The Beacon Pele Spared—Kumukahi Lighthouse

kumukahi-lighthouseLegend has it that Chief Kumukahi, who resided in Kapoho, was competing in hōlua (Hawaiian sled) races when he mocked Pele who had disguised herself as a beautiful woman. Pele’s wrath was swift and destructive. She chased Kumukahi to the sea with a river of lava, destroying Kapoho and its residents and creating the cape that bears the chief’s name.

Located in lower Puna, Cape Kumukahi is the eastern most part of the Hawaiian Islands and readily identifiable on any map of Hawai‘i Island as the tip pointing out on the right hand side of the island.

Meaning “beginning” or “origin,” Kumukahi is also where the rising sun first shines upon Hawai‘i every day. It is said to be the landing spot of gods and goddesses who traveled here from Kahiki (Tahiti), including the god, Kumukahi, and his wives who were adept at manipulating the sun. Hence, the area is known as a place of mana and healing. The ancient Kukii Heiau is nearby.

Perhaps it is only fitting then that in this barren desolate landscape covered with ‘a‘ā lava, the sole structure on this cape is a beacon of light. It’s interesting to note that when Pele most recently visited the area during the 1960 lava flow that destroyed the town of Kapoho, Kumukahi Lighthouse was the only structure spared on the peninsula.

For more than 70 years, Kumukahi Lighthouse has stood tall at the edge of the sea providing guidance to mariners as they make their way along the rocky coastline. Nothing stands between it and California save 2,500 miles of open ocean. The lighthouse has endured much over the years, including earthquakes and two devastating lava flows.

More than 20 years in the making, the lighthouse did not come easily to the Puna coastline.

A much-needed beacon

At the turn of the nineteenth century, sailing was the only form of transportation to and from the Hawaiian Islands, and ships from around the world docked in Hilo—the only deep-water port in east Hawai‘i Island—to pick up and deliver goods. Exporting crops and cattle via ship was crucial to Hawai‘i Island’s economy.

In 1904, Hawai‘i’s Lighthouse Board gained control of all lighthouses in the state and embarked on a campaign to ensure that signal lights were installed at key approaches to the various islands. Between 1906 and 1908, funds were secured from Congress for Kīlauea Lighthouse on Kauai, Makapu‘u Point Light on O‘ahu, and Moloka‘i Lighthouse in Kalaupapa on Moloka‘i. During that time, a request was also submitted to fund a desperately needed lighthouse at Kumukahi.

Noting that there had been several shipwrecks near Kumukahi, the Board pleaded for a powerful light to be installed. In their 1908 request for a lighthouse at Kumukahi the Lighthouse Board wrote: “There is at present no landfall light for vessels bound to Hawai‘i by way of Cape Horn. This is the first land sighted by 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.”

Although they made repeated requests annually, the Lighthouse Board’s pleas went unanswered for more than two decades.

It wasn’t until 1927 that V.S.K. Houston, the Hawai‘i Territory delegate to Congress, made an ardent request for a lighthouse at Kumukahi noting that there was no prominent light eastward of Moloka‘i to guide either ships or planes. By that time Hilo was the second largest port in the territory and military airplanes had started transpacific flights to Hawai‘i.

Congress finally authorized funds for a lighthouse, and on December 31, 1928, the U.S. government bought 58 acres of land at Cape Kumukahi from the Hawaiian Trust Company for $500. (Today’s equivalent after factoring inflation would amount to $6,786.47 according to saving.org.)

Humble beginnings

A simple wooden tower 32 feet tall was constructed housing an automatic acetylene beacon with 390 candlepower. (Candlepower is the measurement of radiance at a light source such as a spotlight. The measurement is based on the light produced by a single candle.) Visible for only 12 miles out to sea, the beacon was so weak it was barely bright enough for interisland sailing, never mind larger merchant ships rounding Cape Horn, or commercial airplanes.

Between 1932 and 1934, the lighthouse was substantially improved when the wooden tower was replaced with a 125-foot tall steel tower. Given the barren and rough terrain of the coastline, a course road was built from Highway 137—commonly referred to as Red Road—to the lighthouse. Two five-room homes for the lightkeepers were built. Because the land is so desolate at Cape Kumukahi, the homes were built more than half a mile away closer to Highway 137. Water tanks, a laundry room, tool shed, fuel storage building, and even sidewalks were installed.

Two rotating aerobeacons were installed with each light offering 1,700,000 candlepower, increasing the visibility to 19 miles out to sea. Flashing every six seconds, only one light was used at a time with the second light in place as a back up. The beacon was powered by two generators stored in a building at the base of the lighthouse.

Given that Cape Kumukahi lies on the east rift zone of Kīlauea volcano, where minor earthquakes are frequent, a special foundation was designed for the lighthouse. Its base consists of two stacked concrete blocks with a layer of sand in between in order to guard the tower against toppling during an earthquake.

When it was finally completed in 1934, Kumukahi Lighthouse was the tallest steel tower in the entire territory of Hawai‘i.

