Hawai‘i’s whaling era began in 1819 when two New England ships became the first whaling ships to arrive in the Hawaiian Islands.
The whaling industry was the mainstay of the island economy for about 40 years. For Hawaiian ports, the whaling fleet was the crux of the economy. More than 100 ships stopped in Hawaiian ports in 1824.
Whalers needed food and the islands supplied this need from its fertile lands. There was a demand for fresh fruit, cattle, white potatoes and sugar. Hawaiians began growing a wider variety of crops to supply the ships.
In the record year of 1846, 736 whaling ships arrived in Hawai‘i. Lāhainā was the port of choice for whale ships.
To aid the ships in reaching the port, in 1840, King Kamehameha III ordered a wooden tower built as an aid to navigation for the whaling ships. It was equipped with whale-oil lamps kept burning at night.
It was built on a section of waterfront known as Keawaiki which means literally, “the small passage,” referring to a narrow break through a coral reef leading to protected anchorage.
This structure was the first lighted navigational aid in the Hawaiian Islands and is older than any lighthouse on the US Pacific Coast.
Later, a light was installed on top of the Union Hotel, which helped the mariners until 1856 when the government installed two powerful locomotive lamps by the Custom House.
Repairs and improvements continued to be made to the lighthouse with a new one being built and put in operation on November 8, 1866.
The new design was a store-house building with a light tower built on top, which contained the light room and a sleeping room for the keeper. The new lamps burned kerosene oil, instead of whale oil.
In 1905 a new wooden, pyramidal, skeleton tower fifty-five feet tall which raised the focal plane of light to sixty feet above high water and had an enclosed workroom near the top, just below the lens platform. The lens had red and white sectors. As long as a mariner remained in the white sector, a safe approach to the port could be made.
In 1917, the wooden tower was replaced by the present thirty-nine foot, pyramidal, concrete tower. A metal ladder leads up one side of the tower to the platform from which a fixed red light is shown. The durability and ease of maintaining such concrete towers led to their wide deployment throughout the islands.
In 1996 the Lāhainā Restoration Foundation signed a 30-year lease agreement with the Coast Guard and assumed responsibility for maintenance of the site.
A metal plaque placed at the tower in 1984 by the Lāhainā Restoration Foundation, the caretakers for the lighthouse, gives a brief history of the towers built at the site, which was originally home to the “oldest Pacific lighthouse.”
The plaque reads: “Oldest Pacific Lighthouse – On this site in 1840, King Kamehameha III ordered a nine-foot wooden tower built as an aid to navigation for the whaling ships anchored off Lāhainā. It was equipped with whale-oil lamps kept burning at night by a Hawaiian caretaker who was paid $20 per year.”
“The tower was increased to 26 feet in 1866, rebuilt in 1950, and the present concrete structure was dedicated by the Coast Guard in 1916. Thus, this light was the first in the Hawaiian Islands and pre-dates any lighthouse on the US Pacific Coast.”