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Hawaiian Eruptions Triggered Familiar Reactions

Hawaiian eruptions triggered a wealth of writings through the 1800s. News articles, scientific journals and diaries express anxiety, fear, awe and exhilaration. While the details of life on the islands have changed, human reactions remain as constant as Hawaiian eruptions.

Hawaii has some of the most active volcanoes in the world. Among them, Mauna Loa has erupted 33 times since its first well-documented historical eruption in 1843. Kīlauea has erupted 61 times since 1823 and is active to this day.

Following are some exceptional written accounts of Hawaiian eruptions during the 1800s.

Hawaiian Eruptions: Kilauea 1840 Described By Titus Coan

Titus Coan (February 1, 1801 – December 1, 1881) served as minister of the Hilo Mission beginning 1834. In his 1882 publication Life In Hawaii, he describes his observations of volcanic activity on the Big Island during the 19th century.

According to United States Geological Survey (usgs.gov) the 1840 eruption on Kilauea’s east rift zone was one of the most notable of the past 200 years. In Chapter VI, Coan writes that on the last day of May 1840 a bright light shone from Hilo towards the south. The sea was heated for twenty miles, killing multitudes of fish. During this eruption, residents of Hilo and Puna visited the scene of the igneous river plunging into the sea. They described it as “fearfully grand and awe-inspiring.”

Imagine the Mississippi converted into liquid fire of the consistency of fused iron, and moving onward sometimes rapidly, sometimes sluggishly; now widening into a lake, and now rushing through a narrow gorge, breaking its way through mighty forests and ancient solitudes, and you will get some idea of the spectacle here exhibited.

No lives were lost during the eruption but a few small hamlets were consumed. Some people sheltered away from the volcano, but many continued with their daily activities:

apparently indifferent to the roar of consuming forests, the sight of devouring fire, the startling detonations, the hissing of escaping steam, the rending of gigantic rocks, the raging and crashing of lava waves, and the bellowings, the murmurings, the unearthly mutterings coming up from the burning abyss.”

Coan describes the intense heat of the stream that would cause large rocks to explode with great detonations.

A foreigner told me that while he was standing on a rocky hillock, some distance from the stream, gazing with rapt interest upon its movements, he felt himself rising with the ground on which he stood. Startled by the motion, he leaped from the rock, when in a few minutes fire burst out from the place where he had been.

Hawaiian Eruptions: Kilauea 1840 Described By Hawaiian Newspapers

The August 29, 1840 edition of Polynesian Honolulu Hawaii reported:

“This noontide brightness converting night into day, continued for two weeks, and is represented by eyewitnesses, to have been a spectacle of unsurpassed sublimity. It was like the glare of a firmament on fire, and was seen for upwards of a hundred miles, at sea. It also rose and spread itself above the lofty mountain peaks, so as to be distinctly visible on the leeward side of the island, where the wind drove the smoke in dense and massy clouds.”

The Volcano House Register, Volume 2 1873-1885

American businessman Benjamin Pitman built the original Volcano House at the rim of Kilauea caldera in 1846. A simple, one-room shelter made of grass and native ohia wood poles; it remains the only lodging property within Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Volcano House was expanded with additional structures in 1866, 1877 and 1941.

The following entries transcribed from the Volcano House register offer a glimpse at the extraordinary entries throughout this document.While some of the reactions echo those people have today, these entries offer a look into the extraordinarily hearty spirit of exploration that marked the era.

“Arrived yesterday from Hilo after a ride of 11 1/2 hours. There was considerable activity, 11 fountains of fire, and waves of fire perpetually breaking into fiery spray. Much pleased with the comfort of the Volcano House.

Isabella Bird, 31 Jan 1873

“The view of the crater and the two lakes is really grand but if one goes a short distance westerly from when the crater is first seen, the sight is something terrible. Here are two mounds and a slight declivity, and each place is a hole in the crust which enables one to look below, and notice at the same time how this is the arch over the red-hot cavern into which he is looking. Found the lava so hot near the crater, that it set our walking sticks on fire and we even lit our cigars without much difficulty. In accordance with the authorities quoted above, we close by saying that we start for Hilo tomorrow morning at 5:30.

A.B. Carter, Lieut, 24 Feb 1873

“In visiting the two lakes this day, we noticed two things: 1st, that the wind, when strong, as it was during part of the morning, sensibly affects the rapidity with which the lava is driven from one side of the lake to the other; 2d, that when the lake has been quiet for some minutes and entirely covered over with the gray scum, or solidified lava, there being then no exit for the gases, there comes first a violent ebullition, over the surface: with a somewhat vehement burst of molten lava, and this is accompanied by a strong draft of very hot wind from behind the observers and towards the lake–or with the wind–so hot that several times it was almost unendurable.

This hot wind proceeded from the numerous cracks in the lava beds: and made the lava sometimes too hot for our feet, so that we had to shift about from one foot to the other. This would seem to show that at such times the gases, failing to escape from the lake’s surface, were driven back beneath the expanse of cold lava, and found their way out by the numerous cracks. Madame Pele was very kind to us. We had a magnificent show; the farther lake actually roared and was the finest. But one needs to look out for a sudden change of wind there.

Charles Nordhoff, 3 March 1873

“Today I went into the crater with my father, mother, and brother. It was very active. I looked into the holes of the cones, and it seemed like looking into the center of the earth. It was all fire. I got a great many different kinds of lava. It was very hard climbing.”

Mary H. Williams, 8 years old, 1 March 1873

Hawaiian Eruptions Inspired Lava School Painters

The Mauna Loa and Kilauea volcanoes on the Big Island of Hawaii erupted throughout the 1880s and 1890s. People had “witnessed” the massive eruption of Krakatoa in 1883 and its affects worldwide thanks to improved transatlantic communications.

Writers including Isabella Bird, Mark Twain, and Constance Frederica Gordon Cumming sparked the public’s fascination with Hawaii’s volcanic eruptions. Photography was not yet practical, and color photography was years away. It was the Volcano School Painters who offered the world a front-row view of nature in her wildest moments.

Documenting erupting volcanoes was not for the timid. The French Impressionists and other schools had already embraced the art of painting en plein air using natural light. But the Volcano School Painters brought the concept to new levels. Traveling to find the right viewpoint was a grueling physical ordeal that could take days. Temperatures were high and the subjects were temperamental. The air was anything but fresh with volcanoes belching toxic sulfuric gases.

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