In January 1906, a report stressing the importance of Makapu`u Lighthouse was presented to the fifty-ninth Congress.
Makapuu Point is the extreme southeastern point of the island of Oahu. To the east of it is the Kaiwi Channel, which passes between the islands of Oahu and Molokai, which are about 25 miles apart. The harbor of Honolulu, the principal harbor of the central Pacific Ocean, is on the southern coast of Oahu, a short distance west of Makapuu Point. All vessels from Puget Sound, San Francisco, Mexico, Panama, and other Central American and United States ports, proceeding to Honolulu, pass through Kaiwi Channel and by Makapuu Point, and if they are in the direct course, Makapuu Point is the first sight of land after a voyage of several thousand miles. There is no light on the entire northern coast of the Hawaiian Islands to guide ships or warn them as they approach those islands. The lack of such a light not only renders navigation at times very dangerous, but in bad weather or at night often compels them to slow down and await clear weather or daylight.
With the increasing importance of commerce between the United States and the Hawaiian Islands, and the commerce passing the Hawaiian Islands and stopping at Honolulu, it will be very greatly to the advantage, speed, and safety of vessels that this much-needed aid to navigation be provided.
On June 10, 1906, Congress appropriated $60,000 for construction of the lighthouse, and any doubt that the light was truly necessary was eliminated when two months later the $2,500,000 passenger liner Manchuria ran aground off Makapu`u Point. After all passengers and most of the cargo were safely off-loaded, the steamer was finally pulled off the ledge that had held her for almost a month and towed to Honolulu Harbor. The owners of the Manchuria were doubtlessly delighted that their ship was seaworthy again in less than two months, but they must have been equally frustrated since they had signed the 1888 petition for a lighthouse on Makapu`u, which would have almost certainly prevented the mishap.
John R. Slattery, a West Point graduate who had been sent to Hawai`i in 1904 to oversee the improvement of harbors and aids to navigation, was charged with drawing up the plans for Makapu`u Lighthouse in August 1906. Slattery considered both Makapu`u Point and Rabbit Island, located just to the north, as sites for the lighthouse but selected Makapu`u Point, even though the light there would be so high that it might be obscured during thick weather. Slattery designed a short tower that would keep the light as low as possible but still high enough that the wind couldn’t blow pebbles into the lantern room glass.
Makapu`u Point rises 647 feet above the ocean and is composed of a number of lava flows. The station’s three keeper’s dwellings, constructed of the abundant blue lava rock on the point, were built in a depression near the summit, while a notch, large enough to hold the lighthouse, was blasted out of the lava face at a height of 395 feet above the water. A trail linking the lighthouse and dwellings and a road connecting the station to the nearest highway had to be carved into the lava point. Water for the station was pumped up from Waimanalo landing, stored in a 10,000-gallon tank, and then distributed by gravity.
Block and tackle was used to raise the numerous lens pieces from the deck of a ship, moored near the point, up the face of Makapu`u Point. The 1,188 glass prisms and brass framework were then assembled in the lantern room. The hyperradiant lens is the largest type of lens, and the only one of its kind used in a U.S. lighthouse. Keeper James McLaughlin was transferred from Nawiliwili Lighthouse to take charge of Makapu`u Point Lighthouse, but he arrived after its first lighting on October 1, 1909 that was made by assistants George Beazley and George Mansfield.
First Assistant Beazley was promoted to head keeper in 1909 and served in this role for twelve years. Beazley must have kept the station in immaculate condition as he received the lighthouse efficiency pennant for at least four straight years for having the model station in the district.
The twelve-ton lens produces a fixed white light, but a flashing characteristic was created by a set of copper panels that revolved on a track located between the light source and the lens. As seen from the water, the light was on for seven-and-a-half seconds and off for one-and-a-half seconds. The weight that powered the mechanism for rotating the panels had to be wound every three-and-a-half hours.
