Pearl Harbor History Before 1941

Have you ever wondered what Pearl Harbor History was before the infamous day...December 7, 1941?

Satellite View of Pearl Harbor (Wiki photo)

Pearl Harbor Pearls
Pearl Harbor Pictures
Pearl Harbor Facts

Here guest writer, Susan Scott, who has been writing about the ocean for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin since 1987, answers that question in this article written on December 7, 2001.

History of Pearl HarborBegan Long Before 1941

Today the world remembers Pearl Harbor history for the attack that 60 years ago launched the United States into World War II. But this body of water has a history all its own, starting long before 1941.

In geological history, Pearl Harbor was a river. The area lies at the end of a long valley formed by the Koolau and Waianae ranges. These mountains caused heavy rainfall, creating rivers that cut deep canyons in the island where they emptied into the ocean.

As Oahu sank and sea level rose, sea water flooded these great ravines, leaving only the highest land exposed. Today, we call these plateaus the Waipio Peninsula, the Pearl City Peninsula and Ford Island.

And the body of water surrounding these high points is Hawaii's largest estuary, Pearl Harbor. Ancient Hawaiians named this estuary Wai Momi, meaning the river of pearls.

But it wasn't pearls that attracted large numbers of people to its shores. Rather, the area offered a steady supply of food in the form of fish, birds and invertebrates, including oysters.

The oyster that once flourished in Pearl Harbor history was a small species (Pinctada radiata), about 2 inches wide. Hawaiians ate the soft parts either raw or cooked and threw away any pearls they found. They did, however, value the oysters' shells, from which they carved mother-of-pearl fishhooks. Anglers believed the sheen from these beautiful, iridescent hooks attracted fish.

Others used the shells for scrapers to make cloth and rope, and for the eyes of their god images.

Europeans arrived in 1778, and by 1788 their lust for pearls, and the wealth they bring, had spread to the Hawaiians. One historian wrote, "When King Kamehameha learned of the value placed by visiting Europeans on the luminous ovals obtained by his deep-diving oyster-gathering islanders, the mission of the River of Pearls began to change."

The king declared all of Pearl Harbor's oysters his and prohibited oyster fishing upon pain of death. In 1818, a European explorer wrote, "There are many divers employed here diving for the pearl oysters, which are found in great plenty, and we saved them much trouble and labor by presenting the king with an oyster dredge."

This gift accelerated the demise of the harbor's oysters, and by the 1840s most were gone. To add insult to injury, upland deforestation caused massive mud runoff, smothering any hope of recovery. Today these little oysters are rare, thus ending a gloomy chapter of Pearl Harbor's biological history.

When in 1887 the U.S. Navy moved in, the estuary's military history began. But Hawaiian culture and legend there still remained strong.

In 1914, Navy workers began building the harbor's first dry dock despite Hawaiians' predictions of doom. The dock, they warned, was being built over the shark guardians of the harbor. Shortly after the dock's completion, it collapsed in an explosion of water and timber.

The navy built another dock, but this time consulted a kahuna, who offered chants, prayers and cracker crumbs to the shark gods. When workers pumped the water out of the new dry dock, it remained intact -- and the body of a 14-foot shark lay in its bottom.

The mention of Pearl Harbor history, especially on Dec. 7, will always bring to mind the death and destruction that occurred there in 1941. But in the long history of this ancient estuary, the episode is just one of several worth remembering.

If you enjoyed reading this article about Pearl Harbor history, you'll also enjoy this article by Susan Scott concerning Pearl Harbor History.


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