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
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
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.