Digest>Archives> Jul/Aug 2014

A Lost Hawaiian Beacon

A Most Challenging Light


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The beacon on Ka’ula Rock as it appeared in the ...

In the 1920s it was decided that a lighthouse of some type needed to be built on Ka’ula Rock (sometimes spelled Kaula) a lofty, table-like, rocky, uninhabited island about 180 miles from Honolulu, Hawaii. But building or establishing any kind of beacon at the top of an island that rises some 500 feet straight up would have its challenges. The accounts of the difficulty encountered were recorded in papers by George Putnam, the Commissioner of Lighthouses; Ralph R. Tinkham, Superintendent of the 19th Lighthouse District; and Assistant Superintendent Frederick A. Edgecomb, who later succeeded Tinkham as Superintendent of the 19th district.

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Aerial view from the west of Ka’ula Rock in ...
Photo by: Peter Young

The 100-acre island is home to thousands of nesting birds and was well known to the early steamer captains. As their vessels would pass for Manila or other ports, they would often toot their ships’ horns to arouse the birds for the amusement of their passengers. But on a dark moonless night this island could prove dangerous to ships.

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Men from the Lighthouse Tender Kukui making the ...

The Lighthouse Tender Kukui was dispatched to the site to see how and where a lighthouse could be built. However, after numerous unsuccessful attempts to land some men on the island, they gave up. Then the Air Service, an early arm of the U.S. Army, was called upon to lend a hand. The thought was to do an aerial survey of the island so that the Lighthouse Service could determine the best site to land at Ka’ula Rock and where to build the lighthouse on the island. Because this was in the early days of airplanes, the government loaded a de Havilland two seat bi-plane onto the Lighthouse Service Tender Kukui in O’ahu, Hawaii and transported the plane to Ahukini Harbor on the island of Kaua’i where a coarse airstrip was built. Then the plane took off with an Army photographer on board to take the first-ever aerial photos of the island. In case the plane should have to ditch in the ocean because of engine trouble, the lighthouse tender Kukui was stationed at a halfway point, ready to act if trouble should occur. The cameraman was able to take three photos on that day.

On July 25, 1925 the Kukui again arrived offshore of Ka’ula Rock with the intention to get ashore and pick a site where an aid to navigation could be erected. It took the work party several days and several attempts to scale the cliff. But one man had to be the first. More than likely, that man swam to shore, then climbed up the cliff to a ledge and secured a rope to a ledge. He then swung the rope out to the remaining men in the dory, who then swung through the air to the base of the cliff as shown in the image with this story.

Eventually the crew was able to carve foothold steps into the rock ledges, and then they constructed a scaling ladder so the men could reach the top of the island. They must have had nerves of steel. One of the men who made the climb was Frederick A. Edgecomb, who would later become the superintendent of all lighthouses in Hawaii. Once at the top of the island, the men were astounded to find several stone huts that had been constructed by some ancient civilization. From their appearance, they had not been used for many years. Based on their knowledge of the island’s history, the men assumed they were used for religious purposes. The crew then made the necessary survey measurements and reports as to where a beacon should be built.

However, it would take seven more years before a light would be established in 1932 at an elevation of 562 feet atop Ka’ula Rock. Getting the supplies to build the beacon high atop the island was obviously a strenuous process, especially since everything had to be hoisted to the top of the island, first by a rope and then by a derrick. With no place to camp on the island, the workmen had to return to the lighthouse tender each night and return to the island each morning, which was no easy task in the rough seas and harsh weather they encountered during the project. The project took eleven days of grueling hard work. The tower for the beacon was actually a short wooden structure powered by 500mm acetylene gas lamps that required refueling only once a year, so no keeper would be needed. It was first lighted on August 18, 1932.

Because of advancing technology, the Ka’ula Rock Light was only used for nine years and was discontinued in 1941 by the United States Coast Guard, which had taken over the Lighthouse Service in 1939.

This story appeared in the Jul/Aug 2014 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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