Story by Sue Kiyabu
Photo courtesy U.S. Coast Guard Historian's Office
In the early morning hours of August 20, 1906, Capt. J.W. Saunders stood on the bridge of the SS Manchuria, a three-year-old, $2.5 million passenger liner, as it approached Windward O‘ahu. It was 4 a.m. Rain clouds obscured the stars, and a freak mist blanketed the shore. In the murk, Saunders could not get his bearings. What he thought was Manana, or Rabbit Island, was in fact Mokumanu, or Bird Island. “Suddenly out of the mist loomed the real Rabbit Island,” read the report in the Pacific Commercial Advertiser. “Captain Saunders immediately signaled to reverse the engines. The vessel had come to almost a stop when she struck. She went on the reef gently, although after once getting strongly imbedded, the ship quivered as she swung broadside on to the insweeping swell, which was unusually high. The Manchuria was stationary when she lay parallel with the shore, her bow pointing directly toward Rabbit Island.”
Although no one was injured and the Manchuria returned to sea a few months later, this dramatic grounding became a cautionary tale come to life. Captains and ship owners had long been warning of the navigational dangers off O‘ahu’s southeastern point. Traffic between San Francisco and Honolulu was on the rise, and members of the shipping industry had been petitioning Island lawmakers for a lighthouse at Makapu‘u for nearly twenty years prior to the Manchuria incident. The following day, the governor of the Philippines—who had been aboard—said in the Evening Bulletin: “If there had been a lighthouse on Makapu‘u Point, the Manchuria would never have been wrecked.” Ironically just two months earlier, Congress had appropriated funding to erect a lighthouse on Makapu‘u.
October 2009 marked the centennial anniversary of the lighting of the lamp at Makapu‘u Lighthouse. For more than 100 years, this small tower perched on the imposing cliff has guided ships safely toward Honolulu and helped to shape the history of the Islands. Likely for as many years, people have wanted a closer look. (Al Capone reportedly signed the lighthouse register in 1912.) And while many are drawn to the area’s scenic splendor, few know its colorful history or the role the lighthouse has played in it. Over the years, the lighthouse has survived explosions, been seized by Native Hawaiian activists and once served as a refuge for witnesses during the prosecution of an underworld boss.