At one time a sacred resting place and later a natural fortress, L’ahi’s story has been one of cultural power and war-time practicality. Today the war is over, as jurisdiction over the land rests in the hands of the State, but battles continue to be fought to restore to L’ahi its native plants and former wilderness, its sovereignty over the shore.
Approximately 300,000 years ago, rising magma hit shallow water and created a steam explosion, blasting cinder, ash and limestone reef into the air. The ash eventually settled and hardened, forming the circular palagonite tuff cone we have today, a crater roughly 4,000 feet in diameter rising 761 feet above the Pacific at its summit.
Polynesian settlers, who arrived on Waikiki’s shores around 1000 A.D. gave the crater its name. L’ahi, like many ancient Hawaiian place names, has more than one possible meaning. Most translate it as “brow of the ‘ahi,” so named for its profile resembling a massive tuna looking out to sea. Others think the name could mean “wreath of fire,” a combination of lei (wreath) and ahi (fire), from the later tradition of lighting navigational fires along the crater rim.
It wasn’t until Captain Cook’s 1774 voyage that L’ahi became Diamond Head, when hopeful seamen mistook the calcite crystals in the crater’s tuff for diamonds.
L’ahi was not inhabited in old Hawai’i, but it loomed large in the culture, particularly as a resting place of Pele, the fire goddess, and her sister Hi’iaka, as they searched the Hawaiian archipelago for a home.
The late Dr. George Kanahele, Hawaiian educator and activist, said of L’ahi, “It was kapu. The most kapu place was the crater or pit, where Pele resided. Hence, no Hawaiian would think of living, working or even visiting there…This explains why no evidence of pre-Cook human habitation has been found in the crater.”
Because it was kapu, or forbidden, no temple or structure was built inside the crater, though several heiau were constructed at the base of the slopes and near the summit. Navigational fires doubled as offerings to the god of wind, La’amaomao. There was also a small lake inside the crater during this era, which dried up seasonally but came back when trade winds brought heavier rains.
The land changed hands several times during the 1800s, part of King William Lunalilo’s private estate for a number of years before being transferred to the Hawaiian government in 1884.
During this period, an interesting character was born of the crater. John Charles Peterson, a Swedish mariner who came to be known as “Diamond Head Charlie,” was also known as Diamond Head’s first watchman (though it should be noted that he was its first non-Hawaiian overseer at best.) Sitting atop the summit with a telescope, he would watch the horizon for incoming ships and descend the crater by horse to alert the city. He also manned the Diamond Head lighthouse when it was built in 1892. Ten years later, the Pacific Cable changed the nature of international communication, and a watchman was no longer needed.
Just prior to the dawn of the 20th century, of course, the Americanization of Hawai’i went into overdrive as the monarchy was overthrown and a group of American-born Hawai’i citizens came into power. Diamond Head was the setting of a brief but fierce battle in 1895 when royalists and armed natives fought unsuccessfully to restore Queen Lili’uokalani to the throne.
Soon another war swept their attention across the ocean. The United States was at war with Spain, and though the Hawai’i public was sharply divided on getting involved, the Islands eventually became an American ally. President McKinley’s eyes were opened to Hawai’i’s strategic importance. He signed annexation papers in 1898, and in 1900 the Organic Act declared Hawai’i an American territory.
This act changed Hawai’i forever, and Diamond Head along with it. In 1906 the U.S. military purchased 729 acres in and around Diamond Head and began construction of Fort Ruger, a powerful Pacific defense system that would never be used in its 50-year-reign over the crater. During this period, L’ahi’s lake was filled in, and many heiau were destroyed to provide stone for military projects.
The fort consisted of four concrete batteries, firing ranges, a flat-top reservoir and the fire control station at the summit. These structures were built between 1909 and the 1940s, most of which were updated as military technology changed with the decades.
Not all changes during this period were military, however. In 1950 George Munro built the Na La’au Arboretum, a xerophytic (dryland) botanical garden, on Diamond Head’s western slopes. Though it was not maintained after the 1970s, recent planning has provided for reconstruction and greater use.
When Hawai’i became a state in 1959, tourism fueled an economic boom that had developers scouring O’ahu’s southern shores for prime real estate. Akamai locals saw the fast-approaching problem: The famous view of L’ahi would be hidden and its lower slopes paved over unless restrictions were put on heights of high-rise hotels and apartment buildings and the land around Diamond Head was kept off-limits.
In 1967, a motivated faction of the League of Women Voters formed Save Diamond Head, an association dedicated to the preservation of the crater and its surrounding environment. The group actively campaigned against a number of proposals, such as a tramway to the summit, a golf course, a tennis complex, a swimming pool and a 4,000-seat stadium.
Thanks largely to Save Diamond Head’s efforts, private development was halted by the city council, and the state monument (1962) and historic site (1965) was additionally declared a national monument and opened to the public in 1968 for the first time in more than six decades.
The public liked what it saw.
Within a few years the flower generation was drawn from the beach to the sweltering heat of L’ahi by new crater festivals, huge Woodstock-like concerts that brought tens of thousands of people into what had been a quiet, zero-impact environment just months before.
But Save Diamond Head didn’t like the noise or traffic or potential danger to native plants the festivals caused. It wanted passive recreation that would preserve the natural habitat. In response, the Board of Land and Natural Resources put a stop to the music while the state Legislature funded a new master plan. The main objective of the 1979 document was “the establishment of a semi-wild interior park and development of an exterior park for family picnic outings.”
