The origin of the Pacific Ocean Division of the US Army Corps of Engineers goes back to 1905 when Lieutenant John R. Slattery became the first Honolulu District Engineer.
In the early years the District constructed lighthouses and improved harbors in the Territory of Hawaii and erected seacoast fortifications for the defense of Honolulu and Pearl harbors on the island of Oahu.
The direct cause of assigning a Corps of Engineers’ officer to Hawaii was neither river and harbor improvements nor construction of fortifications. Lieutenant John R. Slattery, four years out of West Point, arrived in Honolulu in February 1904 because Hawaii had been found “woefully deficient” in lighthouses.
This conclusion had been reached by the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Pacific Islands and Puerto Rico during its investigation of the condition of lighthouses and other federal matters in the Territory in 1903.
The Corps of Engineers’ responsibilities concerning lights and other aids to navigation had begun in 1852. Because of past problems in the Treasury Department office responsible for the construction and operation of lights, the Congress had authorized the creation of a Lighthouse Board that year.
The coasts of the United States were divided into districts, of which the Pacific Coast became the Twelfth Lighthouse District with its office in San Francisco.
The Army Engineer assigned to the Twelfth District had responsibilities in the construction, inspection, and maintenance of aids to navigation from the Canadian to the Mexican border.
In the early days at San Francisco, this officer was at times the San Francisco Engineer District Officer and at times the staff engineer assigned to the U.S. Army’s Department of California.
By 1903, however, lighthouse duties had become so complex that an Army Engineer, at this time Lieutenant Colonel Thomas H. Handbury, with a staff of his own, had become the Twelfth Lighthouse District Engineer.
Unlike San Francisco Bay, the ports of Hawaii do not experience navigational problems caused by fog. Early efforts in Hawaii to aid seamen were centered on the erection of lights at harbor entrances and at a few dangerous points of land near sea lanes.
Most of these lights were “fixed,” that is, steady beams of light with no revolving apparatus, and were low-powered and of short range.
Of an estimated 35 lights in the islands before aids to navigation became a United States responsibility in 1904, 19 had been erected by the Hawaiian government and the other 16 were privately owned.
The first light to be erected is said to have been at the port of Kawaihae on the northwest coast of Hawaii. Privately owned, it was lit in 1859 to guide whaling vessels into the harbor. Another port heavily used by whalers was the Lahaina Roadstead, Maui.
As many as 500 whaling vessels could be found there at one time in the heyday of the industry —much to the disgust of the missionaries on shore. In 1866, a small light was erected at Lahaina whose beam was visible six miles to sea.
Vessels entering Honolulu Harbor were assisted by two lights that were erected in 1869. The kingdom’s Interior Department reported at that time that a frame lighthouse had been constructed on the west reef at the inner end of the entrance channel.
It was supplied with an up-to-date Fresnel light of the fourth order, placed 25 feet above the high-water mark, and visible at a distance of ten miles.
Vessels entering at night determined the location of the entrance to the channel by lining this light up with a second one mounted on a tower on the Esplanade (later on top of the custom house). As the port grew, sea captains complained that they could not distinguish this light from others in the neighborhood. Perhaps that is why a red cloth was tied around it.
The south shore of Oahu was further marked by the erection of other lights: at Barbers Point to the west of Honolulu in 1888, and at Diamond Head around 1892.
Also at Diamond Head was a lookout station for reporting arriving ships to Honolulu (all ships sailing to Honolulu from the Pacific Coast passed through the channel separating Oahu and Molokai, past Diamond Head, and on to Honolulu). The lookout stationed at Diamond Head in 1902 was named Charles Peterson, but known to all as ‘Diamond Head Charlie.’
While the lights in the Hawaiian Islands were not as far advanced, it should be noted that the first American lighthouse on the Pacific Coast was not lit until 1854 – only five years before the Kawaihae light.
Nor did annexation bring immediate improvement to Hawaii’s aids to navigation; six more years passed before the United States Lighthouse Board (including Army Engineers) assumed responsibility for them. (All here is from Thompson and his History of the Army Corps.)