Coast Guard to remove Kauhola lighthouse on Hawaii’s Big Island

HAWI, Big Island — After several years of consultation with State of Hawaii historic preservation officials, the U.S. Coast Guard has determined the best course of action for a lighthouse at a rapidly eroding site on the Big Island is its removal.

The Kauhola Lighthouse sits on a 3.5-acre federal government property north of Hawi in the Kohala area of the Big Island and is in danger of falling down a steep cliff face if no action is taken. Last month, the Coast Guard and a contractor erected a mono-pole light to aid mariners in their navigation of the coastline.

The Kauhola Lighthouse is no longer operational.

“Obviously, our first choice would be to find a way to help preserve this lighthouse,” said Lt. Cmdr. Cesar Acosta, commanding officer of the Coast Guard’s Civil Engineering Unit in Honolulu. “However, after detailed analysis and close coordination with the State of Hawaii, it has been determined that the most reasonable course of action is removal.”

The lighthouse — built in 1933 — is scheduled to be removed from the site by a second contractor by the end of the year. An initial contractor completed the work on the monopole aid to navigation, made improvements to the main access road, and posted danger and warning signs stating the threat of additional erosion near the lighthouse.

The monopole light is farther back from the cliff face than is the lighthouse but provides the same illumination for mariners off shore.

A detailed soils and geo-technical study of the soil and supporting sub-grade area around the lighthouse was completed in 2007 and showed significant risks if nothing was done. A decision was made jointly with the state’s Historical Preservation Office to keep two similar structures (the lighthouses at Barbers Point and Nawiliwili) as examples of lighthouse construction of that era. It was decided at that time that it would be unsafe to restore or move the lighthouse at Kauhola.

The 2007 engineering report estimated the Kauhola lighthouse would experience structural damage or catastrophic collapse within two to five years (from the date of the report). In 1933, the lighthouse was approximately 85 feet away from the edge of the cliff; today it is a mere 20 feet.

Between 2003 and 2007, the cliff retreated approximately 15 feet, partly exacerbated by an October 2006 earthquake, when an additional six feet sheered off of the cliff face.

High costs associated with moving or preserving the lighthouse and ensuring pubic safety are the primary concerns of the U.S. Coast Guard, said Acosta. Coast Guard engineering experts and Hawaii geo-technical engineering experts have determined that moving the lighthouse would be extremely expensive and difficult because of the erosion in the area — the site simply isn’t stable enough to support a contractor’s truck, crane or vehicle for that kind of work.

Restoration would be extremely expensive and the significant erosion of the cliff means the lighthouse would still eventually fall.

“As stewards of taxpayer monies, we are most interested in finding the most reasonable course of action,” said Acosta. “Spending the kind of money to restore Kauhola would make sense if the site were not eroding as quickly as it is. The Coast Guard feels the best course of action is to ensure public safety and save Kauhola’s sister lighthouses at Nawiliwili and Barbers Point.”

Acosta said that due to the unstable area around the lighthouse and the monolithic pour of the concrete foundation and structure, a relocation crew would not be able to safely move the structure further inland. He also said relocating the lighthouse was fiscally prohibitive.

The Coast Guard has an official agreement with the State Historical Preservation Office to maintain Kauhola Point’s sister lighthouses at Barber’s Point and Nawiliwili Harbor to preserve the historical examples of lighthouse construction of that era.

The Kauhola Lighthouse no longer serves as an aid to navigation to mariners sailing north of Hilo. It had been regularly maintained by the Aids to Navigation team based out of Honolulu, but the light is now on a monopole on the same site farther back from the cliff face.

The 86-foot Kauhola Lighthouse was constructed in 1933 and is located on a relatively isolated peninsula that forms the eastern shoulder of Keawaeli Bay in North Kohala. On July 1, 1939, the Bureau of Lighthouses was transferred from the Department of Commerce to the U.S. Coast Guard. Since that time, navigational aids have remained the Coast Guard’s jurisdiction.

Kauhola Point lighthouses have served as beacons for seafaring travelers for more than 112 years. C.L. Wright, the president of the Hawaiian Railroad Company, requested a light be built on the peninsula as early as 1891 in order to warn ships of the dangerous low-lying, offshore reefs.

However, money was never found for the project and it was not until 1897 that the Republic of Hawaii constructed a wood tower at the point. The initial lighthouse was 34 feet high. In 1931, Congress approved the funding for a new, reinforced-concrete lighthouse.

The Kauhola Lighthouse followed the plans used for the light at Nawiliwili Harbor on Kauai and subsequently the plans were also used at Barber’s Point (Kalaeloa) on Oahu. The Nawiliwili plans were slightly altered for Kauhola by adding more reinforced iron to the foundation and around all openings, in response to concerns of possible earthquakes. The lighthouse was completed in March 1933. On June 30, 1951, the lighthouse was converted to an unattended lighthouse meaning a “light keeper” no longer lived on the grounds.

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