just an old family tradition.
After shipping her plane back to California for repairs, Amelia Earhart re-started her world flight in the other direction, through Africa and Asia. She made it all the way from California to Australia just fine, and all that remained was the Pacific crossing. She made it to New Guinea just fine. On July 2nd, Amelia Earhart took off for the twenty hour flight to Howland Island. She must have gotten close to Howland Island, because the radio operators there heard her voice clearly, but they never saw her plane. And she must not have seen Howland Island. Later, critics would censure her for relying on traditional visual navigation and for learning the radio so poorly that the crews at Howland Island couldn’t get her bearing or carry on a conversation with her. Her admirers would say her disappearance was a freak event. All we know for sure is that Amelia Earhart twice crashed on the way to Howland Island, and she vanished without a trace.
As with Oramel and Seneca Howland, there were persistent rumors that Amelia Earhart had been found, taken for a spy, imprisoned, and executed, in her case by the Japanese. There were even rumors that she had completed a secret spy mission and returned to live anonymously in the United States, no doubt next door to Bessie Hyde.
All we know for sure is that to gamble your entire adventure and your life on finding a tiny island named for a family full of adventurers who have crashed vessels and vanished without a trace was an act of hubris that no self-respecting Greek god could possibly have ignored. I do not know much about Polynesian gods, but I doubt they felt any obligations to an American feminist hero flying a loud machine and failing to propitiate the vastness of the sea.
On December 8, 1941, the day after Pearl Harbor, the Japanese attacked Howland Island and reduced its facilities into rubble.
So take heed. The next time someone starts to tell a Grand Canyon river story, think twice before you vanish to get a beer or chat with your buddies. If you fail to heed the lesson of Amelia Earhart, you could be next to vanish without a trace.

Don Lago