The lighthouses of Hawai'i
|||Profiles, from Kaua'i to the Big Island|
|||Frenchman lit the world's coasts|
By Chris Oliver
Advertiser Staff Writer
Inside the lantern room at Makapu'u Lighthouse, the light blinks faithfully: nine seconds on, one second off, 24 hours a day.
Jeff Widener The Honolulu Advertiser
Coast Guard Cmdr. Mike Cosenza inspects the lamp area of the Makapu'u Lighthouse.
Jeff Widener The Honolulu Advertiser
Hawai'i is known for being the home of the most powerful telescopes in the world, and fewer people know that Makapu'u Light, a Hyperradient Fresnel (say Freh- NEL) lens crafted in France at the beginning of the 20th century, is among the biggest in the world.
Hawaiians of the past named these craggy cliffs Makapu'u ("bulging eye").
In this case, the eye saved countless vessels from coming aground along O'ahu's treacherous southeast coast. For more than 150 years, lighthouses have been guiding ocean traffic to safety in the Hawaiian Islands, a land area comprising fewer than 7,000 square miles in a vast 70 million square miles of ocean.
Hawai'i's remote location makes it easy to grasp their historical importance. For example, there are: the Lahaina Light, the oldest in the Pacific dating from 1844 at the time of King Kamehameha III; Kalaupapa Light, the tallest lighthouse tower in the Pacific at 138 feet; Makapu'u Light, among the most powerful and brightest in the world; and Kilauea Point Light on Kaua'i, credited with saving the lives of two aviators who drifted off course on the first flight from the West Coast to Hawai'i in 1927.
Even in today's era of radio communications and global positioning systems (GPS), Hawai'i's lighthouses are far from retired, stretching along the island chain from Kumukahi Cove, the easternmost point on the Big Island, to the beacon atop Lehua Rock, adjacent to the western islands of Ni'ihau and Kaua'i.
"Lighthouses are important on an emotional level," said Cmdr. Mike Cosenza, chief of the Aids to Navigation Branch, 14th District Coast Guard. "Electronic equipment provides position accurately, but it's still reassuring to have that light in the darkness. Major lights flash 24 hours a day. An indication of how important they are is, if a light goes out, you can bet we hear about it very quickly," he said.
Many noncommercial boaters and the smaller-craft fishing community don't use a GPS, relying instead on word-of-mouth or gut feeling as to where they are, Cosenza said. They'll make for a good fishing spot lining up with something that's familiar on land, or head out to a bit of ocean they feel they know.
Upkeep not easy
Makapu'u Light was built in 1909 as a response to the grounding of the steamer Manchuria on nearby rocks in the predawn hours of 1906. Perched on a lava ledge 400 feet above a dizzying vertical drop to the ocean, the view from the lantern room sweeps up the Windward coast past Kane'ohe and down beyond Honolulu Harbor. Across the Ka'iwi channel Moloka'i shimmers above the curve of the horizon.
Makapu'u light was automated in 1974. At first, Hawai'i's lighthouses were oil-powered (Lahaina Light used whale oil) but as a cost-saving measure, beginning in 1917, the Coast Guard began to automate the lights, fitting each with electric timers to switch the lights on and off.
With automation, the need for lighthouse keepers diminished until eventually lighthouses stood their nightwatch alone. While beacons continued to guide mariners, day-to-day maintenance was lost and the towers' exteriors and lens soon suffered.
Kilauea Point Lighthouse on northeast Kaua'i overlooks the Pacific from a 200-foot-high cliff jutting into the ocean. The adjacent cliffs are home to mariners of a different kind: Laysan albatross, frigate birds, red-footed boobies and wedge-tailed shearwaters. Thousands of seabirds raucously circle the point known as Kilauea Wildlife Refuge Park.
Kilauea Lighthouse, built in 1913, marks the far northwestern gateway to the Islands for ships arriving from the Orient. From an elevation of more than 200 feet, Kilauea's light, focused by a huge clamshell-shaped lens, could be seen by ships 20 miles away.
Although no longer in use as an aid to navigation (light is provided by a smaller automatic beacon close by), the lens remains in the lantern room atop the 53-foot tower.
