Situated at the northernmost tip of the inhabited Hawaiian Islands and perched on a promontory overlooking the Pacific Ocean, the fifty-two-foot-high lighthouse served as a beacon for seafaring travelers for sixty-two years. Its reinforced-concrete, tapering, cylindrical shaft is surmounted by an iron lantern room with a cone-shaped roof. Accessed through a pedimented doorway, an internal spiral stair leads to the light itself. The stair and lantern room were fabricated by the Champion Iron Company of Kenton, Ohio, while the light itself, a second-order Fresnel lens, was made by Barbier, Bernard and Turenne of Paris. The lens comprised a series of glass prisms throwing a beam that could be picked up from the air at ninety miles.
The first formal navigational light operations in Hawaii were private enterprises underwritten by shipping companies, whaling suppliers, and other merchants, with Maui's Lahaina light of 1844 (demolished) being the earliest known. In 1904, with Hawaii now a territory of the United States, the U.S. Light-House Establishment took jurisdiction over Hawaii's approximately seventy-five navigation aids. In time, the federal government added new lights, with Makapuu Light on Oahu and Molokai Light at Kalapapa being the first two constructed, in 1909, to aid westbound ships heading to Honolulu. Kilauea was the third light built by the Lighthouse Board, and was constructed to aid ships arriving from Asia. All materials for the construction of the lighthouse were brought in by boat, with a “boom derrick” erected on a ledge ninety feet above the sea to hoist the materials from the boats to the promontory. Kilauea was not automated until 1976, making it the last manned lighthouse in Hawaii. The Coast Guard turned it over to the National Fish and Wildlife Service in 1985. It is now the focal point for a bird sanctuary.