Life in Hawaii, by Titus Coan
Copyright ©1882, 1997 (electronic edition by Edward J. Coan)

Chapter XVIII.

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Kilauea Changes in the Crater Attempt to Measure the Heat of its Lavas Phenonena in Times of Great Activity Visitors in the Domains of Pele.

THE volcano of Kilauea is always in action. Its lake of lava and brimstone rolls and surges from age to age.

Sometimes these fires are sluggish, and one might feel safe in pitching his tent upon the floor of the crater. Again the ponderous masses of hardened lava, in appearance like vast coal-beds, are broken up by the surging floods below, and tossed hither and thither, while the great bellows of Jehovah blows upon these hills and cones and ridges of solidified rocks, and melts them down into seas and lakes and streams of liquid fire.

As the great volcano is within the limits of my parish, and as my missionary trail flanks it on three sides, I may have observed it a hundred times; but never twice in the same state.

Its outer wall remains nearly the same from age to age, but all within the vast cauldron undergoes changes. I have visited it when there was but one small pool of fusion visible, and at another time I have counted eighty fires in the bottom of the crater. Sometimes I have seen what is called Halemaumau, or South Lake, enlarged to a circuit of three miles, and raging as if filled with infernal demons, and again domed over with a solid roof, excepting a single aperture of about twenty feet in diameter at the apex, which served as a vent to the steam and gases. On my next visit I would find this dome broken in, and the great sea of fiery billows, of near a mile in diameter, rolling below.

On one occasion, when there with a party of friends, we found the door of entrance to the floor of the crater closed against us. A flood of burning fusion, covering some fifty acres, had burst out at the lower end of the path, shutting out all visitors, so that we spent the day and night upon the upper rim of the abyss.

On another occasion I found the great South Lake filled to the brim, and pouring out in two deep and broad canals at nearly opposite points of the lake. The lava followed these crescent fissures of fifty or more feet deep and wide until they came within half a mile of meeting under the northern wall of the crater, thus nearly enclosing an area of about two miles in length and a mile and a half in breadth.

A pyrometer, sent out by Professor J. D. Dana, was put into my hands to measure the heat of melted lava. I had taken it with me twice to the crater unsuccessfully, the fusion being too deep in the lake to be reached. I had also sent it up by others, with instructions, hoping to get it inserted; but failing, I went up again with my friend, Dr. Lafon. We descended the crater and traveled south about two miles, when a vast mound like a truncated cone rose before us. Not recognizing this elevation, I said to my companion, "This is a new feature in the crater; I have not seen it before. It is about where the lake used to be; but let us pass over it, and we shall probably find the lake on the other side." With the instrument in hand, we began to ascend the elevation on an angle of about twenty degrees. When halfway up, there came over a splash of burning fusion, which fell near our feet. Our hair was electrified, and we retreated in haste. Going to a little distance, we mounted an extinct cone which overlooked the eminence we had left, when, lo! to our amazement, it was the great South Lake of fire, no longer, as often, one to two hundred feet below us, but risen to a level of about twenty-five feet above the surrounding plain, and contained by a circular dam of cooled lava some three miles in circumference. The scene was awful. Over all that high and extended surface the fiery billows were surging and dashing with infernal seething and mutterings and hissings. The whole surface was in ebullition, and now and then large blisters, many feet in length, viscous films, of the consistency of glutinous matter, would rise in gigantic bubbles created by the lifting gases, and then burst and disappear.

We were struck with amazement; and the question was, Shall we again venture near that awful furnace? We could frequently see the lava flood spilling over the rim like a boiling cauldron, and what if the encircling dam should burst and pour its deluge of fiery ruin over all the surrounding area! But unwilling to fail in our experiment we came down from the cone, and carefully, and with eyes agaze, began to ascend the wall; again and again we were driven back by the splashes of red-hot lava. We persevered, and watching and dodging the spittings, I was at last able to reach so near the top of the dam as to thrust the pyrometer through the thin part of the upper rim, when out burst a gory stream of lava, and we ran down to wait the time for withdrawing the instrument. The shaft of the pyrometer was about four feet long, with a socket into which I had firmly fastened a ten-foot pole. When at last we grasped the pole and pulled, the strength of four strong arms could not dislodge the pyrometer. We pulled and pulled until the pole was wrenched from the socket. The instrument was fast beyond recovery, and with keen regret we left it in the hardened lava.

