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

Chapter XXII.

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The Eruption of 1868 from Kilauea The March and April Earthquakes Land-Slips Destruction of Life and Property The Lava-Stream Bursts from Underground The Volcanic Waves of August, 1868, and of May, 1877.

FROM time immemorial earthquakes have been common on Hawaii. We have felt the jar of thousands. Most of these shocks have been harmless. A few have broken a little crockery, cracked plastering, and thrown down stone walls.

But on the 27th of March, 1868, a series of remarkable earthquakes commenced. Kilauea was unusually full and in vehement action. Day after day from March 27th and onward, shocks were frequent, and growing more and more earnest. At 4 P.M., April 2d, a terrific shock rent the ground, sending consternation through all Hilo, Puna, and Kau. In some places fissures of great length, breadth, and depth were opened. Rocks of twenty to fifty tons were sent thundering down from the walls of Kilauea, and massive boulders were torn from hill-sides and sent crashing down upon the plains and valleys below. Stone houses were rent and ruined, and stone walls sent flying in every direction. Horses and men were thrown to the ground; houses tilted from their foundations; furniture, hardware, crockery, books and bottles, and all things movable in houses were dashed hither and thither, as of no account. It seemed as if the ribs and the pillars of the earth were being shattered.

I was sitting, as at the present moment, at my study-table, when a fearful jerk startled me, and before I could arise, a jar still more terrible caused me to rush for the stairs, and while going down, such a crash shook the house that I supposed the roof had fallen.

Going out of doors, I found my wife standing at a distance from the house, watching with an intense gaze its swaying and trembling, while the ground rose and sank like waves, and there was no place stable where hand or foot could rest.

When the shocks intermitted a little, I went upstairs to witness a scene of wild confusion. A large bookcase, seven feet high by four wide, with glass doors, and filled with books, lay prostrate on the floor near where I had been sitting, with the glass broken into a thousand pieces.

My study-table, eight feet long, and loaded with large volumes, was thrown out from the wall into the center of the room, with one leg broken square off, and the books and papers scattered on the floor. Another bookcase, fastened to the wall, was rent from its fastenings and thrown out near the table, and three of the sleepers which supported the floor were broken by the fall of the case.

The shaking continued all night, and most or all of the Hilo people spent the night out of doors, fearing to remain in their houses. Some said they counted a thousand shocks before morning, and so rapid were these shocks, that the earth seemed to be in a continuous quiver, like a ship in a battle.

But the heaviest blows fell on Kau, the district lying south of us on the other side of Kilauea. There the earth was rent in a thousand places, and along the foot-hills of Mauna Loa a number of land-slips were shaken off from steep places, and thrown down with soil, boulders, and trees. In one place a slide of half a mile in width was started on a steep inclined plane, till, coming to a precipice of some 700 feet, on an angle of about seventy degrees, the vast avalanche, mixing with the waters of a running stream and several springs, was pitched down this precipice, receiving such fearful momentum as to carry it three miles in as many minutes. Ten houses, with thirty-one souls and five hundred head of cattle were buried instantly, and not one of them has been recovered.

I measured this avalanche and found it just three miles long, one-half a mile wide at the head, and of a supposed average depth of twenty feet.

At the same time the sea rose twenty feet along the southern shore of the island, and in Kau 108 houses were destroyed and forty-six people drowned, making a loss of 118 houses and seventy-seven lives in that district, during this one hour. Many houses were also destroyed in Puna, but no lives were lost. During this awful hour the coast of Puna and Kau, for the distance of seventy-five miles, subsided seven feet on the average, submerging a line of small villages all along the shore. One of my rough stone meeting-houses in Puna, where we once had a congregation of 500 to 1,000, was swept away with the influx of the sea, and its walls are now under water. Fortunately there was but one stone building in Hilo, our prison; that fell immediately. Had our coast been studded with cities built of stone and brick, the destruction of life and property would have been terrific.

This terrible earthquake was evidently caused by the subterraneous flow of the lavas from Kilauea, for the bottom of the crater sank rapidly hundreds of feet, as ice goes down when the water beneath it is drawn off. The course and the terminus of this flow were indicated by fissures, steam, and spouting of lava-jets along the whole line from Kilauea to Kahuku in Western Kau, a distance of forty miles, and I have found foldings and faults in several places.

During these days of subterranean passage, the earth was in a remarkable state of unrest; shocks were frequent, and it was asserted by trustworthy witnesses that, in several places, the ragings of the subterranean river were heard by listeners who put their ears to the ground.

On the 7th of April the lava burst out from the ground in Kahuku, nine miles from the sea, and flowed rapidly down to the shore. The place of outbreak was in a wood on one of the foot-hills of Mauna Loa. Travelers bound to Hilo came up to this flow on the west side, and were not able to cross it, but were obliged to return to Kona and come via Waimea, a circuit of one hundred and seventy miles. A fissure of a mile long was opened for the disgorgement of this igneous river, and from the whole length of this orifice the lava rushed up with intense vehemence, spouting jets one hundred to two hundred feet high, burning the forest and spreading out a mile wide. The rending, the raging, the swirling of this stream were terrific, awakening awe in all the beholders.

