Today in History

Today in History: August 11

Duke Kahanamoku

"The Father of International Surfing"

Duke Kahanamoku swims in Los Angeles in preparation for a comeback at the Olympics
Duke Kahanamoku swims in Los Angeles in preparation for a comeback at the Olympics,
New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection.
Prints and Photographs Online Catalog

During an Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) swim meet, Duke Paoa Kahinu Mokoe Hulikohola Kahanamoku broke the world record in the 100-yard freestyle swim by 4.6 seconds in Honolulu Harbor on August 11, 1911. Officials were so incredulous at his time that the AAU would not recognize his feat until many years later. Duke Kahanamoku swam using a unique combination of an Australian crawl stroke with a flutter kick to add speed.

Known as Duke, or the Duke, he was a three-time Olympic gold medal winner. He broke another record and won a gold medal for the 100-meter freestyle swim at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics where he also won a silver medal in the 200-meter relay event. The 1916 Olympics were not held because of World War I. Kahanamoku broke his own record at the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp, winning gold in both the 100-meter freestyle and as a member of the U.S. 800-meter-relay team. At the 1924 Olympics in Paris, he won a silver medal in the 100-meter freestyle (his brother, Samuel Kahanamoku, won the bronze medal and Johnny Weismuller captured the gold). Kahanamoku also was an alternate member of the U.S. water polo team that won a bronze in the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics.

The father of surfing, Duke was born on August 24, 1890.  Papa he`e nalu, or surfboards, were invented in Hawai‘i hundreds of years ago and were once the province of royalty. Duke rode a sixteen-foot 114-pound “olo” surfboard made of koa wood, modeled on those of the ancient Hawaiian kings. Then termed wave sliding, the sport is known today as surfing. Although Thomas Edison filmed Hawaiian surfers in 1898, surfing was a dying art when men such as George Freeth, Alexander Hume Ford, and Duke Kahanamoku brought it back to life in the early 1900s. The Duke served as an unofficial ambassador for the sport and taught eager surfers from around the world.

Duke was the first person inducted into both the International Swimming Hall of Fame (1965) and the Surfers’ Hall of Fame (1994)—as its first surf pioneer.

[A] beach [in] Honolulu, Oahu, Hawaii
[A] beach [in] Honolulu, Oahu, Hawaii,
E. J. Kraus, photographer,
February 1936.
American Environmental Photographs, 1891-1936: Images from the University of Chicago Library

Duke was more than a world-class athlete. From 1934 to 1960, he was elected sheriff of the city and county of Honolulu and served as Hawaii's ambassador of aloha from 1960 to 1968. In the latter role he was a goodwill ambassador for surfing and Hawai'i. He also acted in several films, primarily in the 1920s, but also as himself in a few times in the 1950s and 1960s.

Duke Paoa Kahanamoku died on January 22, 1968. A long motorcade of mourners lined Waikiki beach where, after an English- and Hawaiian-language ceremony, fourteen canoes paddled single file out to scatter his ashes at sea.

The Rock: Alcatraz Prison

Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay
Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay. Military prison, Alcatraz Island I,
Theodor Horydczak, photographer,
between 1920 and 1950.
Washington as it Was: Photographs by Theodor Horydczak, 1923-1959

On August 11, 1934, a group of federal prisoners arrived at Alcatraz Island, a twenty-two-acre rock outcropping one-and-one-half miles offshore in San Francisco Bay. The Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary was conceived of as a high-security, escape-proof fortress for federal prisoners considered either particularly dangerous, infamous,  “incorrigible,” or presenting the greatest risk of flight. For the next twenty-nine years, the prison held a series of notorious inmates including Chicago mobster Al Capone, George "Machine Gun" Kelly, and Robert Stroud, memorialized in the 1962 film Birdman of Alcatraz.

Alcatraz was an uninhabited seabird haven at the time of Juan Manuel de Ayala's 1775 exploration. He named it Isla de los Alcatraces (Isle of the Pelicans). The United States government acquired the island in 1849 and after 1861, Alcatraz was used to house military prisoners. Among those imprisoned there during this period were nineteen Hopi Indians from the Arizona Territory who had defied government policies toward their people and U.S soldiers who had defected from the U.S. Army in the Philippines to join forces with the Filipino struggle for independence from the United States.

Very few convicts ever escaped Alcatraz, and it is unknown whether any ever survived the cold water and treacherous currents of San Francisco Bay. Legends about the severity of incarceration at "The Rock" have made the prison's name synonymous with severe punishment. As early as 1939, a Connecticut clockmaker recorded in the interview, "Mr. Coburn," in American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1940, described the tough working conditions at the local clock shop by calling the shop an "Alcatraz."

The prison was closed in 1963 because of the expense entailed in supplying the island. Alcatraz became an important symbol in the resurgent American Indian movement of the 1960s. In 1964 a group of Lakota Indians claimed ownership of the island based on an 1868 U.S. treaty with the Sioux granting Indians the right to claim unoccupied government land. In 1969 a group of Native Americans inspired by the same belief, occupied the island until federal marshals forced them to leave in 1971.