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

Chapter XXIII.

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The Eruption of 1880-1881 Hilo Threatened as Never Before A Day of Public Prayer Visitors to the Lava-Flow It Approaches within a Mile of the Shore Hope Abandoned After Nine Months the Action Suddenly Abates The Deliverance The Mechanism of a Great Lava-Flow An Idolater Dislodged Conclusion.

ON the 5th of November, 1880, our latest eruption from Mauna Loa broke out at a point some 12,000 feet above sea-level, and a few miles north of the great terminal crater, Mokua-weo-weo. The glare was intense, and was seen at great distances. Brilliant jets of lava were thrown high in the air, and a pillar of blazing gases mounted thousands of feet skyward, spreading out into a canopy of sanguinary light which resembled, though upon a larger scale, the so-called "pine-tree appendage" formed over Vesuvius during its eruptions by the vertical column of vapors with its great horizontal cloud.

Meanwhile a raging river of lava, about three-fourths of a mile wide and from fifteen to thirty feet deep, rushed down the north-east flank of the great dome, and ran some thirty miles to the base of Mauna Kea. This stream was composed mostly of aa or scoria. Its terminus was visited and well described by our townsman, David Hitchcock, Esq. This flow hardened and ceased; but a stream of pahoehoe or field lava was now sent off to the south-east, toward Kilauea. The roaring furnace on Mauna Loa remained in full blast. Down came a third river of lava, in several channels, flowing in the direction of Hilo. This divided itself in places and reunited, leaving islands in the forest. This stream crossed the flow of 1855Ė56, followed its south-east margin, and felt into our great upland forest in a column from one to two miles wide. There was the sound as of a continuous cannonading as the lava moved on, rocks exploding under the heat, and gases shattering their way from confinement. We could hear the explosions in Hilo; it was like the noise of battle. Day and night the ancient forest was ablaze, and the scene was vivid beyond description. By the 25th of March the lava was within seven miles of Hilo, and steadily advancing. Until this time we had hoped that Hilo would not be threatened. But the stream pursued its way. By the 1st of June it was within five miles of us, and its advance, though slow, was persistent. It had now descended nearly fifty miles from its source, and the action on Mauna Loa was unabated. The outlook was fearful; a day of public humiliation and prayer was observed, as during the eruption of 1855. But still the lava moved onward, heading straight for Hilo. One arm of the stream was now easily accessible on its northern margin, and two more were moving in the deep jungle so far to the south that visitors had not the time or patience to penetrate to them. It now began to appear that should these streams unite no trace of Hilo, or of Hilo harbor, would remain. Some of our people were calm; others were horror-stricken. Some packed up their goods and sent them to Honolulu or elsewhere, and some abandoned their houses.

Visitors to the stream were now frequent; and the crater on Mauna Loa was reached, on a third attempt, by the Rev. Mr. Baker, of Hilo. Were I twenty years younger, I should have been on the mountaintop also, but my time to climb such rugged heights is past.

The northerly wing of the stream now hardened, clogging the channel in which the lava was taking its way toward the center of our town. But this check gave additional power to the south-east wing, so that on the 26th of June, a fierce stream broke out from the great lava pond and came rushing down the rocky channel of a stream with terrific force and uproar, exploding rocks and driving off the waters. Hilo was in trouble. We were now in immediate danger. The lava, confined in the water-channel of from fifty to a hundred feet wide, advanced so rapidly that by the 30th of June it was not more than two and a half miles from us, threatening to strike Volcano Street about a quarter of a mile from Church Street, on which I live, and to fall into our harbor about midway of the beach. The stream was fearfully active, and the danger was now close upon us. From the town we could walk up to the living lava in forty minutes, and back again in thirty. A hundred people would sometimes visit it in a day. Its roar, on coming down the rough and rocky bed of the ravine, was like that of our Wailuku River during a freshet, but a deeper and grander sound. Explosions and detonations were frequent; I counted ten in a minute. The glare of it by night was terrific. The daily progress of the flow was now from one hundred to five hundred feet.

When I visited the stream on the 18th of July, I saw a scene like this: Troops of boys and girls, young men and women, were watching the flow. They plunged poles into the viscid lava as it urged itself slowly onward; drawing out small lumps of the adhering fusion, they moulded it, before it had time to cool, into various forms at will. They made cups, canes, vases, tubes, and other articles out of this molten clay, and these they sold to visitors and strangers at from twenty-five cents to a dollar or more for a specimen. All went away with fresh spoils from the spoiler. An artist was there, who had taken sketches in oil; and the photographer has been upon the spot. Our town was now crowded with visitors from all parts of the Islands, from our Princess Regent, sister of the king, then absent, to the least of his subjects. Many spent entire nights upon the banks of the lava river.

