“Ste-e-e-mer off Koko Head!” (PCA, 1906)
“Before the telephone was invented, and long before the system was in use in Honolulu, we had the lookout station on Telegraph Hill, which by means of a semaphore arrangement communicated with a station on the building (downtown.)”
“Every merchant was supplied with the code, and whenever a schooner, a steamer, a mail packet, or a man of war, was sighted, the heart of the town knew it immediately.” (Hawaiian Star, February 10, 1899)
Pu‘u O Kaimukī (aka “Kaimukī Hill”) was used as a sighting and signal station (using semaphore technology,) giving it the name “telegraph hill.” It had broad view over the Pacific and line-of-sight to downtown Honolulu. Back then, they used this vantage point to spot ships coming in, and then conveyed the news to Honolulu.
This is where John Charles Pedersen was first stationed. Petersen was appointed lookout … by the then Minister of the Interior, Samuel G Wilder. The station was located at the top of Kaimuki Hill. (Evening Bulletin, September 27, 1907)
Semaphore towers used arms and blades/paddles to convey messages; messages were conveyed/decoded based on the fixed positions of these arms. Reportedly, in 1857, a semaphore mechanism on Puʻu O Kaimukī, with large moveable arms, was attached to the top of a sixty-foot pole and used to signal to Honolulu.
The official receiving station from Kaimukī was on Merchant Street, but some have suggested other receiving stations at Kaʻahumanu Street and the foot of Nuʻuanu.
“When the telephone system got into working order the lookout station was moved to a position on Diamond Head which gave a view further along the channel, because it was no longer necessary for the station to be in full view of the city.” (Hawaiian Star, February 10, 1899)
Diamond Head was connected by telephone with the book store of Whitney & Robertson conducted in Honolulu Hale. (Evening Bulletin, September 27, 1907)
Petersen’s regular weather reports (telephoned every evening promptly at 10 o’clock,) “Diamond Head – 10 pm – weather, hazy; wind, fresh, NE,” or calls with a ship sighting, “Ste-e-e-mer off Koko Head!” “gladdens the hearts of thousands of people every week.” (Pacific Commercial Advertiser, January 29, 1906)
Following the call, HECO’s whistle would scream three long blasts, loud enough for all Honolulu to hear. This meant the ship would arrive in two hours, and people rushed to the harbor.
“All hands, including government officials of many grades and various departments, agents’ representatives, post office clerks, hotel and newspaper men, waterfronters, hackmen, messengers, shipping men, storekeepers, the large army of people “expecting friends,” and frequently Captain Berger and the Hawaiian Band, make haste to get down to the dock to ‘see the steamer come in.’” (Pacific Commercial Advertiser, January 29, 1906)
“For many years all Honolulu has depended on one man to announce the sighting of mail and freight steamers as well as the fleet of ‘windjammers.’ … ‘John Chas. Peterson, Keeper Diamond Head Signal Station,’ as he is designated in the directory.” (Pacific Commercial Advertiser, January 29, 1906)
He was better known as Diamond Head Charlie.
Petersen was born in Gothenburg, Sweden. He came to the Islands eighteen years ago from San Francisco in the old schooner Lizzie Wight. He left for a short while, returned and married a Hawaiian who died four months after her child was born. “The pledge of their union still lives to cheer the father’s heart.”
“His house is built on a rough slope of Diamond Head, facing the sea and from its position the faithful lookout commands an almost unlimited view of the broad Pacific. His business is to watch for incoming vessels and report them. … He watches with unfailing zeal, and it is very seldom that a vessel ever escapes his sharp eyes.” (Pacific Commercial Advertiser, December 19, 1894)
“The great landmark on which he passes his time is well known to tourists and others, and it is eagerly watched for from the decks of incoming steamers. With the aid of glasses passengers can detect a small cottage, painted white, which is built on the side of the bleak extinct volcano.”
“Their home consists of bedrooms, a tiny bit of a pantry, and an observation room, from which Peterson scans the sea. On one side a large water tank stands, encased in wood; they must store the rain water or else go as far as James Campbell’s for the fluid.”
“In front of the cottage stands a flagpole eighty feet high, which is used for signaling. In a locker “Charlie” has a full complement of flags, and is proud of his belonging.”
“A large telescope stands in the observation room, which aids the eye to see a distance of at least thirty miles. It is a powerful glass and when a vessel is eight miles away she does not appear to be more than 1000 yards distant. This telescope was presented to the lookout by Wm. G. Irwin and other merchants about town.”
“Peterson is on duty about seventeen hours every day, and divides his time between watching for vessels and cooking his meals. He has no servants, and of course must prepare his own food, which is done under great difficulties at times, as he has no kitchen.”
“He comes to town but once a month for his pay. While he is absent from his post, which is taken for the time being by a native, he usually purchases enough supplies to last him a month. His salary at present is $75 a month. He started in sixteen years ago at $50, and after a year’s time the sum was increased to $60. He worked for twelve years for the last mentioned sum.” (Pacific Commercial Advertiser, December 19, 1894)
“His glory began to grow dim when the lighthouse was erected at the Head and a keeper came to divide honors with him. Though he has constantly been an important factor to the business community and reported the ships appearing off the port, he became less a household word after the installation of the trans-Pacific cable.” (Evening Bulletin, September 27, 1907)
“Each year since 1895 General Soper has made a Christmas collection for Charlie among the business men of the town. The largest sum was $440 collected in 1902. Charlie was a faithful man and the news of his death (September 27, 1907) caused widespread expressions of regret throughout the town. (Evening Bulletin, September 27, 1907)
“For several weeks past Peterson was in the hospital and little hope was held for his recovery. Close on the allotted three score years and ten, he now sighted that mysterious bark whose captain is called Death.” (Pacific Commercial Advertiser, September 28, 1907)
David S says
Fascinating, charming, evocative description of a VASTLY simpler era. Thanks for this.
I take it Charlie’s house was on the current site of the ‘surfer’s park’ and lookout, Koko Head side of current lighthouse?