There is at present no landfall light for vessels bound to Hawai`i by way of Cape Horn. Several vessels have within recent years gone ashore on Kumukahi Point. This is the first land sighted by vessels from the southward and eastward. The shipping from these directions now merits consideration, and with the improvement of business at Hilo, the necessity for a landfall light on this cape grows more urgent. It is estimated that a light at this point can be established for not exceeding $75,000, and the Board recommends that an appropriation of this amount be made therefor.The Lighthouse Board repeated its request in 1908, but in 1909, it decided that “further study and investigation of conditions should be made before the character and cost of a station could be determined.” The sum of $1,500 was thus requested to fund a survey to judge the feasibility and need of a light and fog-signal station. Cape Kumukahi was found to be “barren, undulating lava rock,” and in order to supply a station there, nearly two miles of road would have to be constructed over the rock, as landing at the cape was impossible at most times. The scope of the proposed station was changed, and just $25,000 was requested for an acetylene light for the cape.
In 1927, after annual petitions had gone unfunded for several years, V.S.K. Houston, the Hawaiian Territory’s delegate to Congress, stressed the importance of a light on Cape Kumukahi to aid not only the increase in shipping traffic since the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914, but also planes on transpacific flights. At this time, Hilo was the second largest port in the Hawaiian Territory.
Finally, on December 31, 1928, the U.S. Government purchased fifty-eight acres on Cape Kumukahi from the Hawaiian Trust Company for the sum of $500. During the following year, a thirty-two-foot wooden tower capped with an automatic acetylene gas light was built at the cape for local use – not exactly the powerful landfall light the Lighthouse Board had envisioned years before.
With a strength of 1,700,000 candlepower, Cape Kumukahi Light was the strongest in the Hawaiian Islands, and only the concrete Molokai Lighthouse was taller. Just one of the two airway beacons was in operation at any time, with the other unit being reserved as a backup. The signature of the new light was a white flash every six seconds.
Veteran keeper Charles K. Akana, who had served at nearly every major light in the islands, was brought in to take charge of the new station, and William J. Watkins served as the first assistant keeper. Due to the bareness of the landscape, the keeper’s dwellings were located about three-fifths of a mile from the tower.
In 1938, Joe Pestrella was transferred from the lighthouse tender Kukui to the barren station at Cape Kumukahi. On his own time and at his own expense, Pestrella brought in soil and trees and succeeded in turning a desolate spot into a place of beauty. Included in his orchard were lemon, mango and tangerine trees, and a rare bay leaf tree.
Cape Kumukahi is included in Kilauea Volcano’s active east rift zone. In 1955, a lava flow threatened the station, but Pestrella remained on duty at the peril of his life to keep the light running. For his dedicated years of service at the station, he was selected as Civil Servant of the Year for the Hawai`i area in 1956.
On January 13, 1960, a fiery fountain of lava, roughly half a mile long, shot up in a sugar cane field, two miles east of the lighthouse and just north of the town of Kapoho. Bulldozers and fire hoses were used in attempts to divert and harden the flow. On January 21, the flow appeared to be heading north away from the village and the station, however, during the next week, the lava turned south and started to encroach on the station grounds. Pestrella’s wife and infant son were evacuated, but Pestrella remained at the station saying, “When my backside feels hot, I’ll move on. Not till then!!”.
On February 2, the heat from the flow caused the generator’s fuel tanks at the tower to explode, and the light was extinguished. As the river of lava approached within a few feet of the tower, it remarkably divided into two streams that flowed past each side of the structure, leaving the tower unscathed. The Kapoho eruption had covered over ten square kilometers and added two square kilometers of land to the island.
A ten-ton lighted buoy, anchored 510 yards off the cape, served temporarily as the Cape Kumukahi navigational aid until Hilo Electric Company was able to string power lines to the light from the Kapoho Beach lots. After surviving the lava flow, the lighthouse was fully automated, and Pestrella was transferred to Makapu`u Lighthouse on O`ahu.
Mahalo to Liane Pestrella, granddaughter of Keeper Joe Pestrella, for providing historic photographs and documents for this page.
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