Diamond Head Charlie
In the late 1800s, a ship arriving Honolulu Harbor was big news. It meant arriving people, goods, and mail.
John Charles “Charlie” Peterson watched for arriving ships from Diamond Head from 1885 to 1907. Looking through his five-foot-long telescope, the former sailor could recognize ships from thirty miles, day or night regardless of weather. Peterson was known for his accuracy. Whenever Peterson spotted a ship, the Swedish immigrant called the Hawaiian Electric Company and say “Ste-e-e-mer–off Koko Head!” in his Swedish accent. HECOs’s whistle would scream three long blasts for all Honolulu to hear. This meant the ship would arrive in two hours, and people rushed to the harbor.
“Diamond Head Charlie” spent seventeen hours a day watching for ships except when cooking, sleeping, or picking up his paycheck and groceries in Honolulu every month. Every evening at 10 p.m., Peterson called The Pacific Commercial Advertiser to give a weather report.
Working in Diamond Head was a lonely calling; Kaimuki was an undeveloped and rural area with few people. Only his daughter Melika and eventually only his dog and cat kept Peterson company. However, in the later years, word spread about his work, and tourists visited his house.
Peterson lived in a shed without a kitchen and cooked with an oil stove only during stormy weather. In the age before refrigerators, Peterson rarely had fresh meat, as he was far away from “town.” People in Honolulu did complain to the government about his living conditions to no avail.
Since 1895, General Soper organized a Christmas collection for him every year with the businessmen in town. The most they gave to Peterson was $440 in 1902 (worth $11,891 in 2014).
However, Peterson didn’t always have job security. After the construction of Diamond Head lighthouse nearby in 1898, Captain Nellson, the lighthouse keeper, moved in. They quarreled, and Peterson accused Captain Nellson of laziness and neglecting his duties. Three years later, in 1901, they physically fought each other, and Peterson hit Nellson over his head with a club, consequently had to pay a fine of $500, and lost his job.
The Independent claimed Peterson’s firing was political because he didn’t get along with government official Mr. Rowell, who fired him: “The merchants and the skippers have faith in Charlie, and they have none in Rowell.”
The newspaper also noted the inconvenience of not having the “faithful lookout”: “The neglect to signal the Mariposa was a great inconvenience to the public and a decided annoyance to the steamer which was under rush orders.”
Nellson made many errors when identifying ships, and angry people in Honolulu demanded Peterson’s reinstatement. Thus, Peterson returned, and this time, he managed the lighthouse with an assistant.
Technological breakthroughs would lessen the need for Peterson’s position, especially the installation of the trans-Pacific cable in 1902 to 1903. Four years later, Peterson died and was never replaced
Announcing his death, The Evening Bulletin called Peterson a “faithful man” and one of Honolulu’s “most interesting” and “most important” characters. His death caused “widespread expressions of regret throughout the town.”
The Pacific Commercial Advertiser analogized Peterson’s death to his profession: “Close on the allotted three score years and ten, he has now sighted that mysterious bark whose captain is called death.”
– Alice Kim
Articles from Chronicling America
“An Ancient Landmark His Home: Peterson’s Little Cottage on the Slope of Diamond Head”
Pacific commercial advertiser., December 19, 1894, Page 5
“Topics of the Day” (fourth blurb)
Independent, November 30, 1898, Image 2
“Topics of the Day”
Independent, January 8, 1901, Image 3
“Diamond Head Charlie’s Work”
Pacific commercial advertiser, January 29, 1906, Page 8
“Charlie Petersen Is Dead”
Evening bulletin, September 27, 1907, Image 1
“Diamond Head Lookout Dies”
Pacific commercial advertiser, September 28, 1907, Page 3