It was the first real blueprint for planned progress within the crater, and it guided the state as it attempted to preserve the landmark and provide greater public access. Many of its objectives were achieved, like the transfer of additional acres to state park jurisdiction, but some were put on hold. After 20 years, by 1999, the number of visitors had risen from 41,000 to 800,000 a year, and the Legislature agreed to fund an update to the original plan (the Diamond Head Master Plan Update) to take a fresh look at Diamond Head.
The dramatic influx of tourists over the past 30 years has taken a toll on the park, especially the rim’s easily eroded tuff. Yara Lamadrid-Rose, the Diamond Head Park Coordinator, estimates that the crater rim lost as much as two feet in places due to erosion during just the past ten years. Rockfall mitigation projects were completed in 2004 and 2006, and an upcoming two-phase stint (spread between this year and 2009) will close the park while clearing away the rest of the loose rock.
Efforts are being made to preserve native plants, such as the schiedea adamantis, one of three endangered plant species within the crater. Invasive species like fountain grass are choking these native plants, and efforts are underway to exterminate the unwanted plants and replace them with native ones, all without exposing the soil to large-scale erosion.
Diamond Head is also home to a number of species of endangered waterfowl, a population the new wetland restoration project hopes to serve. DLNR plans to transform the existing wetland into a fully landscaped interpretive site, with picnic areas and a loop hike encircling it. This restoration would provide a permanent–instead of seasonal–habitat for the water fowl while drawing other native species to the crater.
The Future of Diamond Head
One important feature of the Master Plan Update is the interpretive/visitor center planned for the area between Kahala and Kapahulu Tunnels. With a rustic, unobtrusive design the center would provide further education about its history, geology, flora and fauna. Guests with physical limitations would be able to experience the hike through a video of the trail and views from the summit, while other visitors would be able to see what the crater looked like just after eruption through an exhibit that recreates the event.
State Parks plans on a public-private partnership to fund the project, which will cost approximately $11.5 million. Before construction can begin, however, the interpretive center’s future site must be vacated by the Hawai’i National Guard.
As Diamond Head continues to increase in popularity there are regular calls for expanded parking, but there is no plan to increase capacity within the crater (one goal of the Master Plan is to permanently move parking to the exterior of the monument). More parking would mean more guests, and presently the trail cannot hold many more. Lamadrid-Rose said the park receives 70 percent of its guests in a four-hour window–from 9am to 1pm–during which time a line can form around the observation point and down the last flight of stairs.
The solution, said Lamadrid-Rose, is to open up more areas of the park, which would disperse visitors instead of funneling them toward the summit trail. The areas with potential, according to the Master Plan Update, are the southeast portion of the rim, the wetland area and the flat-top reservoir west of the summit.
Other projects are planned for the exterior, such as a relocated Na La’au Arboretum, and Kapi’olani Community College’s Culinary Institute of the Pacific, a four-star restaurant and training facility set to open in 2011. The University of Hawai’i, which leased the land from the state, is building the institute on the old Cannon Club site and recently received $5 million from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation for the project.
Today there is a commendable balance of progressive, preservation-minded projects seeking to enhance the natural beauty and legacy of Diamond Head. Though it slows the process, the state is learning to look before it leaps,
seeking to enhance visitor experience but well aware that L’ahi can speak for itself.
Let’s begin with a test
True or False:
1) Diamond Head crater was once an ancient burial site. False, or at least unproven. Many explorers, such as botanist James Macrae or writer Mark Twain, claim to have found bones and skulls along the crater rim, but according to an Environmental Impact Study, there are no archaeological studies to confirm these accounts.
2) The two dollars you donate at the summit to get an “I climbed Diamond Head and survived” certificate goes toward the park. True. And false. The donations go to the Diamond Head Preservation Society, a legally registered non-profit. But what society member Randy Frost doesn’t hesitate to explain is that the true beneficiary is a local Hindu temple, which has adopted the altar-ego as a way to raise funds for a new lunch wagon to feed the homeless. There you go: scamming tourists to help the homeless (utilitarians should be cheering).
3) There is a tent community hidden within the brush of the outer slopes of the crater. True. The homeless have built a small village along the barren slopes of Diamond Head, an area that is closed to the public. Although they are evicted about twice a year, they never fail to rebuild, toting stuffed animals, folding chairs, grills, radios and surfboards up the slopes and hanging toothbrushes from tree branches.
4) The park has no way to retrieve the build-up of trash on the steep outer slopes of the summit. False. In past years, rappelling enthusiasts have gone up the trail and down the other side, in order to pick up the trash the maintenance staff can’t reach. What they collect the most — water bottles and baseball caps.
300,000 years of Le-‘ahi
300,000< years ago a steam eruption forms the crater
700-800< A.D. the first Polynesian settlers arrive on the leeward shores
1000< the southern shores are settled
1400-1500s< crater rim is used for navigational fires
1778< Captain Cook gives the crater its name–Diamond Head
1866< Mark Twain visits Hawai’i
1893< Queen Lili’uokalani is overthrown
1895< battle is fought around Diamond Head
1906< land is acquired for U.S. military
1950< Na La’au Arboretum is started by George Munro
1955< land goes to Hawaiian Civil Defense
1959 Hawai’i becomes the 50th< state
1962< Diamond Head is declared a state monument
1968 <Diamond Head is decalred a national monument
1969< first Sunshine Music Festival, first Diamond Head Task Force report
1974< Legislature pays for planning and construction of public access
1977< last crater festival
1979< first Master Plan finalized, DLNR acquires jurisdiction
1987< Legislature decides the outer rim will not undergo development
1997< Legislature funds an update to the master plan, the Cannon Club closes
1999< Millennium Youth Peace Conference
2001< FAA moves out of crater
2003< toll booth is added, master plan update published, abandoned Cannon Club catches fire
2005< lunch wagon first makes appearance