Escorted tours of the lighthouse are planned monthly by summer's end. Photos by Ken Sakamoto, Star-Bulletin

Silent Sentinel

By Gregg K. Kakesako,

A romantic vestige of Hawaii's nautical past will soon be open to the public on a limited basis.

As one of Oahu's most familiar landmarks, the Makapuu Point Lighthouse commands a spectacular view of not only the windward side of the island, but also of Molokai on the horizon.

Built in 1909, the lighthouse - one of 176 lighted sites in Hawaii - has been automated since 1974. Guarded by three locked gates, however, the lighthouse has been off limits to the public since its keepers left the rugged lava cliffs.

But with the help of Coast Guard Auxiliary Flotilla 23, limited access to the lighthouse will be available by the end of the summer. Neal McHenry, a flotilla staff officer, said he hopes to host escorted tours to the lighthouse monthly.

A vandal's bullet marred the 12-foot lens.

McHenry, a photojournalist and a part-time English teacher, explains that his organization is "the voluntary arm of the Coast Guard whose job is to help the Coast Guard in any way possible."

"In this case, it's helping with maintenance of the island landmark."

Another Coast Guard Auxiliary unit on Kauai performs a similar function at the Nawiliwili lighthouse. "The flotilla there adopted it, painted and fixed it up and started the spark that got the community going there to preserve not only the lighthouse but the entire area around it."

That's what McHenry is hoping will happen at Makapuu.

At a private ceremony at the lighthouse this month, the 25-member Hawaii Kai-based flotilla will officially "adopt" the Makapuu landmark. Its construction was prompted by the grounding of the steamer Manchuria in the predawn hours on Aug. 20, 1906 on the reefs off Waimanalo.

The picturesque lighthouse sits alone at the tip of Makapuu Point.

Located makai of Kalanianaole Highway just before the Makapuu Point Lookout, the lighthouse still maintains the largest Fresnel lens in use today.

McHenry said the procedure no longer exists to reproduce the 12-foot-high French Fresnel hyperradiant lens that surrounds the lamplike shutters to magnify and intensify the illumination of a single electrical 1,000-watt, 120-volt light bulb. An identical lamp sits by its side and will automatically rotate into position if the first one burns out.

The lighthouse and about 5,000 square feet around it are still owned by the Coast Guard and listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The rest of the surrounding area - about 40 acres including a lookout - belongs to the state and is under the control of the Department of Land and Natural Resources.

Ralston Nagata, state parks division administrator, said there hasn't been much money for improvements since the state got the land nearly a decade ago after the federal government declared it was surplus.

It was given to the state with the stipulation that it be used for public recreation.

Neal McHenry: "Flotilla will adopt the lighthouse."

Nagata said all the state has done since then is make basic safety improvements such as installing railings at the lookout and fixing some of the barriers. Two large black metal gates block the narrow, twisting one-mile access road from Kalanianaole Highway to the summit of Makapuu Head.

"The gates are to prevent vehicles since the road wasn't built to take heavy traffic," Nagata said.

Nagata said pedestrian traffic to the lookout is welcomed, however, and advises people to use the road. "It's (safer) than making their own trail from the beach."

McHenry said hikers and strollers and even some mountain bikers and motorcyclists can steer around the gates to the gentle incline to the lookout.

"It's great to see so many people out here on the weekends ... and they really take care of the place."

There are no comfort stations and no trash receptacles along the access road or at the lookout. No camping is allowed.

None of the three lava-rock and red-roofed homes or the work stations built and maintained by the Coast Guard remain. After the Coast Guard left in 1974, the police used the homes to house key witnesses in the federal tax evasion trials involving Wilford "Nappy" Pulawa in 1974. Later, the houses were claimed by Hawaiians who said they held title to the land and occupied it for more than a month in 1987.

McHenry said the state tore the houses down after the Hawaiian occupation and after vandals destroyed what remained.

At one time the Hawaii Maritime Center tried to maintain the area, McHenry said, but abandoned the project when it got too expensive.

For the past six months, members of Flotilla 23 have spent weekends helping the Coast Guard repaint the exterior of the lighthouse, rebuild fencing, and maintain the trail.

The view of the inside of the lighthouse, from the bottom looking up.

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