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.
Makapu‘u Point is the extreme southeastern point of the island of Oahu. To the east of it is the Ka‘iwi Channel, which passes between the islands of Oʻahu and Molokai.
Makapu‘u was a supernatural being who, after arriving from Tahiti, took up residence on the point now bearing her name.
This being’s defining feature was her set of eight bright eyes, which is reflected in her name Makapu‘u (meaning bulging eye.)
For years, there was no light on the entire northern coast of the Hawaiian Islands to guide ships or warn them as they approach those islands.
The lack of such a light not only rendered navigation at times very dangerous, but in bad weather or at night often compelled them to slow down and await clear weather or daylight.
With the increasing importance of commerce between the United States and the Hawaiian Islands, and the commerce passing the Hawaiian Islands and stopping at Honolulu, the need was evident for this aid to navigation
Essentially, all the commerce from the west coast of North America bound to Honolulu passes Makapuʻu Lighthouse.
On October 1, 1909, the light from another bright, bulging eye was seen on the rocky point of Makapu‘u as the giant lens in the Makapu‘u lighthouse was illuminated for the first time.
Although the tower is only 46-feet high, the light is 420-feet above the sea.
Makapu‘u Lighthouse has the largest lens of any lighthouse of the US, known as a hyper-radiant lens. The inside diameter is 8’2”, sufficient for several people to stand in.
The 115,000-candlepower light can be seen for 28-miles. The effectiveness of this lighthouse has been greatly increased in recent years through the establishment of a radio beacon at the station; radio signals may be heard 200 and more miles at sea.
The lighthouse and about 5,000-square feet around it are owned by the Coast Guard and listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The rest of the surrounding area – about 40 acres including a lookout – belongs to the State and is under the control of State Parks within DLNR, which maintains a public wayside park and trail to the vicinity of the Makapu‘u Lighthouse.
The Makapu‘u Point trail, within Ka Iwi State Scenic Shoreline, offers outstanding views of O‘ahu’s southeastern coastline, including Koko Head and Koko Crater.
From the trail’s destination at Makapu‘u Head, there are also magnificent views of the windward coast and offshore islets, as well as the historic red-roofed Makapu‘u Lighthouse (the lighthouse itself is off-limits).
On a clear day, you may even see Molokai and Lāna‘i.
The offshore islets (Mānana – Rabbit Island and Kāohikaipu – Flat Island) are wildlife sanctuaries for Hawaiian seabirds.
This trail is an excellent place to view migrating humpback whales in season (November-May). An interpretive sign and viewing scope along the trail help you view and identify the whales seen from this location.
This is a moderate 2-mile hike that is paved but is a bit steep in spots. There is no shade or restroom facilities along this trail (start before noon due to the heat, bring plenty of water and wear sunscreen.) STAY ON THE TRAIL.
When I was at DLNR, we finally made necessary improvements to get hikers’ parked cars off Kalanianaole Highway and into parking lots (one at the Makapuʻu Beach overlook and a larger on at the head of the Makapuʻu Point trail.)