Ninini Point, which marks the northern entrance to Nawiliwili Bay, was leased by the Hawaiian government from the Lihue Plantation in 1897 as a site for a lighthouse, and several light structures have served on the point over the years. The first was a forty-foot, wooden, frame tower surmounted by a lamp room that housed a light and reflector at an elevation of seventy feet above the sea.
The light’s first keeper, Manuel Souza, was born on the U.S. mainland to Portuguese parents, but as a youngster he followed the sea and eventually ended up in Hawai`i. His future wife, also of Portuguese descent, came to Hawai`i from the island of Madeira as a contract laborer for a sugar plantation. Souza bought out her contract, and together they lived at the lighthouse for six years.
Each evening before sunset, Souza would climb the tower, light the oil lamp, and place it along with its reflector behind the glass window that formed a corner of the small lamp room. The light would have to be tended during the night, and then around sunrise, Souza would extinguish the lamp, polish the reflector, and prepare the lamp for the next evening.
Besides caring for the light, Souza also maintained the tower along with the keeper’s house and grounds. For his efforts, he was given a meager monthly salary, which arrived irregularly forcing him to obtain credit from the local store to feed his family. In 1902, Souza wrote to the Hawaiian government with his grievances.
I have been working steadily for five years in a place that is about 3 miles from any house or supplies. ... Can’t my wages be raised for my present payment is too small to support my family. Besides my food, water costs me 50 cents a bucket and firewoods are the worst of all. I also spend my own money in preparing the lighthouse, such as painting it with white wash, etc. So with these few words I await your answer. P.S. Answer soon.
The room on top of the original Nawiliwili trestle tower was removed in 1904 and replaced with a “small box locker” that supported a lens lantern. Two years later, the entire tower was torn down, and a thirty-three-and-a-half-foot-tall mast topped by a lens lantern was established on the point. The mast light, which had a small white service house at its base, was first exhibited on December 22, 1906. The keepers would climb the mast to service the light each day via galvanized spikes set into both sides of the pole.
James McLaughlin served as keeper of the light from 1904 until he was transferred to Oahu in 1909 to take charge of the new light on Makapu`u Point. Keeper McLaughlin had managed to transform the isolated and naturally barren point into a place of beauty, and his friends hated to see him leave. As the time of his departure drew near, the local paper noted that McLaughlin had “planted a number of trees around the house and says they are great company to him in the lonely hours which he must pass in his cottage at the light-house. He has named each of the trees after one of his Lihue acquaintances, and they afford him some spirited conversations at times, which their namesakes would doubtless be much interested in hearing.”
Queen Victoria isn’t the only person whose profile is captured in rock on Kauai. A young lady was part of a group visiting Keeper McLaughlin at Nawiliwili Lighthouse in 1909 when she suddenly called out “Look at the man!” Everyone looked around, but no one was unable to locate the man until the young lady pointed out the profile of a man’s head that had been carved into a rock on the point by wind and water. “I have been here four years, and never took notice of it before,” said Keeper McLaughlin, who soon set to work painting the man’s features so they would be even more obvious. They even gave him a name - Jack.
The Lighthouse Service sent the following request to Congress in 1929 for funds to construct a more permanent lighthouse on Ninini Point:
At present there is no landfall light on the island of Kauai for westbound vessels. There is a considerable volume of shipping bound direct to Kauai ports from the Pacific coast, in addition to interisland traffic. Nawiliwili Harbor Light is on the easternmost point of this island, situated at the entrance to Nawiliwili Harbor which, when improvements now nearing completion are finished, will be the principal port on Kauai. There is urgent need for a high-powered long-range light on this point to replace the minor light now in service, which is wholly inadequate, and this improvement has been urged by all maritime interests operating in these waters. It is proposed to construct a 72-foot reinforced concrete tower supporting a fourth-order lantern and to install a fourth-order flashing lens with adequate illumination. It is essential that work on this improvement at at total estimated cost of $22,000, be commenced as soon as practicable.
Keeper Kua, who had been assigned to Nawiliwili Light in 1918, was retained as keeper of the new lighthouse, and he served for a total of twenty-one years at the station before finally retiring in 1939 when the Coast Guard took control of the light.
During World War II, Nawiliwili Lighthouse, along with all others in the Hawaiian Islands, was darkened. On December 31, 1941, a Japanese submarine surfaced near the entrance of the bay and shelled the harbor. Fortunately, several of the shells, including one that made a direct hit on a large gasoline storage tank, failed to explode, and damage was limited to about $500. Fears of a possible Japanese invasion led to the stationing of additional Coast Guard personnel at both the Nawiliwili and Kilauea light stations.
Nawiliwili Lighthouse was automated in 1953, however an attendant remained at the station and was responsible for routine maintenance of Nawiliwili Light and seven minor lights on the island. The lantern room has been removed from the tower, compromising the structure’s beauty.
Head Keepers: Manuel Souza (1897 – 1903), Carl Blum (1904), R.E. Hagemann (1904), John McLaughlin (1904 – 1909), John H. Kanekoa (1909 – 1912), Edward L. Miller (1913 – 1915), Alexander D. Toomey (1915 – 1917), Oliver Kua (1917 – 1938), William C. Dooley (1939 – 1941).