On the Eruption of Mauna Loa, Hawaii 

Titus Coan

February, 1852

[From a letter to Chester S. Lyman, dated Hilo, March 5, 1852.]

Old Kilauea has been quite tame since I last wrote you. Changes have, however, taken place. The key stone of the great dome over Halemaumau (the lake) has parted, the top of the dome has fallen in, an orifice of about one hundred feet diameter has been opened, and an abyss of raging fire may be seen below at the depth of one hundred feet. Small lakes of fire have also broken out here and there in the crater, but the action has been partial and comparatively feeble. No light shines upon us from Kilauea, and we have no new terrors to record of Mother Pele at this point.

Other Wonders

But we have other wonders among the fiery sisterhood.

At half-past 3 on the morning of the 17th ult. [1852], a small beacon-light was discovered on the summit of Mauna Loa. At first it appeared like a solitary star resting on the apex of the mountain. In a few moments its light increased and shone like a rising moon. Seamen keeping watch on deck in our port exclaimed, "What is that? The moon is rising in the West!" In fifteen minutes the problem was solved. A flood of fire burst out of the mountain, and soon began to flow in a brilliant current down its northern slope. It was from the same point, and it flowed in the same line, as the great eruption which I visited in March, 1843. In a short time, immense columns of burning lava shot up heavenward to the height of 300 or 400 feet, flooding the summit of the mountain with light, and gilding the firmament with its radiance. Streams of light came pouring down the mountain, flashing through our windows, and lighting up our apartments so that we could see to read large print. When we first awoke, so dazzling was the glare on our windows, that we supposed some building near us must be on fire; but as the light shone directly upon our couch and into our faces we soon perceived its cause. In two hours the molten stream had rolled, as we judged, about fifteen miles down the side of the mountain.

An Eruption of Terrible Activity and Surpassing Splendor

This eruption was one of terrible activity and surpassing splendor. But it was short. In about twenty-four hours all traces of it seemed to be extinguished.

At day break on the 20th we were again startled by a rapid eruption bursting out laterally on the side of the mountain facing Hilo, and about midway from the base to the summit of the mountain. This lateral crater was equally active with the one on the summit, and in a short time we perceived the molten river flowing from its orifice direct towards Hilo. The action became more and more fierce from hour to hour. Floods of lava poured out of the mountain's side, and the glowing river soon reached the woods at the base of the mountain—a distance of twenty miles.

Clouds of smoke ascended and hung like a vast canopy over the mountain, or rolled off upon the wings of the wind. These clouds assumed various hues—murky, blue, white, purple, or scarlet—as they were more or less illuminated from the fiery abyss below. Sometimes they resembled an inverted burning mountain with its apex pointing to the awful orifice over which it hung. Sometimes the glowing pillar would shoot up vertically for several degrees, and then, describing a graceful curve, sweep off horizontally, like the tail of a comet, farther than the eye could reach. The sable atmosphere of Hilo assumed a lurid appearance, and the sun's rays fell upon us with a yellow, sickly light. Clouds of smoke careered over the ocean, carrying with them ashes, cinders, charred leaves, etc., which fell in showers upon the decks of ships approaching our coast. The light was seen more than a hundred miles at sea, and at times the purple tinge was so widely diffused as to appear like the whole firmament on fire. Ashes and capillary vitrifactions, called "Pele's hair," fell thick in our streets and upon the roofs of our houses. And this state of things still continues, for even now, while I write, the atmosphere is in the same sallow and dingy condition. Every object looks pale and sickly, showers of vitreous filaments are falling around us, and our children are gathering them.