Flowing seaward, it came to a high precipice which ran some seven miles toward the shore, varying in height from two hundred to seven hundred feet, and separating a high fertile plain, of a deep and rich soil on the left or eastern side, from a wide field of pahoehoe hundreds of feet below on the right or western side.

Before the flow reached this precipice it sent out three lateral streams upon the grassy plain above, which ran a few miles, and ceased without reaching the sea. But the larger portion of the igneous river, or its main trunk, moved in a nearly straight line toward the shore, pouring over the upper end of the precipice upon the plain below, and dividing into two streams which ran parallel to each other, some hundred feet apart, until they plunged into the sea. These streams flowed four days, causing the waves to boil with great violence, and raising two large tufa cones in the water at their termini. They formed a long, narrow island, on which they enclosed thirty head of cattle, which were thus surrounded before they were aware of their danger, and it was ten days before the lava was hard enough to allow them to be taken out of their prison. During this time they had no water, and were almost maddened by the smoke and heat. Several cattle were also surrounded on the upper grassy plain, where they were lying down to ruminate or to sleep.

The owner of the ranch, with his wife and a large family of children, was living in a pleasant house surrounded by a wall, with a fine garden of trees and plants, near the center of this beautiful grassy plain, and while sleeping at night, unconscious of danger, one of these lateral streams came creeping softly and silently like a serpent toward them, until within twenty yards of the house, when a sudden spout of lava aroused them and all fled with frightened precipitation, taking neither "purse or scrip," but leaving all to the devouring fire. The lady was so overwhelmed with terror that had it not been for her husband on one side and another gentleman on the other, she must have fallen and perished in the lava.

The family, crossing a small ravine, rested a few moments on a hill near by. In ten minutes after crossing the ravine it was filled with liquid fire. Their escape was marvelous. In a few minutes the house was wrapped in flames, the garden was consumed, and all the premises were covered with a burning sea.

A little farther down this green lawn was the hut of a native Hawaiian. As the fiery flood came within fifty feet of it, it suddenly parted, one arm sweeping around one side of the house and the other around the opposite side, and uniting again left the building on a small plat of ground, of some three-quarters of an acre, surrounded by a wall of fusion. In this house five souls were imprisoned ten days with no power to escape. All their food and water were exhausted. Small fingers of lava often came under the house; it was a little grass hut, and they were obliged to beat out the fire with clubs and stamp it with their feet.

Piles of burning scoria were heaped around this house, as high as the eaves, and in some places within ten feet of it. I afterward visited this house, and found its inmates alive and rejoicing in their deliverance.

A little further on, and this lava stream came near the ruins of a stone church, which had been shaken down by the earthquake of April 2d. The walls were a heap of ruins, and the roof and timbers were piled upon the stones. Again the flood opened to the right and left, swept close to the débris of the church, and united again below, leaving all unconsumed.

The same earthquake demolished a large stone church in Waiohinu, the central and most important mission-station in Kau, and so rent the house of the pastor, the Rev. John F. Pogue, that he, with his family, fled to the hills, and soon after left the district to return no more. Other homes also were left desolate, the terrified inmates seeking abodes elsewhere.

On the 14th of August, 1868, a remarkable rise and fall of the sea commenced in our harbor, and continued for three days. The oscillation, or the influx and efflux of the waves occupied only ten minutes, and the rise and fall of the water was only three to four feet. What rendered this motion of the water remarkable was its long continuance, and the short intervals of the rise and fall with no apparent cause.

Another volcanic wave fell upon Hilo on the morning of the 10th of May, 1877. From a letter written by my wife (Mrs. L. B. Coan) I copy the following extracts descriptive of the event: "A chilly, cheerless night shuts down upon a day that has had no parallel in kind in my previous experiences. I was just rousing from quiet slumbers this morning, not long after five, when heavy knocking at our door hastened me to it. There stood Kanuku, almost wild with excitement, and so breathless she could hardly give form to the words she poured forth; but I gathered their substance. A volcanic wave had swept in upon the shore; houses were going down, and people were hurrying mauka (inland) with what of earthly goods they could carry.

"We hastened to the beach. People on foot and on horseback were hurrying in all directions; men with chests and trunks on their backs, women with bundles of bedding and clothing under which they staggered, grandmothers with three or four year old children on their shoulders, and mothers with little babes, all in quest of safety and a place to lodge their burdens. Arrived at the foot of our street what a sight we beheld! Houses were lifted off their under-pinning and removed a fathom or more some had tumbled in sad confusion and lay prone in the little ponds that remained of the sea in various depressed places. Riders at breakneck speed from Waiakea brought word of still more complete ruin there; the bridge, they said, was gone.

"We walked on toward the Wailama. Then a shout, and we looked back to see the waves rising and surging landward, so we dared not linger, but turned on our track, for a better chance of escape should the sea again overpass its bounds.

