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

Chapter XX.

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Eruptions of Mauna Loa The Eruption of 1852 The Fire-Fountain A Visit to it Alone on the Mountain Sights on Mauna Loa.

MY account of the eruption of Mauna Loa in February, 1852, was originally published in The American Journal of Science and Arts (September, 1852). It is here reproduced with slight corrections from later observations. I visited the locality three times; first while the lava fountain was playing a thousand feet high, and twice since the crater had cooled.

It was a little before daybreak on the 17th of February, 1852, that we saw through our window a beacon light resting on the apex of Mauna Loa. At first we supposed it to be a planet just setting. In a few minutes we were undeceived by the increasing brilliancy of the light, and by a grand outburst of a fiery column which shot high into the air, sending down a wonderful sheen of light, which illuminated our fields and flashed through our windows. Immediately a burning river came rushing down the side of the mountain at the apparent rate of fifteen to twenty miles an hour. This summit eruption was vivid and vigorous for forty hours, and I was preparing to visit the scene, when all at once the valves closed, and all signs of the eruption disappeared; accordingly I ceased my preparations to ascend the mountain.

On the 20th, the eruption broke out laterally, about 4,000 feet below the summit, and at a point facing Hilo; from this aperture a brilliant column of fire shot up to a height of 700 feet, by angular measurement, with a diameter of from 100 to 300 feet. This lava fountain was sustained without intermission for twenty days and nights, during which time it built up a crater one mile in circumference, lacking one chain, and 400 feet high. It also sent down a river of liquid fire more than forty miles long, which came within ten miles of Hilo.

The roar of this great furnace was heard along the shores of Hilo, and the earth quivered with its rage, while all the district was so lighted up that we could see to read at any hour of the night when the sky was not clouded. The smoke and steam rose in a vast column like a pillar of cloud by day, and at night it was illuminated with glowing brilliants, raising the pillar of fire thousands of feet in appearance. When it reached a stratum of atmosphere of its own specific gravity, it moved off like the tail of a comet, or spread out laterally, a vast canopy of illuminated gases. The winds from the mountain brought down smoke, cinders, "Pele’s hair," and gases, scattering the light products over houses and gardens, streets and fields, or bearing them far out to sea, dropped them upon the decks of vessels approaching our coast.

The light of the eruption was seen more than one hundred miles at sea, and sailors told us that when they first saw the light flaming on the mountain they exclaimed, "Look there, the moon is rising in the west!" Much of the time our atmosphere was murky, and the veiled sun looked as if in an eclipse.

On Monday, the 23d of February, Dr. Wetmore and myself, taking with us four natives as assistants, set out for the mountain. One of these natives was familiar with the woods and wilds, having been a bird-catcher, a canoe-digger, and a wild-cattle hunter in those high regions. His name was Kekai, "Salt Sea."

We passed our first night in the skirt of the forest, having taken with us long knives, an old sword, clubs, and hatchets, purposing to cut and beat our way through the jungle in as straight a line as possible toward the fiery pillar. On Tuesday we rose fresh and earnest, and pressed through the ferns and vines, and through the tangled thicket, and over, under, and around gigantic trees, which lay thick in some places, cutting and beating as we went, our progress being sometimes half a mile, sometimes one, and again two miles an hour. At night we bivouacked in the ancient forest, hearing the distant roar of the volcano and seeing the glare of the igneous river, which had already passed us, cutting its way through the wood a few miles distant on our left.

On Wednesday Dr. Wetmore decided to return to Hilo, apprehensive that the stream might reach the sea before we could return from the crater, and that our families might need his presence. Taking one of the men, he hastened back to the village, while I pressed on.

Sleeping once more in the forest, we emerged on Thursday upon the high, open lava fields, but plunged into a dense fog darker and more dreary than the thicket itself. We were admonished not to journey far, as more than one man had been lost in these bewildering fogs, and wandering farther and farther from the way had left his bones to bleach in the desert; we therefore encamped for the fourth time. A little before sunset the fog rolled off, and Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa both stood out in grand relief; the former robed in a fleecy mantle almost to its base, and the latter belching out floods of fire. All night long we could see the glowing fires and listen to the awful roar twenty miles away.

We left our mountain eyrie on the 27th, determined, if possible, to reach the seat of action that day. The scoriaceous hills and ridges, the plains and gorges bristled with the sharp and jagged aa, and our ascent was rough and difficult. We mounted ridges where the pillar of fire shone strongly upon us, and we plunged down deep dells and steep ravines where our horizon was only a few feet distant, the attraction increasing as the square of the distance decreased.

At noon we came upon the confines of a tract of naked scoriæ so intolerably sharp and jagged that our baggage-men could not pass it. Here I ordered a halt; stationed the two carriers, gave an extra pair of strong shoes to the guide, gave him my wrapper and blanket, put a few crackers and boiled eggs into my pocket, took my compass and staff, and said to Mr. Salt Sea, "Now go ahead, and let us warm ourselves to-night by that fire yonder." But I soon found that my guide needed a leader; he lagged behind, and I waited for him to come up, but fearing we should not reach the point before night I pressed forward alone, with an interest that mocked all obstacles.

