In 1880, the long, narrow island of Moloka‘i had only one lighthouse, at Kaunakakai. Yet by 1900, hundreds of vessels of the Pacific Coast trade annually passed through the channel between O‘ahu and Moloka‘i’s north side—where the Leper Settlement was located. So greatly was leprosy feared that it was only after annexation, when the Islands became a subdistrict of the 12th U.S. Lighthouse District, that a temporary light was set up. A permanent light station was completed in June 1909. On Sept. 1, lighthouse keeper James Keanu put the light with its special Fresnel lens—a rare giant of a crystal-like jewel–into operation. Two hundred thirteen feet above the water, it was the brightest light in the Pacific and flashed twenty-one miles to sea. Houses for lighthouse keepers and their families and other buildings formed a tiny community amidst the spectacular natural beauty of the Kalaupapa peninsula. To the leper settlement’s patients, just two miles away, the light rhythmically sweeping over the pali, across the black lava rocks, was a part of their lives.
By the 1960s, 1,800 vessels passed yearly. The Moloka‘i light was outmoded. Under jurisdiction of the U.S. Coast Guard, a fully automated system was installed in 1966; the last keeper departed. The property was eventually transferred to the National Park Service and the light tower put on the National Register of Historic Places. The Fresnel lens was taken to Lahaina for exhibition. Kalaupapa believes the lens should come home to Moloka‘i.
By Helen G. Chapin