In the 1820s, sailors discovered what they believed were diamonds in the rocks on the volcano’s slopes. Although the sailors’ diamonds turned out to be clear calcite crystals, the name Diamond Head has been associated with the crater ever since.
With the increase of commerce calling at the port of Honolulu, a lookout was established in 1878 on the seaward slopes of Diamond Head for spotting and reporting incoming vessels. John Charles Petersen, a mariner born in Sweden, was the first watchman at the station and was paid fifty dollars per month. After his arrival in Hawai`I, Petersen married a native girl who died just four months after the birth of their daughter Melika. Diamond Head Charlie raised his daughter at the isolated station, where he served for thirty years until his death in 1907.
Captain James King, minister of the Interior for the Republic of Hawai`i, had been petitioning the Hawaiian legislature for a light on Diamond Head for several years, and according to the following account from the December 4, 1897 edition of the Pacific Commercial Advertiser steps were finally being taken to rectify the situation.
Captain King was determined to have a light on Diamond Head. He became weary of hearing the pros and cons of the case, and after a few trips to the vicinity with Mr. Rowell, the Superintendent of Public Works, drove a stake for the site of the beacon. ... There was ordered at once the material for the illumination and for the tower. The iron for the structure has arrived and as soon as some road is made to the slope point, work on the structure will begin. This metal tower will be forty feet high and when the light is capped upon it, the rays will be sent out from an elevation of 160 feet above the sea. …Electricity will be used and it is figured that Charles Peterson, the Diamond Head lookout, will be able to take care of the light as well as to continue his present excellent work.
The selected site was just 250 yards west of Charlie’s lookout tower, and the original structure was a forty-foot-tall, iron, framework tower built by Honolulu Iron Works. Barbier and Benard of France manufactured a third-order Fresnel lens along with a lantern room for the tower.
When asked to provide $1,500 to complete the lighthouse, the Hawaiian Senate refused and instructed its Committee of Public Lands to investigate the integrity of the iron tower, as the great weight of the light was said to be “supported by four galvanized iron posts and that half a gale would topple the structure.” The committee’s three senators visited the lighthouse on March 31, 1898 and reportedly “were careful to keep on the windward side, for fear the thing would topple over.” The following is from the committee’s official report to the Senate:
Your committee have personally inspected said new light house now being constructed, and consulted different authorities regarding the strength and stability of the structure, which is all of iron above the concrete foundation and is simply four 4-inch galvanized iron pipes, in 20-foot lengths, from the ground to the lighthouse proper, 40 feet. It is suitably braced and above this is the superstructure with the lights, 20 feet high. The iron of the supports is 1/4 inch thick, which is cut by the thread in each of the joints at least half of its thickness, leaving 1/8 inch in thickness at each joint, which would appear to be a weak point in the same.
It may, however, be strong enough to support the 15-tons weight of the superstructure and stormy gales while it is fresh and new, but it is in a position constantly exposed to the salt spray of the sea, which will sooner or later cut the weak joints of the iron with rust and endanger the safety of the structure with final collapse of the supports.
On general principles a lighthouse should be a permanent institution that can be relied upon, with its light always on hand, especially in stormy weather. To accomplish this, it should be constructed in the most substantial manner and not in a way to do service for two, three, five or even ten years and then be missing, having collapsed or toppled over.
The lighthouse now being constructed can be made substantial and as permanent as possible by building up a good substantial stone and cement tower from the ground up to the superstructure and securely fastening the upper structure to the stonework. It would then be double strong, and when the iron pillars become weak from rust the stone tower will continue to hold all firmly in its place.
Not everyone agreed that the iron tower needed strengthening. The Hawaiian Gazette claimed: “There is about as much danger of the lighthouse toppling over, as there is that the iron dogs in the Waterhouse premises on Nuuanu street will bite passing travelers.”