"People wading in water where their homes had stood half an hour before, gathering up goods soaked by the brine, and begrimed with mud, men in wet garments who had had to swim for their lives, and women with terror in their faces caught up the refrain of a death-wail that reached our ears from the region of Kanae’s place, and the word flew from lip to lip that old Kaipo was missing. Asleep, with Kanae’s babe pillowed near her when the wave came upon them, she had wakened, and hastening out of the house found herself in deep water. Holding the little one above her head, she had courage and strength to keep it safe till the mother swam for it, and then, no one knows how, the old woman was swept out to sea, and hours after, the body was found at Honori.

"About nine o’clock, the rain which had come in infrequent light flurries before, began to pour in earnest, and has fallen in such pitiless inclemency through the day, that it has added to the discomforts of the poor, homeless wanderers, and to the general gloom that hangs over our little town.

"Mr. Coan has been out much of the time here and there with words of sympathy and comfort. Rebecca Nakuina told me the natives said they were safe wherever he was. One poor old man came to our door and asked in most pathetic tones if it was true that Mr. Coan had said that at noon there would be another and heavier wave, and went away comforted when assured that he had not.

"A large barque at anchor in our harbor was tossed about most marvelously at the very mercy of every efflux and reflux wave. For hours she writhed under this restless tossing, one moment pointing her prow toward Puna, and the next in the opposite direction, running back and forth the full length of her cable, like a weaver’s shuttle, sometimes careening so far that we feared the next moment to see her on her beam ends, and then struggling to right herself, and for a little recovering her usual position, only to repeat these movements

"May 11th. The birds sang and the sun shone this morning, as if there were no sorrow here. But it was a great blessing that the day was fair; the sunshine was needed for heart-warmth and for drying what of clothing and household effects had been collected from the mud and slime in which they were found.

"We went over the same ground on the nearest beach that we visited yesterday, only to realize more fully the wild havoc that had been made.

"'What shall I say of what we saw on the other side of the bay! If I tell you that Mr. Coan was bewildered, seeing no familiar object by which to get his bearings, so that he exclaimed: ‘Where are we!’ you will understand something of what destruction must have gone on there. But unseen it can not be realized, the dreariness and desolation of a little region that was so late one of Hilo’s prettiest suburbs. Not a house standing on all that frontage. Waiakea bridge had been carried a hundred rods or more from its abutments. Even the little church had been set back some two hundred feet, tolling its bell as it went, while the luna’s house that before nestled under the shade of the pride of India trees on the grassy bank had borne it company, and fallen into shapeless ruin at the very side of the almost uninjured church.

"At this spot the people began to gather about us, so sorrowful in their homelessness, that their voices and ours choked as we exchanged ‘alohas.’ Some of them led the way to a hut, too small to be a shelter, but under whose low roof we found a mother sitting by the corpse of her little one that the waters had not spared to her. Close on one side, an old man lay groaning with the pain of fractured ribs and a broken leg, and on the other side, a heap of something, I could hardly tell what at first, lifted a battered head to tell us how he had been thrown upon the rocks and they had bruised his skull.

"An Englishman’s escape from death seems wonderful. We visited him and found him suffering greatly, but able between groans and gaspings for breath to tell us something of his experience.

"‘I got caught, sir,’ he said. ‘I should have escaped if I hadn’t gone back after my money; when I came down-stairs the roller had hit the house, and before I could get out of the door, the house had fallen upon me. I was dreadfully bruised, and you see, sir, as the wave took the house inland, it kept surging about with me in it, and getting new knocks all the while.’ ‘And what of the money was it saved?’ ‘Oh, no, sir, it all went, six hundred dollars. It was all I had, and I am stripped now and I’m past working, seventy-seven years old.’ Kneeling by the poor man, Mr. Coan offered an earnest prayer. We left him feeling that he was very likely past working much longer.

"Five lives have been lost; twenty persons are more or less injured. Forty-four dwellings are demolished, and one hundred and sixty-three people left homeless, their means of procuring sustenance snatched from them. Had the wave fallen in the darkness of the night, many more must have perished. Daylight revealed the almost silent approach of the danger, and most had time to flee. I am thankful, if it must happen, that this has occurred before our going down to Honolulu, so that Mr. Coan is among his people to comfort and direct them. Only a few Sabbaths ago he preached a sermon on laying up treasure where thieves could not break through and steal. Who thought then of this thief?"

Deep sympathy was awakened in our whole community for those who suffered by this calamity. Food, clothing, blankets, were given in abundance. The report of the disaster spread over the islands, and help came from every quarter. His Excellency John Dominis, Governor of Oahu, and Her Royal Highness Lydia Dominis, the king’s sister, were commissioned to come to our aid with the donations from Honolulu. A judicious distribution of money, clothing, lumber, etc., was made among the people, and thus encouraged they went cheerfully to work, and in a few months most of the losses were repaired; better houses were built, and the sufferers seemed more prosperous than before.

They now annually commemorate the 10th of May by a religious festival and a thanksgiving offering to the treasury of the Lord.


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