Just in front of one of its branches a stone wall five feet high was built, in hope of protecting the great Waiakea sugar-mill, for which this arm of the flow was heading. It was not a broad or heavy arm, but it was followed up by a column of fusion which no engineering could turn aside. This small advance stream came within a yard or two of the wall, paused there, and fell asleep in its shadow. At a single point the viscid mass, about two feet deep, struck the wall. There it rested a little, until, being supplied with fresh lava from behind, it heaped itself up against the barrier, poured over it, and then stiffened and solidified. It now hangs there, a sheet of vitreous drapery, marking the limit of the flow in that direction. Judge Severance dug a moat around the Hilo prison, with an embankment seven or eight feet high, hoping to avert the necessity of a general jail-delivery; but any considerable body of lava of course defies every obstruction. We made no preparations, however, for quitting our house.

The flood came on until all agreed that in two or three days more it would be pouring into our beautiful bay. On the 10th of August it was but one mile from the sea, and half a mile from Hilo town. On that day, nine months and five days from the outbursting of the great eruption, when hope had perished in nearly every heart, the action began to abate. The raging flood, the steam, the smoke, the noise of the flow were checked; and in a day or two the great red dragon lay stiffened and harmless upon the borders of our village. The relief was unspeakable.

On the 13th of August I visited the flow for the fifth time, and felt radiating heat, but saw no more liquid lava. But the great pall of the eruption lay upon the land for fifty miles. I estimate that the lava-stream covered a hundred square miles of mountain, forest, and farm land, to an average depth of twenty-five feet enough to cover the State of Connecticut to a depth of six inches. No exact measurements, however, have yet been made.

I may add a word upon the curious process by which this lava flow, like others, has made its way over so great a distance from its source. The average slope of Mauna Loa is seven degrees; but this is made up of secondary slopes, varying from one to twenty degrees. As the lava first rushes down the steeper inclinations it flows uncovered; but its surface soon hardens, forming a firm, thick crust like ice on a river, and under this crust the torrent runs highly fluid, and retaining nearly all of its heat. In this pyroduct, if I may so call it, the lava stream may pour down the mountainside for a year or more, flowing unseen, except where openings in the roof of its covered way reveal it.

When the molten river reaches the more level highlands at the base of the mountain, it moves more slowly, and sometimes spreads out into lakes of miles in diameter. The surface of it soon hardens; the lavas below are sealed within a rigid crust that confines them on every side. Their onward progress is thus checked for hours or days. But as the tremendous pressure of the stream behind increases, the crust is rent, and the liquid lava bursts out and gushes forward or laterally for a hundred, five hundred, or a thousand feet or more, as the case may be. The surface of this extruded mass cools and stiffens in turn, again confining the living lava; then, with the pressure from behind, there is a fresh rupture in the confining shell. While the lava is held in check as I have described, the uninitiated visitor will pronounce the flow to have ceased. But it is only accumulating its forces. The lava presses down from the source, until suddenly the hardened crust is ruptured with a crash, the lava moves forward again, and a new joint is added to the covered way. Thus overcoming all obstacles, the fusion is kept under cover, and moves forward or laterally in its own ducts for an indefinite distance. It may flow at white heat in this way for thirty or forty miles and reach the sea at a distance of more than fifty miles from the mountain source.

By virtue of this pressure from behind, and of its own viscidity, the lava may even be propelled up-hill for a certain distance, if the outbursting rush of lava be directed upon an upward slope. The lava thus grades its own path as it goes seaward.

Five or six miles inland from our town there nestled, some twenty years ago, a quiet hamlet. There was a school-house in the place; and the land produced taro, potatoes, bananas, and other fruit-trees. The scenery was of enchanting beauty. But the population passed away; and of late years only one house remained on this lovely spot. Its occupant was reputed an inveterate heathen. He belonged to the ancient class of native physicians or medicine men. When the burning flood struck the forest behind his house, he is said to have hoisted his flag in front of the slowly advancing lava, and to have forbidden it, in the name of the ancient gods of his race, to pass that flag. But onward came the flood, regardless of the edict. From time to time the heathen doctor was compelled to remove his flag to the rear, planting it nearer and nearer to his house; and at last the lava expelled him and his friends, and rolled over house, garden, and field, leaving a grisly pile of black lava over all. One circumstance in the case was curious. The lava stream surrounded a single kalo-plant, growing on an islet of eighteen inches in diameter, and on another one twice as broad, a single banana plant. They have survived the heat and are growing finely, the only green things left in the garden from which the idolater was driven.

It is time to bring these imperfect sketches to a close. The foregoing pages have been written among interruptions and anxieties, but they make some partial record of a life preserved by its Giver in many scenes of danger and crowned with many blessings. And among its chief blessings I would recognize Godís goodness in granting me precious partners in my life work. My second marriage, October 13, 1873, was to Miss Lydia Bingham, daughter of the Rev. Hiram Bingham. This faithful helpmeet is the strength and support of my age. But for her suggestions, and her patient labors in copying the manuscript of this volume, I should not have undertaken, at my time of life, the task of writing it.

As I lay aside the pen, our anxieties have passed away. If again, while I remain, the rocks should melt and flow down at the presence of the Lord, again we "will look unto the hills whence our help cometh."

Hilo, 15th August, 1881.


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