1840 Eruption of Kilauea
Life in Hawaii
by Titus Coan
Chapter VI (excerpt)
The River of Fire
It reaches the Sea at Nanawale
Destruction of a Village.
The first eruption from Kilauea which occurred after my arrival in Hilo, began on the 30th of May, 1840. To my regret, I was then absent at the annual General Meeting of this mission in Honolulu, a meeting which I have always attended. I therefore record a portion of the facts as given by the natives and foreigners who saw the eruption, adding my own observations on a visit to the scene after my return from Honolulu.
There had been no grand eruption from this crater for the previous seventeen years, so that the lavas in the crater had risen several hundred feet, and the action had, at times, been terrific.
The volcano is thirty miles by road from Hilo, and under favorable conditions of the atmosphere we could see the splendid light by night, and the white cloudy pillar of steam by day. It was reported that, for several days before the outburst, the whole vast floor of the crater was in a state of intense ebullition; the seething waves rolling, surging, and dashing against the adamantine walls, and shaking down large rocks into the fiery abyss below. It was even stated that the heat was so intense, and the surges so infernal, that travelers near the upper rim of the crater left the path on account of the heat, and for fear of the falling of the precipice over which the trail lay, and passed at a considerable distance from the crater.
Kilauea is about half in Puna and half in Kau, and all travelers going from Kau to Hilo by the inland road pass the very brink of this crater.
The eruption was first noticed by the people of Puna, who were living only twenty miles from it. The light appeared at first like a highland jungle on fire; and so it was, for the fiery river found vent some 1,200 to 1,500 feet below the rim of Kilauea, and flowing subterraneously in a N.E. direction, for about four miles, marking its course by rending the superincumbent strata and throwing up light puffs of sulphurous steam, it broke ground in the bottom of a wooded crater about 500 feet deep, consuming the shrubs, vines, and grasses, and leaving a smouldering mass instead.
The great stream forced its way underground in a wild and wooded region for two miles more, when it again threw up a jet of fire and sulphur, covering about an acre. At this point, a large amount of brilliant sulphur crystals continued to be formed for several years.
Only a little further on, and an old wooded cone was rent with fissures several feet wide, and about half an acre of burning lava spouted up, consuming the trees and jungle. This crevasse emitted scalding vapor for twenty-five years.
Onward went the burning river, deep underground, some six miles more, when the earth was rent again with an enormous fissure, and floods of devouring fire were poured out, consuming the forest and spreading over perhaps fifty acres. And still the passage seaward was underground for about another six miles, when it broke out in a terrific flood and rolled and surged along henceforth upon the surface, contracting to half a mile, or expanding to two miles in width, and moving from half a mile to five miles an hour, according to the angle of descent and the inequalities and obstructions of the surface, until it poured over the perpendicular sea-wall, about thirty feet high, in a sheet of burning fusion only a little less than one mile wide.
This was on June 3, 1840. It reached the sea on the fifth day after the light was first seen on the highlands, and at the distance of only seventeen and a half miles from Hilo. As this grand cataract of fire poured over the basaltic sea-wall, the sights and sounds were said to be indescribable. Two mighty antagonistic forces were in conflict. The sea boiled and raged as with infernal fury, while the burning flood continued to pour into the troubled waves by night and by day for three weeks. Dense clouds of steam rolled up heavenward, veiling sun and stars, and so covering the lava flow that objects could not be seen from one margin to the other. All communication between the northern and southern portions of Puna was cut off for more than a month.
The waters of the sea were heated for twenty miles along the coast, and multitudes of fishes were killed by the heat and the sulphurous gases, and were seen floating upon the waves.
During this flow, the sea-line along the whole breadth of the fire-stream was pushed out many yards by the solidified lavas, and three tufaceous cones were raised in the water where ships could once sail! They were formed of lava-sand made by the shivering of the mineral flood coming in contact with the sea, and standing in a line 200, 300, and 400 feet above the water, with their bases deep down in the sea. These dunes have been greatly reduced by the waves thundering at their bases and the winds and storms beating upon their summits. One of them, indeed, is now entirely obliterated.
During this eruption most of the foreign residents in Hilo, and hundreds of Hawaiians of Puna and Hilo, visited the scene where the igneous river plunged into the sea, and 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.
When the eruption was at its height night was turned into day in all this region. The light rose and spread like morning upon the mountains, and its glare was seen on the opposite side of the island. It was also visible for more than a hundred miles at sea; and at the distance of forty miles fine print could be read at midnight.
The brilliancy of the light was said to be like a blazing firmament, and the scene one of unrivaled sublimity.
