Beacons on the Pali
The unusual story behind Maui's lighthouse
September 06, 2007
By almost all accounts, the storm was a real screamer. It came up fast in the night and caught the ship of Captain Daniel McGregor somewhere off the sea cliffs or "pali" between Ma'alaea and Olowalu, on the south shore of Maui.
Most likely a schooner—a "coaster" engaged in the hazardous trade of moving cargo between the islands—McGregor's ship was unable to make sail into Ma'alaea due to the fierce conditions. Blinded by the darkness and driving rain, McGregor posted men in the bow and along the rails with sounding lines. With the men hollering out the depth as they proceeded, the ship groped its way toward shore.
When the water became ominously shallow, McGregor ordered the anchors set. Peering out into the blackness, he couldn't make out for sure why, but the winds lessened at about this spot. With his vessel secured, he allowed the exhausted crew to "stand down" and fall asleep.
Come morning, the men awakened to blue skies and found that the schooner had blundered into a cove between two rocky highlands. As word of the near-miraculous anchoring spread, one of these promontories became known as "McGregor Point," after the intrepid captain.
Afterward, other ships used the same anchorage. It was smaller than the one in neighboring Ma'alaea but provided protection from the incessant winds blowing in from the north. A wharf and other facilities were constructed there. For a while, it became a stop for the Inter-Island Steamship Company and recorded more traffic than Ma'alaea Harbor itself.
When McGregor anchored there that stormy night circa 1875, he didn't have the benefit of a light to guide him in, or at least not much of one.
The first "lighthouse" in the area stood on a wharf in Ma'alaea, sometime in the late 1800's. Even by standards back then, it wasn't very effective. In 1904, an inspector doing a survey of Maui's aids to navigation described it as "an ordinary red lantern hung from a post."
When the station was to be updated shortly after, a new location was chosen. The highland at nearby McGregor Point provided more elevation. Plus the port facilities there were still experiencing good usage, making it a logical spot for the new "A to N," or aid to navigation. The first light station was built there in 1906.
A 32-foot white mast was erected, with a fixed red lamp mounted on top. A keeper's housing and support building also went up, each with matching red roofing.
That same year a tsunami roared in and obliterated the old light, along with almost everything else in Ma'alaea. The wharf at McGregor Landing also washed away. But higher up on the slope, the new station remained high and dry.
Of pyramidal shape and made of concrete, the present 20-foot tower dates to 1915. Many local stations have this style. Early on, trestles or "skeleton towers" of metal or wood were used as elevating platforms. Nowadays, to the horror of fans of traditional lights, a large metal pipe often elevates the beacon itself.
The U.S. Coast Guard, which oversees them, calls such emplacements "light towers" or "light structures." They're easy to maintain and hard to vandalize but lack the charm and character of actual lighthouses. And they do not require a keeper, only an "ATON" or "ANT" (aids to navigation team) that makes the rounds between them a few times a year.
One of the most famous of these structures stands in Lahaina. At 39 feet, its trim, pyramidal shape suggests ancient Egyptian obelisks. Like McGregor Point Light, it's an exercise in practicality. Just a small plaque on one side marks one of the most historic light stations in the country, much less in the Hawaiian Islands.
"On this site in 1840 King Kamehameha ordered a nine foot wooden tower built as an aid for the whaling ships anchored off Lahaina," reads the inscription. But the significance of this statement goes far beyond the event mentioned—the tower marked the beginning of lighthouses in the entire Pacific basin.
That first tower was positioned to mark the "keawaiki" or small passage through the coral reef along the waterfront. Countless whaleboats used this passage while accessing the town for water and supplies.
A letter from John Kapena, an early resident of Lahaina, explains the value of the early A to N in human terms: "[F]or those vessels, boats and canoes that may come into port at night, because there were quite a number of boats wrecked by waves [with considerable loss of life]."
In addition to the commercial aspect, the first light served a political role as well—Lahaina was vying with Honolulu to become the port of influence in the islands, as well as for the whalers' business. In a maritime-based economy, good navigational aids were essential.
At least six different lights shone there through the next eight decades. One of the most notable was built in 1866. A wooden tower went up atop a waterfront storehouse, often used for sugar storage. The storehouse was leased out at $96 a year, to help pay for the station's upkeep.
The top floor of the tower contained the lamp room and sleeping quarters for the keeper. This was one of the first such light stations anywhere to use kerosene instead of whale oil as an illuminant. But the inspector surveying Maui's aids in 1904 was hardly impressed—he described the signal itself as "two ordinary kitchen lamps of small power."
As Lahaina continued as the most important shipping destination on Maui into the next century, the station was upgraded. The present tower was constructed of reinforced concrete in 1917. Twenty years later it was "electrified," or automated. The beacon now flashes out a red "signature" to distinguish it from the lights of the town in the background.
At present, the Lahaina Restoration Foundation manages the light, having assumed a 30-year lease on the site from the Coast Guard.
