Diamond Head, on the island of Oahu, got its name from the glinting calcite crystals that sailors mistook for diamonds. Despite the fact that diamonds were never found at the historic crater, the name stuck. However, after two different ships were grounded on the reef off Oahu’s south shore in the 1800s, it was decided that a new type of shining light was necessary. After much politicking, Hawaii’s territorial government set aside $2,500 in 1899 to construct a south-facing lighthouse tower.
Apparently, there was some debate over whether an entire concrete tower was necessary. The Hawaiian Gazette at the time characterized it as overkill: “There is about as much danger of the lighthouse toppling over, as there is that the iron dogs in the Waterhouse premises on Nuuanu Street will bite passing travelers.” Despite these protests, the Diamond Head lighthouse was constructed. History shows the concerns over the tower’s hardiness were well founded. Within 15 years, cracks had begun to form in the foundation, forcing a renovation. Strong winds and constant exposure to the salty air may have been a factor in the degradation of the structure.
For the first 20 years, keepers of the Diamond Head lighthouse were forced to live about a quarter mile down the road, in what is now one of the most affluent neighborhoods on Oahu. Eventually, a keeper’s house was built near the tower but it was only used for three years, as the lighthouse became automated in 1924. Three years earlier, the source of light had changed from oil to electricity, considerably lowering the need for frequent maintenance.
In subsequent years, the keeper’s quarters next to the lighthouse tower underwent various modifications. Remodeled in the 1960’s, it became the home of the Commanders of the Fourteenth Coast Guard District, which had also taken control of all lighthouse operations in 1939. The wife of the first Admiral to live there, Rear Admiral Engel, is reported to have said it was absolutely the most beautiful view she had ever seen. The lighthouse isn’t open to the public, but it’s easy to see why she was smitten with the breathtaking vista.
Today, the Diamond Head lighthouse overlooks one of the most popular surf spots on Oahu, frequented by the saltiest of sea dogs and those just learning. The surrounding area is additionally very popular for runners, walkers or anyone inclined to experience a majestic view of the Pacific Ocean. There is a small grassy area atop the cliffs of Diamond Head, perfect for viewing a sunset or admiring the wide variety of skills of the surfers below. The lighthouse also marks the finish line for the biennial Transpac Yacht Race, which begins thousands of miles away in Long Beach, California.