The US Lighthouse Service had the earliest impact on the maritime histories of Alaska and Hawai‘i. In 1716, the first North American lighthouse was established, but it was not until 1852 that the first light towers were built on the West Coast.
When the US bought Alaska from Russia in 1867, a light was already established at Sitka. In 1898, just over 20 years after acquiring Alaska, the US annexed Hawai‘i. The territorial government was first responsible for aids to navigation. (USCG)
Between 1824 and 1848 Hilo became a significant center for foreign activities, primarily as a result of the establishment of religious mission stations by American missionaries.
Passengers and cargo landed at Hilo in the surf along the beach until about 1863, when a wharf was constructed at the base of present day Waiānuenue Street.
By 1874, Hilo ranked as the second largest population center in the islands, and within a few years shortly thereafter Hilo with its fertile uplands, plentiful water supply and good port became a major center for sugarcane production and export.
Hilo Bay is partially protected by a reef located in 10 to 20 feet of water (later named Blonde Reef after Lord Byron’s vessel, HMS Blonde, which successfully anchored there in 1825.) (The Blonde had carried the bodies of Liholiho (who was born in Hilo) and Kamāmalu back from London, where they died from measles during a visit there.)
Several sites were suggested for the first light to mark Hilo Bay, but the one finally selected was on the shore at Paukaʻa, two-and-a-half miles north of Hilo. The light was erected and first lit on August 13, 1869.
The local sheriff was responsible for overseeing Paukaʻa Light, and in 1871 he sent a report to the Hawaiian minister of the Interior. “I visited the lighthouse yesterday and find that the Chinaman in charge is very negligent in his duties, not trimming the light properly. I showed him the proper way and tonight it shows finely from here.” (Lighthouse Friends)
In 1873, the light structure nearly blew over in a strong wind, prompting the sheriff to send another report to the minister. “This is a very valuable light to vessels coming into Hilo and it should not be allowed to go out of repair; $100 will put it in good condition. I have lately bought an excellent safety lamp for it, which throws a light visible at sea from 10 to 12 miles.”
Incoming vessels from abroad were being charged three dollars for lighthouse dues, and the sheriff requested that some of the collected money be used to elevate the light to make it more visible.
To justify his proposal, he included the following account of an exchange he had when requesting payment of the lighthouse fee. “One captain when charged for lights wanted to know where the lighthouse was and said he had not seen anything around that looked like a lighthouse.”
In 1890, a new Pauka‘a Light was built on the bluff above the original site. Adding the height of the bluff, the new Pauka‘a Light had a focal plane of 159 feet. After the Lighthouse Board took control of Hawaii’s lights in 1904, a thirty-eight-foot mast was erected in place of the tower.
The government wharf at Waiākea was constructed at Kalauokukui Point between 1897 and 1899, and was upgraded in 1902. Hilo Bay was still unprotected from high winds and storm surges that caused ships to break loose from their moorings and risk grounding.
Early sailing directions into Hilo bay were: “From Eastward – Give Leleiwi Point a berth of 1 mile in rounding it and steer 280° true (W 1/8 N mag) for 4 ½ miles, heading for Pauka‘a light until ½ to ¾ mile from shore …”
“… then steer 184° true (S ½ E mag,) keeping this distance offshore and taking care to pass westward of Blonde Reef whistling buoy. Anchor southward of the black can buoys, marking the south-westerly edge of Blonde Reef, with the Hilo Sugar Company’s mill bearing 279° true (W mag,) in 7 to 8 fathoms.”
“From Northward.—After rounding Pepe‘ekeo Point steer 184° true (S ½ E mag,) keeping ½ to ¾ mile offshore and taking care to pass westward of Blonde Reef whistling buoy, anchor as directed in the preceding paragraph.”
“Dangers – The lead is generally a good guide on the south side of the bay, but the shoaling is abrupt to Blonde Reef and the reefs around and eastward of Coconut Island.” (Coast Pilot Notes on Hawaiian Islands, USGS, 1912)
The present pyramidal concrete tower, exhibiting a green flash every six seconds at a height of 145 feet, was placed at the point in 1925. (Lighthouse Friends)
In the late 19th century, the growing sugar industry in East Hawai’i demanded a better and more protected port, and a breakwater was constructed on Blonde Reef to shield ships from rough waters as they entered Hilo Harbor.
In 1908, construction began on a breakwater along the shallow reef, beginning at the shoreline east of Kūhīo Bay. The breakwater was completed in 1929 and extended roughly halfway across the bay. In 1912, contracts were awarded to construct Kūhiō Wharf, to dredge the approach to the new wharf, and to lay railroad track into the new harbor facility.
Between 1927 and 1928, the approach to Pier 3 was dredged and the pier was widened. In 1929, the 10,080-foot long rubble mound breakwater was completed.
Contrary to urban legend, the Hilo breakwater was built to dissipate general wave energy and reduce wave action in the protected bay, providing calm water within the bay and protection for mooring and operating in the bay; it was not built as a tsunami protection barrier for Hilo.
In fact, in 1946, Hilo was struck by a tsunami generated by an earthquake in the Aleutian Islands; it was struck again in 1960 by a tsunami generated by the great Chilean earthquake – both tsunami overtopped the breakwater and Hilo sustained significant damage, including to the breakwater.