A petition, calling for the establishment of a light on the point, was signed by a number of sea captains and ship owners and presented to the Hawaiian government in 1888, after the American ship S. N. Castle had run aground in the area. Many thought the grounding would have been avoided if a light had been present on Makapu`u Point. Some preliminary planning for the lighthouse had been enacted by 1901, but when the territorial government learned that the U.S. Government would soon be assuming responsibility for navigational aids in the Islands, no further work was pursued.
In January of 1906, a report stressing the importance of the Makapu`u Light was presented to the Fifty-ninth Congress.
Makapuu Point is the extreme southeastern point of the island of Oahu. To the east of it is the Kaiwi Channel, which passes between the islands of Oahu and Molokai, which are about 25 miles apart. The harbor of Honolulu, the principal harbor of the central Pacific Ocean, is on the southern coast of Oahu, a short distance west of Makapuu Point. … There is 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 renders navigation at times very dangerous, but in bad weather or at night often compels 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, it will be very greatly to the advantage, speed, and safety of vessels that this much-needed aid to navigation be provided.
In June of 1906, Congress appropriated $60,000 for construction of the lighthouse. Any doubt that the light was truly necessary was eliminated when two months later the $2,500,000 passenger liner Manchuria ran aground off Makapu`u Point. After all passengers and most of the cargo were safely off-loaded, the steamer was finally pulled off the ledge that held her for almost a month and towed to Honolulu Harbor. The owners of the Manchuria were doubtlessly delighted that their ship was seaworthy again in less than two months, but they must have been equally frustrated since they had signed the 1888 petition for a lighthouse on Makapu`u, which would have almost certainly prevented the mishap.
Makapu`u Point rises 647 feet above the ocean and is composed of a number of lava flows. The three keepers' dwellings, constructed of the abundant lava rock on the point, were built in a depression near the summit. At a height of 395 feet above the water, a notch, large enough to hold the lighthouse, was blasted out of the lava face. A trail linking the lighthouse and dwellings and a road connecting the station to the nearest highway had to be carved into the lava point.
The thirty-five-foot tower was ready to receive its lens by October of 1908, but what size of lens to use in the tower was still being debated. Plans called for a third-order lens, then a second-order lens, and finally a first-order hyperradiant lens. The Lighthouse Board had purchased the 12-foot-tall lens, which had an inside diameter of roughly eight feet nine inches, in 1887. The lens was exhibited at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, and then placed in storage for several years before being shipped to Oahu.
Block and tackle was used to raise the numerous lens pieces from the deck of a ship, moored near the point, up the face of Makapu`u Point. The 1,188 glass prisms and brass framework were then assembled in the lantern room. The hyperradiant lens is the largest type of lens, and the only one of its kind used in a U.S. lighthouse.
The lens produced a fixed white light, but a flashing characteristic was created by a set of copper panels that revolved on a track located between the light source and the lens. As seen from the water, the light was on for 7.5 seconds and off for 1.5 seconds. The weight that powered the mechanism for rotating the panels had to be wound every three and a half hours.
An incandescent oil vapor lamp with three 55mm mantles was being used as the light source when tragedy struck the Makapu`u station around 3:00 a.m. on April 9, 1925. The Lighthouse Bulletin of June 1, 1925 documented the incident.
A cylindrical tank containing alcohol for starting the oil vapor lamp stood upright on a small wooden stand about six feet inside of the main entrance door on the left and about two feet above the floor. The first assistant suggested to the second that he fill the alcohol lighter, and after drawing all the alcohol which would run from the faucet, it was discovered that some of it had dripped on the floor. The first assistant lighted a match, which ignited the alcohol on the floor, and the explosion followed.
The explosion blew the bottom out of the cylindrical tank. The second assistant keeper, John Kaohimaunu, was near the door and escaped with burns. The clothes of the first assistant, Alexander Toomey, caught fire, and the accident left him "charred black and crinkled." Toomey was transported to a hospital where he passed away at noon the following day. Before leaving the station, forty-year-old Toomey called his expectant wife and children to him, repeated the Lord's Prayer, and told his wife, "Stand by the light and keep it burning." It wasn't long before Toomey's wife gave birth to a baby daughter, and three months after the accident she died of a broken heart.
Hawaii's first radio beacon was installed at Makapu`u Point in 1927. The signal produced by the beacon could be picked up at a distance of two hundred miles and could be used to determine one's position. A generating plant was established on Makapu`u Point to provide electricity for the radio beacon, and the lighthouse was converted from oil-vapor to 500-watt incandescent electric lamps.
Joe Pestrella became officer-in-charge at the Makapu`u Light Station in 1960, after a volcanic flow destroyed the keeper's quarters at Cape Kumukahi and that light was automated. During his service at Makapu`u, a seaman jumped ship from a merchant vessel that was passing the point. The man swam all night trying to reach the lighthouse. The following morning, Pestrella received word from the Coast Guard that the man was presumed dead. However, a few minutes later that man, now bruised and bleeding from pulling himself onto the wave-battered shore below the lighthouse, arrived at the Pestrella's home, where he received much needed first aid and food. In 1963, Pestrella, the last civilian member of the Lighthouse Service, retired after nearly twenty-nice years of service. The day before his retirement, he posed for a final photograph near the lighthouse.
The Makapu`u Light Station was automated on January 4, 1974 by the Coast Guard, and was then monitored remotely from Honolulu. Sometime during the next year or so, the dwellings were secretly used to house prosecution witnesses during the trial of an underworld boss, who was facing federal tax evasion charges in Honolulu. In 1987, the government declared part of the land around the lighthouse and the keepers dwellings as surplus. The property was turned over to the state of Hawaii, but a group of armed Hawaiians took up residence in one of the dwellings as part of a land-ownership protest. After several weeks, the squatters were evicted without bloodshed, and shortly thereafter the dwellings were razed by the state. The only surviving outbuilding is an oil house near the trail that leads to the lighthouse.
In 2001, the state of Hawaii paid $12.8 million for a large section of land around the Makapu`u Lighthouse. The acquisition allowed the state to improve parking near the trail leading to Makapu`u Point and should keep the coastline in the area free from development.