Keepers of the light

The first head and assistant lightkeepers assigned to Kumukahi Lighthouse were Charles K. Akana and William J. Watkins, respectively. Their main duty was to maintain the lighthouse by scraping away the sea salt and repainting the tower, as well as maintaining the generators. Akana served as lightkeeper for only one year and a couple years later in 1937, Watkins transferred to Makapu‘u Light house on O‘ahu. Frederick Nihoa manned the lighthouse as head lightkeeper from 1938-1942.

Perhaps the most well-known lightkeeper associated with Kumukahi Lighthouse is Joe Pestrella. Assigned to the lighthouse in 1938 as an assistant lightkeeper, Joe took it upon himself to build an orchard next to his living quarters in his spare time. Using his own money, he cleared the land and brought in soil and planted a variety of trees, including lemons, mangoes, tangerines, and even bay leaf. In 1951, Sidney Estrella became assistant lighthouse keeper and maintained the station until 1956. In the years to come, both men were recognized by the Coast Guard for maintaining the lighthouse in exceptional condition.

Pele comes calling

Life was peaceful for several years along the Puna coastline until a lava flow threatened Kapoho in 1955. Pestrella stayed at his post to watch over the lighthouse as the lava advanced. The following year, he received the “Civil Servant of the Year” award from the U.S. Coast Guard for his bravery in staying at his post. At the time, Ludwig Wedemeyer, leader of the Hilo Coast Guard station, noted it was the first time a Hawai‘i Island resident had received such an award from the Coast Guard.

Pele came calling again in 1960 when fountains of lava erupted from cracks in the ground after a series of earthquakes rocked Kapoho in January of that year. County officials and firefighters worked feverishly to erect berms and spray the lava with water in attempts to divert the flow from the town of Kapoho. At first it appeared that the lava was headed away from the lighthouse, but it changed directions heading straight for it.

Pestrella’s wife and baby son were evacuated with the rest of the Kapoho residents with Pestrella quoted as saying he wouldn’t leave until he could feel the heat of the lava on his backside.

Indeed, Pestrella only evacuated when the lava started melting the gate to the lighthouse entrance. Both lightkeepers’ homes and Pestrella’s prized orchard were destroyed, as was the town of Kapoho.

Incredibly, the lighthouse was spared. When the lava flow was within feet of the tower, the advancing lava split into two streams and went around the tower flowing into the ocean and sparing the lighthouse. To this day, you can still see where the lava split into two streams in front of it. The lighthouse and Pu‘ula Congregational Church in Kapoho both survived the 1960 lava flow. You can read about Pu‘ula Church in the May–June 2015 issue of Ke Ola.

Shortly after sparing the tower, lava ignited the generators that supplied power to the light beacon causing the lighthouse to go dark. A temporary light was set up as a navigational aid on the Coast Guard cutter Basswood, which anchored offshore of Cape Kumukahi.

After the 1960 eruption ended, an electric line was run from Kapoho Beach Lots to the lighthouse to restore power, and the light became automated. Joe was transferred to a lighthouse on O‘ahu, and when he retired in 1963, he was the last civilian lighthouse keeper in Hawai‘i.

Today, Kumukahi Lighthouse remains automated and is maintained by the U.S. Coast Guard’s 14th District Aid to Navigation Team (ANT) based in Honolulu. Its beacon light flashes every 15 seconds with a range of 24 nautical miles.

Cleanest air in the Northern Hemisphere

The tall tower is also used as a monitoring station to test air quality. Because nothing stands between Cape Kumukahi and the U.S. mainland except thousands of miles of open ocean, it enjoys some of the cleanest air in the Northern Hemisphere. Scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and other organizations monitor the air at Kumukahi Lighthouse to determine air quality for the entire state, as well as the impact of air pollution from other countries. ❖

Lightkeepers of Kumukahi Lighthouse

Head lightkeeper: Charles Akana, 1934
Asst. lightkeeper: William Watkins, 1934–1937

Head lightkeeper: Frederick E. Nihoa, 1937–1942
Asst. lightkeeper: Joe Pestrella, 1938–1942

Head lightkeeper: Joe Pestrella, 1942–1960
Asst. lightkeeper: Sidney Estrella, 1951–1956

Getting to Kumukahi Lighthouse

From Hilo: Take Highway 11 south to Highway 130, the Keaau-Pāhoa bypass. Travel for nearly 12 miles, and turn left onto Highway 132, Kapoho-Pāhoa Rd. About two-and-a-half miles down Hwy 132 the road takes a sharp left after Lava Tree State Park. Continue a little more than four miles to the intersection of Highway 137 and continue straight. The road will be rough gravel for 1.5 miles and dead ends at the lighthouse.

There are no facilities or water available at the lighthouse. The steep rocky coastline is not conducive to swimming. There are however, a series of unimproved trails that can be accessed by four-wheel drive vehicles.

Contact writer Denise Laitinen

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