After Kilauea Light was automated in 1976, the Coast Guard handed the area to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the 30-acre site became the administrative site for Kilauea Point Wildlife Refuge Park,
"We inherited the lighthouse," said Dave Aplin, outdoor recreation planner for the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service. "That was the good news. We also inherited responsibility for its upkeep. And since the lighthouse is close to 90 years old, upkeep is extensive."
The shopping list for lighthouse upkeep won't be filled at the local hardware store, either. Effects of ocean salt and spray make regular stripping, sanding and painting the exterior with protective paint an essential. There's care of the glass, corrosion control and protecting the metal support structure of the lens, which also must be cleaned and polished.
"The focus of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service really must be the wildlife," said Aplin. "With nine staff and three refuges on Kaua'i, we already rely on the goodwill of our volunteers to stay open."
Help arrives unexpectedly in January 2000. Gaylene and Ernest Parson were visiting Kaua'i with Bruce Leech and Beth Remnick, when they took a drive to Kilauea Point.
"We saw the lighthouse was not in its best shape," Gaylene Parson said.
The group decided to repaint the exterior. Ernest Parson, chief petty officer on the USS Salvor and Leech, chief petty officer aboard USS Russell, stationed in Honolulu, took a week's leave, organized a team of volunteers, including their wives, and returned to Kaua'i.
Aplin organized special lift equipment for the crew to reach the top of the tower.
Within the week of long day shifts and night shifts under floodlights, the job was finished, just an hour before their flight back to Honolulu. Aplin estimates the group saved the federal government $40,000.
"Yes, it was hard work," Gaylene Parson said with a laugh, "but so rewarding. The staff were so appreciative and the best thing really was that we accomplished it as a team effort."
Today, Aplin describes the lighthouse with its cheerful red roof and gleaming tower as the jewel of the Kilauea sanctuary.
"Most visitors come to see the lighthouse and once they are here they're pleasantly surprised to find (depending on the time of year) whales, turtles, spinner dolphins, birds with impressively-large wingspans, and just how beautiful the place is," he said.
Originally from Iowa, Aplin is in his third year working at the refuge. "It would be hard to find a nicer or more spectacular place to work," he said.
Neil Gardis might disagree. As an engineer with Ohana Industries, a Las Vegas-based company which restores aids to navigation, he spent four months restoring Kalaupapa Lighthouse on Moloka'i. The place lingers in his memory even when he's working on other remote locations on the Mainland.
Stark and remote, Kalaupapa's northern cliffs drop 2,000 feet to the ocean, forming a backdrop to the peninsula where those suffering from the disfiguring Hansen's disease were isolated last century.
At 138 feet, the Kalaupapa Lighthouse, built in 1908, is the tallest tower in the Pacific. Its octagonal walls measure 4-feet thick. The modern equivalent of its original Fresnel lens revolves from an elevation of 200 feet, shining across 25 miles of ocean and giving ships ample time to change course to avoid the disastrous rocks at the foot of Moloka'i cliffs.
Gardis, who contracted with the Coast Guard to restore the exterior surfaces of Makapu'u, Barber's Point and Kalaupapa Lighthouses, found living at the Kalaupapa settlement in the lighthouse keeper's quarters humbling.
"What is truly impressive about Kalaupapa (and Makapu'u) is that when they came into use almost 100 years ago, they were built without today's construction methods and materials. The cast iron they used was both difficult and heavy to work with. Nuts and bolts were just being invented. The level of craftsmanship that went into these structures was very intense."
Gardis added that the petroleum vapor lamps were difficult and highly dangerous to light. Kalaupapa was so remote, there was no electricity or roads if anything went wrong, Gardis said.
After completing work on the tower each day, Gardis returned to the old lighthouse keeper's quarters nearby where he stayed, often spending the evenings outside beneath the huge revolving beam talking with Richard Marks, Hansen's disease survivor and historian, learning the history of the settlement.
"Kalaupapa is a magnificent place," Gardis said. "I've never met more interesting or kinder people with so much drama and history behind them. It's easy to see how the lighthouse beam was an emotional link for those living at Kalaupapa to a world that had rejected them."
Why should we restore lighthouses?
Gardis has a ready answer. "Many are still active aids to navigation but even for those which are not, they belong to a very brief era in our maritime history, one that's worth preserving," Gardis said.
Each has a rich history, Cosenza said. "We have no plans to get rid of them."