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 Cape Kumukahi, HI    
Description: Located on the Big Island twenty-five miles southeast of Hilo is Cape Kumukahi, the easternmost point of the Hawaiian Islands. According to Hawaiian mythology, the cape is named after Chief Kumukahi who refused to allow the fire goddess Pele to participate in the playing of royal games. Offended, Pele sent forth a fountain of fire and lava that chased Kumukahi to the beach and continued eastward creating the cape.

Tower and outbuildings at Cape Kumukahi
Photograph courtesy Liane Pestrella
The Lighthouse Board made its first request for a lighthouse at Cape Kumukahi in 1908, backed by the following justification.

There is at present no landfall light for vessels bound to Hawai`i by way of Cape Horn. Several vessels have within recent years gone ashore on Kumukahi Point. This is the first land sighted by the vessels from the southward and eastward. The shipping from these directions now merits consideration, and with the improvement of business at Hilo and the opening of the Panama Canal, the necessity for a landfall light on this cape grows more urgent.
Repeated requests for the lighthouse went unfulfilled. In 1927, the Hawaiian Territory's delegate to Congress, V.S.K. Houston, again stressed the importance of a light on Cape Kumukahi to aid not only the shipping traffic from the Panama Canal and the west coast, but also planes on transpacific flights.

Finally, on December 31, 1928, the U.S. Government purchased fifty-eight acres on Cape Kumukahi from the Hawaiian Trust Company for the sum of $500. During the following year, a thirty-two-foot wooden tower capped with an automatic acetylene gas light was built at the cape - not exactly the powerful landfall light the Lighthouse Board had envisioned years before.

In 1933, a sufficient appropriation was at last made for a primary seacoast light for Cape Kumukahi. Two five-room dwellings, water tanks, sidewalks, and a reinforced concrete foundation for the tower were built that year. Due to the frequent earthquakes associated with volcanic activity in the area, a unique foundation was designed for the tower. Lava was first excavated and a massive concrete block was installed in the resulting hole. A second concrete block was placed above the first with a thick layer of sand in between. This design allowed the lower block to move with the earth, without transmitting shocks to the tower. The following year, a square, pyramidal, skeleton tower was constructed of steel, and an aerobeacon was placed at its top, 125 feet above the ground. The light's first head keeper was Charles K. Akana, assisted by William J. Watkins.

In 1938, Joe Pestrella was transferred from the lighthouse tender Kukui to Cape Kumukahi. When he arrived, the station was completely barren. On his own time and at his own expense, he brought in soil and trees and succeeded in turning a desolate spot into a place of beauty. Included in his orchard were lemon, mango and tangerine trees.

Keepers quarters at Cape Kumukahi
Photograph courtesy Liane Pestrella
Cape Kumukahi is included in Kilauea Volcano's active east rift zone. In 1955, a lava flow threatened the station but Pestrella remained on duty. For his dedicated years of service at the station, he was selected as Civil Servant of the Year for the Hawai`i area in 1956.

On January 13, 1960, a fiery fountain of lava, roughly half a mile long, shot up in a sugar cane field, two miles east of the lighthouse and just north of the town of Kapoho. Bulldozers and fire hoses were used in attempts to divert and harden the flow. On January 21, the flow appeared to be heading north away from the village and the station. However, during the next week, the lava turned south and started to encroach on the station grounds. Pestrella's wife and infant son were evacuated, but Pestrella remained at the station saying, "When my backside feels hot, I'll move on. Not till then!!".

When the lava set the station's gate ablaze, Pestrella surely felt the heat, and he placed the light on emergency power and left the station on January 28. The lava flow swallowed the keepers' dwellings, which were located three-fifths of a mile from the light, and incinerated Pestrella's orchard. That same day, the flow engulfed the town of Kapoho.

On February 2, the heat from the flow caused the generator's fuel tanks at the tower to explode and the light was extinguished. As the river of lava approached within a few feet of the tower, it remarkably divided into two streams that flowed past each side of the structure, leaving the tower unscathed. The Kapoho eruption had covered over 10 square kilometers and added two square kilometers of land to the island.

A ten-ton lighted buoy was anchored 510 yards off the cape to temporarily serve as the Cape Kumukahi navigational aid until Hilo Electric Company was able to string power lines to the light from the Kapoho Beach lots. After surviving the lava flow, the lighthouse was fully automated and Pestrella was transferred to the Makapu`u Lighthouse on O`ahu.

Mahalo to Liane Pestrella, granddaughter of Keeper Joe Pestrella, for providing historic photographs and documents.

Head Keeper: Charles K. Akana (1934), Fredrick E. Nihoa (1937 1942), Joseph Pestrella (1942 1960).

Photo Gallery: 1

References

  1. The Lighthouses of Hawai`i, Love Dean, 1986.

Location: Located on the easternmost point of the Big Island.
Latitude: 19.516322
Longitude: -154.810857

For a larger map of Cape Kumukahi Lighthouse, click the lighthouse in the above map or get a map from: Mapquest.


Travel Instructions: From Hilo, take Highway 11 south to Highway 130. Follow Highway 130 for just under twelve miles then turn left onto Kapoho Road (Highway 132). After 2.7 miles on Kapoho Road you will pass Lava Tree State Park on your left. The road takes a sharp turn to the left just after this interesting park, and the Cape Kumukahi Lighthouse is 6.8 miles farther down the road. Before reaching the lighthouse, the road becomes dirt and is quite rough.

The lighthouse is owned by the Coast Guard. Grounds open, tower closed.

Find the closest hotels to Cape Kumukahi Lighthouse

Notes from a friend:

Kraig writes:
When visiting the Cape Kumukahi Lighthouse, a stop at the nearby Lava Tree State Park is definitely worthwhile. When lava quickly flowed through the area in 1790, it congealed around the moisture-laden trunks of the trees. Today, hollow molds of the tree trunks, some rising over ten feet, can be seen in the park. Another interesting side trip is to Hawai`i Volcanoes National Park, where you can see the Kilauea Caldera, and drive down to the coast, where an active lava flow meets the ocean.

Adjacent to the Cape Kumukahi is a monitoring station for ALOHA - Alliance for Long-term Observations of the Hawaiian Atmosphere. A sign at the station reads: "This site at Cape Kumukahi has some of the cleanest air in the northern hemisphere under typical trade wind conditions. This air from over the Central Pacific contains trace amounts of gases and particles that originated from pollution on the continents. By monitoring the variability in these amounts, we can estimate the influence of human activity upon global pollution and the air quality of the Hawaiian Islands. Similar measurements in the upper atmosphere at the top of Mauna Loa provide one of the world's most important data sets on CO2 and the link to human activity, fossil fuel combustion and global warming. This site at Kumukahi will provide similar data for the atmosphere near the ocean surface."


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Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, used by permission.