The light, which had a red sector to mark dangerous shoals and reefs, was first lit on July 1, 1899. Captain A. Christian, an old salt who knew well the duties of a lighthouse keeper and had always given satisfaction in his former employment, was appointed the first official keeper of the light. On December 23, 1899, sixty-one-year-old Captain Christian was stricken with paralysis and total blindness at the lighthouse. He was taken to Queen’s Hospital, but his condition quickly worsened and he died from a cerebral hemorrhage.
It appears that Niel C. Nielson replaced Captain Christian as keeper, for on January 2, 1901, Nielson and Diamond Head Charlie appeared before a judge, and Charlie was fined $50 for beating Nielson, the keeper of the lighthouse, in the face with a club. Charlie was dismissed from his lookout service and replaced by Captain A. Rosehill, but five months later, Charlie got his job back, as his skill at identifying ships at a distance was a skill that required much experience.
When the Lighthouse Board took control of all aids to navigation in the Hawaiian Islands in 1904, it reported that Diamond Head Lighthouse was the only first-class lighthouse in the territory. At this time, a floor was built in the tower, fourteen feet above the ground floor, and shelves were placed in the two rooms thus formed.
John M. Kaukaliu is listed as keeper of Diamond Head Lighthouse when the Lighthouse Board assumed control of the light, and as no keeper’s dwelling was provided, he was forced to live at a private residence about a quarter of a mile from the lighthouse. Keeper Kaukaliu, who earned seventy-five dollars a month, was awarded the efficiency pennant for having the best-kept station in the district in 1912.
On October 6, 1916, Keeper Kaukaliu was found in a helpless and paralyzed condition atop the lighthouse. He was strapped to a stretcher, carried down the tower’s stairs, and taken to his home, where he died eight days later.
During an inspection of the lighthouse in 1916, it was noted that growing cracks in the structure were compromising the tower’s integrity, and the following year, funds were allocated for constructing a fifty-five-foot tower of reinforced concrete on the original foundation.
The first keeper’s dwelling at the station was built several yards west of the tower in 1921, three years after the new lighthouse was activated. A keeper occupied the dwelling for just three years, as the station was automated in 1924, after the light source had been converted three years earlier from incandescent oil vapor to electricity.
The dwelling subsequently became home to Frederick Edgecomb, superintendent of the Nineteenth Lighthouse District, who lived at the lighthouse until 1939, when the Coast Guard assumed control of all lighthouses.
During World War II, a Coast Guard radio station was housed in the keeper’s dwelling, and a small structure was built on the seaward side of the tower. Following the war, the dwelling was remodeled and has since been home to the Commanders of the Fourteenth Coast Guard District. Rear Admiral Benjamin Engel moved into the dwelling in 1967 with his wife Ruth. The first view of her new home left Mrs. Engel speechless, as she had never lived in such a beautiful location nor had a lighthouse in her yard.
The well-manicured lawn adjacent to Diamond Head Lighthouse is a perfect spot for entertaining, and the Engels hosted many a party for friends and visiting dignitaries. Rear Admiral Engel occasionally forgot to inform his wife exactly how many would be in attendance, but one party in particular was never forgotten by the Engels. During this gathering, Mrs. Engel was amazed at the number of people her husband had invited. While conversing with one of the unfamiliar guests, Mrs. Engel learned that a group of tourists had come to explore the lighthouse and were simply delighted to discover that the Coast Guard was hosting an open house.
Besides continuing its nightly vigil over the reefs at Diamond Head, the lighthouse also serves as one end of the finish line for the biennial Transpac Yacht Race, which starts 2,225 miles away in Long Beach, California. During the race, members of the Transpacific Yacht Club are allowed to use the tower as a lookout for recording finishing times. The road near the lighthouse is packed with people watching the beautiful yachts, under full sail, riding the trade winds towards Honolulu. Even when there isn’t a race to watch, the pullouts near the lighthouse offer amazing views of the surf and those who are drawn to ride it.