Keepers of the Light, Land and Life: A Look at Kilauea Point over 100 Years

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Keepers of the Light, Land and Life: A Look at Kilauea Point over 100 Years

Posted by: Kim Steutermann Rogers
Destination: Kauai
Apr 19, 2013

As a volunteer at Kīlauea Point National Wildlife Refuge on the north shore of Kauai for many years, my interest and body of knowledge tended toward the wildlife—that is, the science of biology and living things, like monitoring Laysan albatrosses, banding red-tailed tropicbirds and studying visiting humpback whales. I noticed and appreciated the big, white tower in the middle of Kīlauea Point with its priceless “crown jewel” sitting on top, but I left the intricate details of the second-order Fresnel lens and its mysterious inner workings to people more interested in engineering and that kind of science. Then, I was asked to write a book in celebration of the 100th anniversary of Kīlauea Lighthouse this May 1, 2013, and in doing so, I learned a whole host of cool, new facts. Like it took nine years to decide where on Kauai to build it. And the plans for the round tower we know today once called for an octagon shape. And it was originally to be built on the rock islet off Kilauea Point known as Moku`ae`ae. And it wasn’t painted until 1923. But perhaps the most surprising gift I received in writing this book was getting to know three dedicated people: Gary Smith, Nicki Pignoli and Don McConnell. Without them, this book wouldn't exist.

The following is an excerpt from the book.
Keepers of the Light, Land and Life: A Look at Kilauea Point over 100 Years is available for $21.95 at the Visitor Center at Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge on Kauai.


The decision to build a lighthouse atop the 180-foot bluff at Kīlauea Point wasn’t a quick one. Even though, as the first landfall site for ships coming from Asia—as far as 4,900 miles away—it seems like an easy one.

Five years after the 1898 annexation of Hawai`i by the United States, the U.S. Lighthouse Board extended the boundaries of its 12th Lighthouse District to include the Hawaiian Islands. Soon after, the board made Hawai`i its own district and quickly recommended the construction of three new light stations. No one questioned where the first two would go. Incoming ships from North America followed a well-established route to Honolulu Harbor that made the northernmost point on Moloka`i and the southeastern tip of O`ahu landfall sites. Kalaupapa and Makapu`u  were natural choices for the modern, rotating beacons. Easy choices. 

A third lighthouse was deemed necessary on Kaua`i for those ships coming from the west, Asia. But it would take another nine years to decide exactly where on Kaua`i to build it. Kīlauea Point with its jutting finger of land elevated above the ocean on Kaua`i’s north shore was on the list. So, too, was Mānā Point on Kaua`i’s west side. In the end, it came down to these two locations.

In 1895, Prince Kūhiō, born in Koloa on Kaua`i’s south shore, participated in an unsuccessful coup to restore the monarchy of the Kingdom of Hawai`i  to his aunt Queen Liliuokalani. He was arrested for his actions and imprisoned for one year. A short seven years later, Kūhiō was elected Territorial Delegate to the U.S. Congress, and in 1908, as a representative of the territory of Hawai`i , he sponsored legislation to authorize construction of a lighthouse on Kauai’s north shore at Kīlauea Point.

A year later, A.B. Spreckels, of the Kīlauea Sugar Company, sold the remote 31.4 acres that comprise Kīlauea Point to the U.S. Government for $1. That $1 purchase price also included a 20-foot-wide right of way to the nearest public road--then 1.6 miles away and a federal land withdrawal added the rock island of Moku`ae`ae, just off the tip of Kīlauea Point. Today, we might view the value of the land differently. The views from the point are some of the most scenic on the entire island. But around the turn of the 20th century, when the sugar boom tantalized businessmen, Kīlauea Point might be called `ōpala land—rubbish.

“The sugar plantation really didn’t use Kīlauea Point itself,” said Gary Smith, Kīlauea resident and local historian. The terrain did not make it easy to get to, and there was no road there. I’m sure some people went horseback riding to see the wonderful view there. Like most of the `ōpala land in the old days, it might have been used for grazing cattle.” 

