In the 1820s, British sailors thought they had discovered diamonds on the slopes of the volcanoes near the location of today's lighthouse. However, what they found were simple, clear calcite crystals. Nonetheless, the diamond association remains, hence the name Diamond Head.
Though diamond dreams may have faded, Hawaii increasingly grew alluring to immigrants and visitors from Asia and the Americas, leading to increasing arrivals of people by ship during the last half of the nineteenth century, leading to the establishment of a lookout in 1878 on the on the seaward slopes of Diamond Head, with John Charles Petersen, a Swedish-born mariner as its first watchman. Gaining the nickname Diamond Head Charlie, he worked at the lighthouse for thirty years until his death in 1907.
Despite the presence of Diamond Head Charlie, two ships ran around during the 1890s. During the night of October 2, 1893, the SS Miowera grounded on the reef just off Diamond Head and, in 1897, the grand steamship China ran aground near the dormant volcano’s crater. Both incidents made it clear that a lighthouse proved necessary, something for which Captain James King, minister of the Interior for the Republic of Hawaii had been petitioning the Hawaiian legislature for years -- it took the accidents to prove his case.
The first plan comprised of nothing more than an iron structure that would hold a light, operated by Diamond Head Charlie. But, inspections led to a belief that the tower might night withstand strong winds, so more money was appropriated to build a permanent wall around the iron, made from to coral-rock excavated from a quarry on Oahu.
The story of the watchmen and Diamond Head Charlie includes a bizarre twist. First, Captain A. Christian was appointed the first official light keeper, but the sixty-one-year-old Captain suffered a mysterious ailment that paralyzed him, blinded him and eventually killed him due to a brain hemorrhage. So, Niel C. Nielson replaced Captain Christian, only to be beaten by Diamond Head Charlie (he struck Nielson in the face with a club). Charlie was fined a mere $50 for his behavior, but he was relieved of his duties. But, five months later, Charlie was back on the job as his skills as a lookout proved superior to his replacements.
By 1904, the Lighthouse Board took control of the Diamond Head Lighthouse. Twelve years later, an inspection deemed the tower unsafe due to cracks in the structure. Thus, the commission dismantled the old tower and replaced it with the modern concrete structure that stands today, which strongly resembles the original tower except for the internal staircase that had been located externally in the 1899 design.
The U.S. Coast Guard took control of the lighthouse in 1938, a few years before the bombing of Pearl Harbor. During World War II, the Coast Guard installed a radio station to the keeper's dwelling, which was later remodeled as a residence; it is now the home to the Commanders of the Fourteenth Coast Guard District.
Today, the lighthouse remains functional and can be seen for many miles. In 2007, the Diamond Head Lighthouse and other Pacific lighthouses were featured on a series of U.S. Postal Stamps.