The lighthouse with the most powerful lens in the United States was also used as the secret home for witnesses in a mob trial.
Makapu’u Point Lighthouse origin story
In the late 1887, Sanford B. Dole (it was Dole’s cousin James who founded the Hawaii Pineapple Company which later became the Dole Fruit Company), along with other white Americans drafted a new constitution for the Monarchy of Hawaii. This document severely limited voting rights of native Hawaiians and lower class immigrants. Under the threat of assassination, Hawaiian king David Kalākaua was forced to accept the new constitution.
American business interests, especially sugar plantation owners, further increased their powers and, in 1893, overthrew the monarchy of Hawaii. Sanford B. Dole was appointed President of the Provisional Government of Hawaii. He was then elected President of the Republic of Hawaii in 1894. Dole appointed Americans with business interests in farming, shipping, and law (ie: suppression of Hawaiian sovereignty) to his Cabinet and other government positions.
Because of the increased prominence in commerce (both between the islands and the U.S. mainland), the need for a lighthouse on Oahu became obvious. Lorrin Thurston, grandson of American missionaries and a central figure in the overthrow of the Hawaiian Monarchy, was the Minister of the Interior and was looking to get a lighthouse built at Makapu’u Point in southeast Oahu, a major shipping point on the island. But, the building of the lighthouse would remain in bureaucratic limbo until 1906 when the funds for construction were approved.
Because the lighthouse was built high above the ocean on a cliff, the tower only had to be 46 feet tall (420 feet above the water). In 1909, the construction was completed and the light was lit. The lens in the lantern room is a massive 12 foot tall hyperradiant Fresnel lens with over 1,000 prisms, the largest lens used in a lighthouse in the United States.
Wilford “Nappy” Pulawa
“The Company” was Hawaii’s organized crime syndicate. Wilford “Nappy” Pulawa was the leader of The Company from the late 60’s until 1973. Police arrested him on murder and kidnapping charges, but they didn’t stick and the trials ended with mistrials. Pulawa was finally found guilty of tax evasion when he tried to launder The Company’s money into real estate deals.
During his trial, witnesses were supposedly housed in the lighthouse keeper’s quarters at Makapu’u. Pulawa was found guilty of tax evasion, sentenced to 24 years in prison, released after ten, and returned to Hawaii where he was said to live a quiet life as an elevator operator on construction sites and an activist in local labor disputes.
Visiting Makapu’u Point Lighthouse
The Makapu’u Point Lighthouse itself is not open to visitors. But, there is a very popular (and often crowded) paved trail that leads to a lookout point. Along the way, you can get great views of the lighthouse as well as eastern part of Oahu, the ocean, and, on clear days, the islands of Moloka‘i and Lana‘i.
Humpback whales can often be spotted in water between November and May. This area is also popular with hang gliders, so you can get great pictures and videos.
This hike itself is about 2 miles. It’s paved switchbacks that is a fairly easy climb. But, be aware that there are no facilities on site and it can be hot (no tree cover), so bring water. You can easily do the climb and return in 2 hours. I’ve seen moms carrying kids and grandparents with canes complete the walk. But, don’t rush. There are lots of great lookout points along the trail in addition to the rewarding view from the top.
There is a parking lot (free) near the trail head. However, the lot is only open from 7am to 6:45pm. Get there early as the lot fills up quickly.
Sunrise at Makapu’u
The sunrise at Makapu’u is spectacular. The unobstructed view to the east makes for an unforgettable experience. But, be aware that the parking lot doesn’t open until 7am, which is after sunrise. So, you’ll have to park on the side of the nearby road.
Similarly, sunset is after the lot closes, so, again, park on the street.
About the Author
Brent Petersen is the Editor-in-Chief of Destination Eat Drink. He currently resides in Setubal, Portugal. Brent has written the novel “Truffle Hunt” (Eckhartz Press) and the short story collection “That Bird.” He’s also written dozens of foodie travel guides to cities around the world on Destination Eat Drink, including in-depth eating and drinking guides to Lisbon, Porto, Sintra, Monsaraz, and Evora in Portugal. Brent’s podcast, also called Destination Eat Drink, is available on all major podcasting platforms and is distributed by the Radio Misfits Podcast Network.