Still Shining

This year marks the Kalaupapa lighthouse’s 100th year.

Photo by Richard Miller.

By Richard Miller

The Moloka’i Light Station, much better known locally as the Kalaupapa Lighthouse, is one century old.  The light was first lit on September 1, 1909, after a surprisingly short construction time of one year.  Considering the time of history, the location, and the small workforce (fewer than twenty workers), building of the lighthouse was a remarkable feat.

The present lighthouse replaced a small fixed red lens lantern light which had been mounted on a mast.  This lantern rose sixty four feet above the water, and while the visible range was short, installation of the lantern was a major step towards safer navigation between Molokai and Oahu. The focal plane of the Moloka’i Light Station is 213 feet above sea level, and at its best, the Light shone to a visible range of over twenty nautical miles.

The shell of the Lighthouse tower is reinforced concrete.  The concrete tower rises 112 feet above grade.  Thousands of tons of concrete were mixed on site and hauled up onto scaffold and poured into wooden forms.  The walls of the tower are four feet thick at the base and fifteen inches thick at the top.  Designed to house the enormous Fresnel lens and to withstand the pounding of the winds on Molokai’s north shore, the Light is an engineering marvel.  The Fresnel lens alone weighed over three tons, and the apparatus on which the lens rotated weighed tons more. The entire assembly floated in a trough of mercury.   The rotation device was a weight operated system much like a clock mechanism.  A light keeper’s assistant would wind the weight to the top and its descent turned a gearbox which rotated the massive light.

For the first years in service, the Light was fueled with kerosene, but in 1934, two electric generators were installed to provide the power to light the Light electrically.   With the kerosene lamp, the Light’s output was over 600,000 candlepower, while the first electric lamp produced 2,500,000 candlepower, making the Moloka’i Light Station the most powerful in the Hawaiian Islands.  In 1956, an improved lighting system was installed, boosting the output to 12,000,000 candlepower.

From the beginning, the Molokai Light Station was a manned operation, but in August of 1966, the Light was converted to full automation; its rotation no longer would be controlled by the weight operated system.  In 1986, the Fresnel lens was replaced by the Coast Guard and transported to Lahaina, Maui, but was returned to the Kalaupapa Peninsula in 1994.

In 1976, the Molokai Light Station was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  The lighthouse in currently owned and protected by the National Park Service.

All facts were derived from The Moloka’i Light Station Historic Resources Report, November, 2001, by William Chapman.

Richard Miller works for the National Park Service in Kalaupapa, specializing in Cultural Resources and Historic Preservation.

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