At half-past three P.M. I reached the awful crater, and stood alone in the light of its fires. It was a moment of unutterable interest. I was 10,000 feet above the sea, in a vast solitude untrodden by the foot of man or beast, amidst a silence unbroken by any living voice. The Eternal God alone spoke. His presence was attested as in the "devouring fire on the top of Sinai." I was blinded by the insufferable brightness, almost petrified by the sublimity of the scene.

The heat was so intense that I could not approach the pillar within forty or fifty yards, even on the windward side, and in the snowy breezes coming down from the mountain near four thousand feet above. On the leeward side the steam, the hot cinders, ashes, and burning pumice forbade approach within a mile or more.

I stood amazed before this roaring furnace. I felt the flashing heat and the jar of the earth; I heard the subterranean thunders, and the poetry of the sacred Word came into my thoughts: "He looketh on the earth, and it trembleth; He toucheth the hills, and they smoke; the mountains quake at Him, and the hills melt; He uttered His voice, the earth melted; the hills melted like wax at the presence of the Lord."

Here indeed the hills smoked and the earth melted! and I saw its gushings from the awful throat of the crater burning with intense white heat. I saw the vast column of melted rocks mounting higher and still higher, while dazzling volleys and coruscations shot out like flaming meteors in every direction, exploding all the way up the ascending column of 1,000 feet with the sharp rattle of infantry fire in battle. There were unutterable sounds as the fierce fountain sent up the seething fusion to its utmost height; it came down in parabolic curves, crashing like a storm of fiery hail in conflict with the continuous ascending volume, a thousand tons of the descending mass falling back into the burning throat of the crater, where another thousand were struggling for vent.

For an hour I stood entranced; then there came to me the startling thought that I was alone. Where was my companion? I looked down the mountain, but there was no motion and no voice. The vast fields and valleys of dreary scoria lay slumbering before me; the sun was about to disappear behind the lofty snow-robed mountain in the rear. What if my guide had gone back! Remembering my former experience in 1843, only about five miles from this place, I could not be otherwise than anxious. Minutes seemed as hours while I watched for his coming, when lo! there is motion upon the rough aa about a mile below me: a straw hat peers up on a ridge and again disappears in a gorge, like a boat in the trough of the sea. Then at length "Salt Sea" stood forth a life-sized figure in full view. Weary but faithful he was toiling upward. If ever my heart leaped for joy, it was then. As he came within speaking distance, he raised both his hands high above his head and shouted: "Kupaianaha! kupaianaha i keia hana mane a ke Akua mane loa!" Wonderful, wonderful is this mighty work of Almighty God.

Could I help embracing the old man and praising the Lord?

We chose our station for the night within about two hundred feet of the crater and watched its pyrotechnics, and heard its mutterings, its detonations, and its crashing thunder until morning. Occasionally our eyelids became heavy, but before we were fairly asleep some new and rousing demonstration would bring us to our feet and excite the most intense interest. In addition to the marvelous sounds, the kaleidoscopic views of the playing column were so rapid and so brilliant that we could hardly turn our eyes for a moment from it. The fusion when issuing from the mouth of the crater was white-hot, but as it rose through the air its tints underwent continuous changes: it became a light red, then a deeper shade, then a glossy gray, and in patches a shining black, but these tints and shades with many others were intermingled, and as every particle was in motion the picture was splendid beyond the power of description. Thousands and millions of tons of sparkling lava were pouring from the rim of the crater, while the cone was rising rapidly, and spreading out at the base. From the lower side of this cone a large fissure opened, through which the molten flood was issuing and rushing down the mountain, burning its way through the forest. No tongue, no pen, no pencil can portray the beauty, the grandeur, the terrible sublimity of the scenes of this memorable night.

Morning came, we offered our prayers, ate our breakfast, and descended the mountain with regrets. Rejoining the men whom we had left the preceding day, we retraced our steps to Hilo, and reached home in health and safety, though not without an experience it may be interesting to relate. In the upper skirts of the forest in a narrow pass we were confronted by a magnificent wild bull. Coming suddenly upon a small herd in this defile, the cows and smaller cattle fled and were soon out of sight; not so the bull; he wheeled and faced us boldly, covering the retreat of the cows and calves, and bidding us defiance. As he stood with head proudly erect, we estimated the tips of his splendid horns to be eight feet from the ground.

We were challenged by this mountain sentinel to stand, and stand we did. We were unwilling to retreat; to deploy to the right or left seemed impossible. We held a council, feeling that "discretion was the better part of valor." The bull was armed with ugly horns; we were unarmed. He stood and we stood. Our guide, an old mountaineer, advised us to arm ourselves with stones, and directed that when he hurled his missile and shouted, we should do the same. We all hurled and yelled at once. The proud monarch snorted, shook his head, turned slowly on his heels, retreated a few paces, and then suddenly wheeled right-about and again held the passage. We hurled another volley and shouted. The Bashan bull wheeled slowly round, walked about a rod, and a second time turned and faced us, bidding defiance. We feared a charge, but as we had pushed our Goliath back some feet, we let go a third volley, and this decided the conflict. He turned, but he neither ran nor trotted; he maintained his dignity and retreated deliberately, while we waited for his highness to disappear, without attempting to disarm him or make him a prisoner. It was a compromise which we accepted thankfully. We breathed easier and moved on with lighter steps.

This splendid eruption of 1852 was in blast only twenty days.


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