The powerful light was welcomed by most mariners, but it puzzled some who were unaware of its activation. The Japanese cruiser Izumo was approaching Oahu from the east one night in November 1909, when it noticed a powerful light not listed on its charts. The mysterious flashes caused the crew of the Izumo to question their location, and they judiciously chose to remain offshore until daylight. The British barkentine Helga wasn’t as fortunate. It mistook the new light on Makapu`u Point for the one on Diamond Head and ran aground.
An incandescent oil vapor lamp with three 55mm mantles was being used as the light source when tragedy struck the Makapu`u station around 3:00 a.m. on April 9, 1925. The Lighthouse Bulletin of June 1, 1925 documented the incident.
A cylindrical tank containing alcohol for starting the oil vapor lamp stood upright on a small wooden stand about six feet inside of the main entrance door on the left and about two feet above the floor. The two keepers were about to change watch when the first assistant suggested to the second that he fill the alcohol lighter, and after drawing all the alcohol which would run from the faucet, it was discovered that some of it had dripped on the floor. The first assistant lighted a match, which ignited the alcohol on the floor, and the explosion followed.The explosion blew the bottom out of the cylindrical tank. John Kaohimunu, the second assistant keeper, was near the door and escaped with burns, but the clothes of First Assistant Alexander Toomey caught fire, and the accident left him “charred black and crinkled.” The entire service room comprising the lower level of the tower was momentarily engulfed in flames of intense heat, which blistered the room’s varnished cupboards.
Reverend Akana, of Kawaiahao Church, Honolulu used the words “Stand by the light and keep it burning,” as the text for an eloquent sermon delivered at Toomey’s funeral on April 11. It wasn’t long before Toomey’s wife gave birth to a baby daughter, and then, three months after the accident, she died of a broken heart.
Hawaii’s first radiobeacon was placed in commission at Makapu`u Point on July 1, 1927. The signal produced by the beacon could be picked up at a distance of two hundred miles and was used by both mariners and aviators to determine their position. A generating plant was established on Makapu`u Point to provide electricity for the radiobeacon, and the lighthouse was converted from oil-vapor to 500-watt incandescent electric lamps.
Joe Pestrella became officer-in-charge at Makapu`u Light Station in 1960, after a volcanic flow destroyed the keeper’s quarters at Cape Kumukahi and that light was automated. During Pestrella’s service at Makapu`u, a seaman jumped ship from a merchant vessel that was passing the point and swam all night trying to reach the lighthouse. The following morning, Pestrella received word from the Coast Guard that the man was presumed dead. However, a few minutes later that man, now bruised and bleeding from pulling himself onto the wave-battered shore below the lighthouse, arrived at the Pestrella’s home, where he received much needed first aid and food. In 1963, Pestrella, one of the last civilian members of the Lighthouse Service, retired after nearly twenty-nine years of service. The day before his retirement, he posed for a final photograph near the lighthouse.
The Coast Guard automated Makapu`u Light Station on January 4, 1974 and then monitored the station remotely from Honolulu. Sometime during the next year or so, the dwellings were secretly used to house prosecution witnesses during the trial of an underworld boss, who was facing federal tax evasion charges in Honolulu. In 1987, the government declared part of the land around the lighthouse and the keeper’s dwellings as surplus. The property was turned over to the State of Hawaii, but a group of armed Hawaiians took up residence in one of the dwellings as part of a land-ownership protest. After several weeks, the squatters were evicted without bloodshed, and shortly thereafter the state razed the dwellings. The only surviving outbuilding is an oil house near the trail that leads to the lighthouse. The unstaffed lighthouse has not escaped vandalism as evidenced by a bullet hole in the lens created by a high-powered rifle in 1984.
In 2001, the State of Hawaii paid $12.8 million for a large section of land around Makapu`u Lighthouse. The acquisition allowed the state to improve parking near the trail leading to Makapu`u Point and should keep the coastline in the area free from development.
Mahalo to Liane Pestrella for providing the photograph of and information on her grandfather, Joe Pestrella.