Father Damien (Joseph de Veuster) arrived at the settlement in 1873 and dedicated the remainder of his life to the exiled people. He built a church and housing for the settlement, improved the water supply, bandaged oozing sores, and buried the dead. In 1885, Father Damien was officially diagnosed with leprosy, and he died at the settlement on April 15, 1889, at the age of forty-nine. Over the years, roughly 8,000 people were relocated to the peninsula to live out their final days in isolation.
In 1902, a report presented to Congress emphasized the need for lights to mark Kaiwi Channel:
The great bulk of the Pacific coast commerce passes through the channel between the islands of Oahu and Molokai. Many hundred vessels now pass annually through this channel, and the number is rapidly increasing, and there are, with the single exception of the light-house at Diamond Head, no light-houses whatever on the exposed points of either of these islands. There is a small light on the farther point of the island of Molokai, but it is not visible more than about 5 miles at sea.A light was recommended for Makapu`u Point on Oahu to mark one side of the channel, and the northern tip of the Kalaupapa Peninsula was considered the ideal spot for a second lighthouse, but lawmakers were reluctant to place the light near the leprosy settlement. The existing light on Moloka`i was at La’au Point, the island’s westernmost point, but this wasn’t of much use for vessels approaching the islands from the east.
After repeated denials for the funding of a major light on the peninsula, the Lighthouse Board opted to construct an inexpensive temporary light at the point. A fixed, red lens-lantern, placed atop a thirty-four-foot mast, went into service on March 1, 1906. The temporary light functioned for one year before Congress finally appropriated $60,000 for a permanent lighthouse on the peninsula.
The 132-foot octagonal tower, Hawai`i’s tallest, was constructed of concrete. The stairs leading up to and including the fourth landing were also of concrete, while the remainder of the staircase up to the lantern room was of cast iron. In December 2008, John Souza, a Portuguese laborer, was stationed at the top of the tower with another worker to unload the cars of concrete that were carried to the top by an elevator. Souza’s co-worker took the elevator down to get instructions of some kind, and Souza, forgetting the elevator was absent, pushed a car into the space formerly occupied by the elevator and fell ninety feet to his death.
A second-order Fresnel lens and lantern room were manufactured by Chance Brothers and Company in England and delivered to Honolulu in November 1908. The lens and lantern room were originally intended for Makapu`u Lighthouse, but a larger lens was obtained for Makapu`u, and the second-order lens and lantern room were redirected to Moloka`i. The clamshell lens, which weighs over three tons, floated in a vat of mercury. A large weight suspended in the tower powered a clockwork mechanism that rotated the lens to produce a white flash every twenty seconds at a height of 120 feet above the base of the tower and 213 feet above the surrounding water. James Keanu, the keeper of the temporary light, ascended the 189 stairs in the new lighthouse on the evening of September 1, 1909 and lit the incandescent-oil-vapor lamp for the first time. Keeper Keanu served three stints as head keeper of Moloka`i Lighthouse, and when he retired in 1939, he had spent roughly twenty-three years on the peninsula. One day while using dynamite to create post holes for a fence, Keeper Keanu lost a hand to an exploding stick of dynamite, but that setback didn’t stop him from performing his duties.
Three one-and-a-half story keeper’s dwellings, each with a living room, dining room, kitchen, bathroom, and two bedrooms, were built near the tower. One of the original dwellings was built using dark volcanic rock found on the site, while the other two were built of concrete. Once the station was fully staffed, two separate, isolated colonies existed on the peninsula. Visitors and the keepers and their families all required special passes to enter and leave the station.
The mercury sloshed out all over and soon there was not enough mercury in the vat to support the weight of the lens and it stopped revolving. A supply of mercury was stored in cylinders on the floor below, and we carried two, hundred pound containers up the stairs and emptied them into the vat until the lens could revolve again. The next day, when we could see, we gathered the spilled mercury by sweeping it, a little at a time, into dustpans, then we poured it through cheesecloth into containers. When it settled out clean and still it looked like polished silver and we could see the reflection of our faces in it.Thanks to the quick reaction of Marques and the other keepers after the spill, the light was only out for fifteen minutes.
In 1934, Moloka`i Light Station received its own electrical generating plant, which consisted of three two-kilowatt generators, and by the following year the lighthouse and dwellings had been wired for electricity.
By the first of August 1966, Moloka`i Lighthouse no longer required nightly attention, and the last keepers departed. During an inspection of the tower made in January 1985, mercury was found to be leaking from the vat beneath the lens. With the now common knowledge of the dangers of working with mercury, it was decided to replace the entire illuminating apparatus with a rotating beacon. Accordingly, the twenty-six sections of the second-order lens were removed, one by one. Each 264-pound section of the lens was then wrapped in two old mattresses and attached to a cable. The other end of the cable was attached to an old truck, which would slowly back up towards the tower, thus lowering the protected lens section to the ground.
The lens was transported to Maui where it was reassembled for display by the Lahaina Restoration Foundation. Roman and Arabic numerals are stamped on the sections of the lens, and the lens was easily put back together by connecting A to A, 1 to 1, etc. Originally, the disassembling of the lens was going to be captured on video to aid the reassembling, but when the inscribed aids were discovered, this was found to be unnecessary.
The remaining members of the leprosy settlement were saddened to see the lens leave the peninsula, as they were fond of walking to the tip of the peninsula and watching the revolving beams of light. One of the simple joys of their lives had been taken away. Richard Marks summed up the feelings of the Kalaupapa residents in an interview with the Maui News.
They talk about the Statue of Liberty, well, this light was the first thing that hundreds of thousands of immigrants to Hawaii saw when they came here. Every one of our people…can remember this light looking over us. ... Nobody gives a damn about the people here. … Maui is going to set up a building and put money into it. How willing are they going to be to give it back? … Times change. People change. Maybe the next guy won’t want to give it up. … That light has been very special to the people here. … It has been here longer than any living person has. You could always look out and see it sweeping across the cliff. … It is the Kalaupapa Light.
In response to the united cry of the people of Kalaupapa, the lens was dismantled and shipped back to the peninsula. The National Park Service currently has the lens in storage and plans to place it in a future museum, which will interpret the Kalaupapa settlement.
The Kalaupapa Leprosy Settlement National Landmark District, which includes Moloka`i Lighthouse, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in January of 1976. In 1980, President Carter signed Public Law 96-565, establishing Kalaupapa National Historic Park. The lighthouse received its own entry on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982. Under the provisions of the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000, Moloka`i Lighthouse was made available for free to eligible government entities and non-profit organizations, and it was officially awarded to the National Park Service.