No lives were lost during this eruption. The stream passed under and over an almost uninhabited desert. A few small hamlets were consumed, and a few patches of taro, potatoes, and bananas were destroyed, but the people walked off with their calabashes, kapas, and other chattels to seek shelter and food elsewhere. During the eruption some of the people of Puna spent much of their time in prayer and religious meetings, some fled in consternation, and others wandered along the margin of the lava stream, at a safe distance, marking with idle curiosity its progress, while others still pursued their daily avocations within a mile of the fiery river, as quietly as if nothing strange had occurred. They ate, drank, bought, sold, planted, builded, slept, and waked 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. They went quietly on in sight of the rain of ashes, sand, and fiery scintillations, gazing vacantly on the fearful and ever-varying appearance of the atmosphere illuminated by the eruption, the sudden rising of lofty pillars of flame, the upward curling of ten thousand columns of smoke, and their majestic gyrations in dingy, lurid, or parti-colored clouds.
While the stream was flowing it might be approached within a few yards on the windward side, while at the leeward no one could live within a great distance on account of the smoke, the impregnation of the atmosphere with pungent and deadly gases, and the fiery showers that fell on all around, destroying all vegetable life.
Sometimes the intense heat of the stream would cause large boulders and rocks to explode with great detonations, and sometimes lateral branches of the stream would push out into some fissure, or work into a subterranean gallery, until they met with some obstacle, when the accumulating fusion with its heat, its gases, and its pressure would lift up the superincumbent mass of rock into a dome, or, sundering it from its surroundings, bear it off on its burning bosom like a raft upon the water. 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.
On returning from Honolulu I soon started for Puna, with arrangements to make as thorough explorations and observations on this remarkable eruption as my time would allow. I spent nearly two days on the stream. It was solidified and mostly cooled, yet hot and steaming in many places. I went up the flow to where it burst out in volume and breadth from its subterranean chambers and continued on the surface to the sea, a distance of about twelve miles, making the entire length of the stream about thirty miles. In a letter published in the Missionary Herald of July, 1841, I called it forty miles, but later measurements have led me to correct this and some other statements made on first sight.
I found the place of final outburst a scene where terrific energy had been exerted. Yawning crevasses were opened, the rocks were rent, and the forests consumed; the molten flood had raged and swirled and been thrown high into the air, and there had been a display of titanic fury which must have been appalling at the time of the outbreak.
In pursuing its course the stream sometimes plunged into caverns and deep depressions, and sometimes it struck hills which separated it into two channels, which uniting again after having passed the obstruction, left islands of varied sizes with trees scorched and blasted with the heat and gases.
Along the central line of the stream its depth could not be measured accurately, for there was no trace of tree or ancient rock or floor. All was a vast bed of fresh, smouldering lava. On the margins, however, where the strata were thinner, I was able to measure with great accuracy. In passing through forests, while the depth and heat of the middle of the stream consumed everything, on the margins thousands of green trees were cut down gradually by the fusion around their trunks; but this was done so slowly that the surface of the stream solidified before the trees fell, and on falling upon the hot and hardened crust, the tops and limbs were only partly consumed, but all were charred, and the rows and heaps were so thick and entangled as to form chevaux-de-frise quite impassable in some places. But the numerous holes left in the hot lava bed by the gradual reduction of the trunks to ashes afforded the means of measuring the depth of the flow. With a long pole I was enabled to measure from a depth of five to twenty-five feet. Some of these trunk-moulds were as smooth as the calibre of a cannon. Some of the holes were still so hot at the bottom as to set my pole on fire in one minute.
I had seen fearful ragings and heard what seemed the wails of infernal beings in the great crater of Kilauea, but I had never before seen the amazing effects of a great exterior eruption of lava, and I returned from this weary exploration, after a missionary tour through Puna, with a deepened sense of the terrible dynamics of the fiery abyss over which we tread.
Since then, in crossing and re-crossing the wild highlands of my parish I have found in the consumed openings of forests a new class of volcanic monuments, consisting in numerous stacks of lava chimneys standing apart on the floor of an ancient flow. These chimneys measure from five to twenty-five feet in height, and five to ten feet in diameter. I gazed at them at first sight as the work of human art, not knowing that they were cylindrical. On climbing them I found that they were hollow, and that they were as clearly tree moulds as the holes I had measured in the flow of 1840.
Then came the question, how were they formed. The solution soon came that an ancient eruption had passed through this forest at the height of many feet above the present surface, the fiery river surrounding large trees, but while it consumed all smaller growths, the waves subsided to their present level before these trunks were fully consumed, thus leaving partially cooled envelopes of lava adhering to them. These moulds or chimneys now stand as monuments of the volcanic action of an unknown age.
Here I leave this subject for a while, purposing to return to it.