It looked like Kīlauea Point was all set to see a lighthouse built on its grassy plateau. Yet, as late as May 1912, the U.S. Commissioner of Lighthouses, George R. Putnam, wrote a telegram to the Hawai`i  district, “Bureau informed transpacific navigation routes are south of Kaua`i Island, proposed Kīlauea site apparently not most useful, investigate and make recommendations.”

The debate, it seems, came down to windward or leeward.

The island of Kaua`i is relatively round, ranging in diameter from 25 to 33 miles wide. Superimposing the island over the face of a clock, with north being 12:00, ships coming from Asia approached at 11:00. The debate to build a lighthouse and guide ships around Kaua`i to Oahu’s Honolulu Harbor centered around whether the preferred and safest route would be to direct ships clockwise around the north shore and down the east side of Kaua`i--the windward route. Or, whether the counter-clockwise western and southern route--leeward--made more sense.  The north route was shorter. But in winter, with storms generating waves from as far away as the Aleutian Islands, some 2,000+ miles due north, it was also rougher.

In Old Hawai`i, at a time when Polynesian voyagers read the night sky as if it were a printed map, perhaps they didn’t need tall lighthouses for long-distance navigation. They had skills galore. They did, however, use more modest means to guide fishermen, warriors and seafarers around the near-shores of Hawai`i ’s reefs and rocky coastlines.

In Hawaiian Antiquities, David Malo writes about night watch parties. These fire tenders stoked kukui ahi, or fire lamps, in which the oil from the nuts of the kukui (Aleurites moluccana) tree were burned in large, stone bowls throughout the night. Interestingly, neither Kīlauea Point nor Mānā Point is known as an ancient Hawaiian light station, perhaps more likely a reflection of societal needs than anything. Or, perhaps, a simple loss of history. But signal fires could have easily moved around the island as seasons evolved, as settlements moved or grew, and as society dictated. Kīlauea’s prominent point may have been used to guide seafarers. But, then, as now, life evolves. Needs change. The meteoric rise in the sugar cane industry swept in a whole new unique set of needs.

By the time the U.S. Lighthouse Board requisitioned the construction of three modern lighthouse towers outfitted with ground-glass, rotating lens beacons in 1903, there were already an estimated 75 fixed lights or daytime landmarks throughout Hawai΄i. Most of these arose from the needs of private business and burned only when it came time to ship sugar. Perhaps one even burned off Mokolea Point, another prominent jutting finger of land to the east of Kīlauea.

Finally, after all the reports and surveys and testimony and debate, on May 29, 1912 the Secretary of the Department of Commerce and Labor issued a telegram to the Bureau of Lighthouses in San Francisco, saying, “Concur in recommendation Hawaiian District officers...that light be located Kīlauea Point. In good weather some masters use route north of Kaua`i...in bad weather majority masters favor light north side of Kaua`i and best landfall.”

One such master, Captain A.W. Nelson of the steamer Korea, favored Kīlauea, saying, “It is customary to pass Kaua΄i...at a distance of five miles on completion of the Great Circle course.... A light on the extremity of Point would show an unbroken arc to the westward, which can also be seen from the eastward soon after passing Kahala Point, the present lighthouse on the eastern extremity of the island.”

The final report showed that eight out of 12 masters of trans-Pacific vessels surveyed preferred the northerly route of Kīlauea Point. First, it was nearer the “Great Circle” route. Second, the route involved fewer adverse currents.

The third point in favor of Kīlauea spoke volumes to Congress, then as it would today: It would cost less to build. At 180-feet above sea level, the tower at Kīlauea Point would not need to be as tall as one at the low-lying point of Mānā, nor would it require a foundation to be built below water level. And, thus, $75,000 was appropriated for construction at Kīlauea Point.

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