We turned to retreat from the crater, and before we had reached the upper rim, we looked back and saw that awful lake emptying itself at two points, one of which appeared to be in the very place where we had stood only half an hour before. The whole southern portion of the crater was a sea of liquid fire, covering, as I estimated, about two square miles, with a probable depth of three feet.

This circular dam which enclosed the elevated lava lake was formed gradually by successive overflowings upon the rim, depositing stratum upon stratum, until the solidified layers had raised the dam some twenty-five feet; when the lateral pressure became so great as to burst the barrier and give vent to this terrific flood.

I have heard great avalanches of rocks fall from the outer walls of the crater some eight hundred feet into the dread abyss below with thundering uproar. At the distance of two miles I have heard the soughing and sighing of the lava waves, and upon the surface of that awful lake I have seen as it were gory forms leaping up with shrieks, as if struggling to escape their doom, and again plunging and disappearing beneath the burning billows. To stand upon the margin of this lake of fire and brimstone, to listen to its infernal sounds, the rolling, surging, tossing, dashing, and spouting of its furious waves; to witness its restless throbbings, its gyrations, its fierce ebullitions, its writhing, and its fearful throes as if in anguish, and to feel the hot flushes of its sulphurous breath, is to give one sensations which no human language can express.

Sometimes an indurated film, two to four inches thick, will form over all the central part of the lake, while its periphery is a circle of boiling lava, spouting, leaping, and dancing as if in merry gambols. All at once the scene changes, the central portion begins to swell and rise into a grayish dome, until it bursts like a gigantic bubble, and out rushes a sea of crimson fusion, which pours down to the surrounding wall with an awful seething and roaring, striking this mural barrier with fury, and with such force that its sanguinary jets are thrown back like a repulsed charge upon a battle-field, or tossed into the air fifty to a hundred feet high, to fall upon the upper rim of the pit in a hail-storm of fire.

This makes the filamentous vitrifaction called "Pele’s hair." The sudden sundering of the fusion into thousands of particles, by the force that thus ejects the igneous masses upward, and their separation when in this fused state, spins out vitreous threads like spun glass. These threads are light, and when taken up by brisk winds, are often kept floating and gyrating in the atmosphere, until they come into a calmer stratum of air; when they fall over the surrounding regions, sometimes in masses in quiet and sheltered places. They are sometimes carried a hundred miles, as is proved by their dropping on ships at sea. This "hair" takes the color of the lava of which it is formed. Some of it is a dark gray, some auburn, or it may be yellow, or red, or of a brick color.

Another mode of action in this lake is to encrust nearly all the surface with the hardened covering, while active boiling is kept up at the margin on one side only. When this ebullition becomes intense, the fusion rises on that side, while the other side is quiet. After a little, this agitated lava will rise and fall over upon the crust, pressing or breaking it down, and rolling in a fiery wave across the lake, and thus covering its whole surface with an intense boiling and surging, so fierce and so hot that the spectator withdraws from the insufferable heat to a cooler and safer position.

To be struck with this heat in its intensity, is to be death-struck, and to inhale a full draught of this sulphurous acid gas in its strength would be to extinguish life. All visitors must keep on the windward side of the lake and avoid all currents of hot steam and gases.

Some visitors are too daring. Others are too timid. I have known several gentlemen who have ventured into places of peril, and escaped death as by a miracle; and I have known one at least so timid as to turn back to Hilo as soon as he saw smoke and steam, and smelt sulphur, though he was still more than a mile distant from the volcano.

And I have seen ladies tremble and almost faint on going down into the crater while yet a full mile from any visible fire. One who was in my charge was so terrified that no assurance of safety and no effort to persuade could move her. She sat down upon a rock a mile from Halemaumau, and would not move until we led her out of the crater. Others, though transfixed and awe-struck at first, become so fearless that they play with the pools and little rills of lava, dipping up specimens of it to take away. In order to carry it conveniently, one lady put a specimen which had hardened, but not yet cooled, into her handkerchief, when, instead of remaining, it burnt through and fell at her feet.



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