In general, Hawai'i holds many such structures but few "classic" lighthouses, such as those in New England or the West Coast. These are the images of popular culture, with adjoining buildings and silo-like towers containing sparkling Fresnel lenses. Oahu has the most of these. Maui currently has none.
While dozens of other aids exist here now, "unofficial aids" have flickered in the night for centuries.
The story goes that King Kamehameha I was traveling by canoe between islands when strong winds blew him off course. Supposedly the great warrior and chief feared for his life. A bonfire in the darkness guided him back to shore.
All over the Pacific, Polynesians long had used such beacons to aid their voyagers. They knew to look to certain spots for the guiding flames.
One such spot was on the southwest tip of Kaho'olawe. Called Kealaikahike Point ("the way to foreign lands"), this spot was a place of great importance to early Hawaiians. The promontory was one of the departure checkpoints for their long voyages across the central Pacific. Signal fire pits often were lit there.
"It was this point that the Hawaiians used along with others to form a navigational triangle for trips to Tahiti, New Zealand and other southerly areas," archaeologist J. Gilbert McAllister said.
Fittingly, since 1928 a modern signal has stood near there. Called Southwest Point Light, it's close to where the natives once tended their own signals.
According to oral tradition, some of the old navigators used erupting volcanoes as markers to steer by. These no doubt made for some of the most effective light "structures" in history, sometimes visible from hundreds of miles away.
And some of the Hawaiians had even developed a type of signal system. When Captain George Vancouver arrived off Maui in 1793 with two ships under his command, a chief named Tomohomoho came onboard as a guide. He told Vancouver not to worry if darkness should set in en route to Lahaina— fiery beacons along the bluffs would mark the way there.
While this system was only "activated" by request—or in this case by orders of Chief Tomohomoho—modern light stations are regular and reliable. But they do require maintenance. Wind and salt water corrode even metal and concrete, not to mention electrical components.
Enter here a largely unknown and unsung group of people, the Coast Guard ANTs or maintenance teams. These islands are not always a paradise for them—some of the lights here are the most difficult to service anywhere.
Molokini is a good example. In the channel a few miles out from Makena, the volcanic cinder cone lies exposed to unpredictable weather. For instance, in April of 1989 high winds blew the skeleton tower off the cliff, smashing it to pieces on the rocks below.
As recorded by Love Dean in her book The Lighthouses of Hawaii, Coast Guardsmen Kenneth Savi described a "service call" to Molokini in 1988:
"A marine helicopter transported us and the wind was blowing so hard—about 30 to 40 knots—that the pilot had to make three or four tries before he could place the back wheels in just the right place on the ledge. The ledge at top is very narrow and the plane has to be balanced on its two back wheels with the nose sticking out over the cliff about one hundred and sixty feet above the water."
Savi explained that the team made a hurried exit, frantically unloading their equipment, food and water. But just as the craft was becoming airborne again, a blast of wind caught the chopper, driving it back against the barren ridge and hurling equipment and their lunch cooler over the cliff.
"It turned out that the helo was damaged, and they had to send a different one out for us that evening," Savi added. "The wind was still blowing and we were wondering if they'd be able to pick us up. We didn't have a tent or even a sleeping bag. There was just us on that rock with the geckos and spiders…"
As far as being a hazard to shipping, Molokini is more the norm than the exception for the state overall. In geological terms, Hawai'i's islands are formed of young mountains poking through the planet's oldest and most extensive ocean. Born of volcanic fires, they present sailors with jagged coastlines, strong currents, often-rough seas and few protected anchorages. Accordingly, the islands have been ringed with necklaces of gleaming navigational lights, about 180 in all.
Some of them are "primary aids," with rotating DCB-224 optics that can beam out nearly 30 miles. Makapu'u Point on Oahu boasts a hyper-radiant lens 12 feet tall and weighing several tons. They're designed to guide ships in from the open sea. They're so powerful that their effectiveness often is limited only by the curvature of the earth.
All the lights on the leeward coast of Maui are considered "secondary aids," effective at less than half that distance and designed only for inter-island traffic. Used more by local boats, their optics are much smaller.
With the advent of electronics that can determine location within a few feet, the future of some of these aids would seem to be in jeopardy. Like the lighthouse keepers, all of whom have been replaced by automation, the lights themselves would seem to be the next to go by the wayside.
Curiously, though we rely on them less, the popularity of these lights remain high among the public as well as sea-goers. Navigators still look to them to verify their radar and electronic fixes. In addition, they are the stuff of story and legend in every country and culture with a seacoast.
In fact, few structures combine the practical and the symbolic more fully than lighthouses. They conjure up images of warmth and haven to people of all stripes, it seems, not just mariners. Perhaps because they signify passage through the fog banks and tumultuous seas of life, as well as through the real ones.
So lovers of lights everywhere should take comfort—for the foreseeable future anyhow, both along rocky shores as well as deep within the human psyche, the beacons on the pali will continue to burn brightly.
James Mordovancey worked on light stations in New England as a member of a Coast Guard ANT. MTW
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