I Determined To Visit

As soon as this second eruption broke out, I determined to visit it. Dr. W. agreeing to accompany me, we procured four natives to carry our baggage, one of them, Kekai (Salt Sea), acting as guide. On Monday, the 23d of February, we all set off, and slept in the outskirts of the great forest which separates Hilo from the mountains. Our track was not the one I took in 1843, viz., the bed of a river. We attempted to penetrate the thicket at another point, our general course bearing southwest. In ancient days an Indian trail had been beaten through in this direction, but it was now entangled with jungle so that all traces of it were nearly obliterated. However, we plunged into the forest, with a long knife, hatchet and clubs, cut and beat our way at the rate of one and a fifth mile an hour. At night we slept in the bush, and listened to the distant roar of the volcano. On Wednesday, the 25th, we gained a little eminence in the woods, from which we could see the lava stream which was now opposite us on our left, distant six miles. This fiery flood was now half way through the forest, and more than three-fourths of the way from the crater to the shore, sweeping all before it. Apprehending that it might reach the sea in a day or two, and that the ladies at the station might be alarmed, Dr. W. determined to return. Taking one of the natives, and leaving three with me, he retraced his steps, while I pushed on through jungle and bog and dell, beating every yard of my way out of this horrible thicket. On the 26th, we emerged from the forest, but plunged at once into a dense fog more dark than the thicket itself. Pushing up the mountain we encamped for the night on a rough, bushy ridge. 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 from its burning bowels. All night long we could see the glowing fires, and listen to the awful roar of this fearful crater.

We had now been out four nights, and were within twenty miles of the crater, with the long, brilliant river of fusion on our left, shining in a line of light down the side of the mountain till it entered the woods.

I Was Surrounded by Scenes of Terrific Desolation

We left our mountain aerie early on the 27th, determined, if possible, to reach the seat of action on that day. Taking the pillar of fire and of cloud as our mark, and still having the great river of lava on our left, we pushed onward over a rough and almost impassable surface—the attraction increasing as the square of the distance decreased. Our intense interest mocked all obstacles. At noon we came upon the confines of a tract of naked scoria, so intolerably sharp and jagged that our baggagemen could not pass it. Here I ordered a halt; stationed the two carriers; gave an extra pair of strong shoes to my guide; gave him my wrapper and blanket; put a few crackers and boiled eggs into my pockets; took my compass and staff, and said to Mr. Salt Sea, (Kekai), "Now go ahead, and let us warm ourselves to-night by that fire yonder." Thus equipped we pressed up the mountain, over fields of lava of indescribable roughness; now mounting a ridge of sharp and vitreous scoria, when the fiery pillar stood full in view; and then plunging into some awful ravine or pit, from which we slowly emerged by crawling upon "all fours." But I soon found that my guide needed a leader. He was too slow. I therefore pressed ahead, leaving him to get on as best he could. At half-past 3 P. M. I reached the awful crater, and stood alone in the light of its fires. It was a moment of unutterable interest. I seemed to be standing in the presence and before the burning throne of the eternal God; and, while all other voices were hushed, His alone spoke. 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, and surrounded by scenes of terrific desolation. Here I stood, almost blinded with the insufferable brightness; almost deafened with the startling clangor; almost petrified with the awful scene. The heat was so intense, that the crater could not be approached within forty or fifty yards on the windward side, and, probably, not within two miles on the leeward.

The eruption, as before stated, commenced on the very summit of the mountain, but it would seem that the lateral pressure of the emboweled lava was so great as to force itself out at a weak point in the side of the mountain; at the same time cracking and rending the mountain all the way down from the summit to the place of ejection. The mountain seemed to be siphunculated; the fountain of fusion being elevated some 2,000 or 3,000 feet above the lateral crater, and being pressed down an inclined subterranean tube, escaped through this valve with a force which threw its burning masses to the height of 400 or 500 feet. The eruption at first issued from a depression in the mountain, but a rim of scoria 200 feet in elevation had already been formed around the orifice in the form of a hollow truncated cone. This cone was about half a mile in circumference at its base, and the orifice at the top may be 300 feet in diameter. I approached as near as I could bear the heat, and stood amidst the ashes, cinders, scoria, slag and pumice, which were scattered wide and wildly around.

From the horrid throat of this cone vast and continuous jets of red-hot, and sometimes white hot, lava were being ejected with a noise which was almost deafening, and a force which threatened to rend the rocky ribs of the mountain, and to shiver its adamantine pillars. At times the sounds seemed subterranean—deep and infernal. First a rumbling, a muttering, a hissing, or deep premonitory surging. Then followed an awful explosion, like the roar of broadsides in a naval battle, or the quick discharge of park after park of artillery on the field of carnage. Sometimes the sound resembled that of ten thousand furnaces in full blast. Again, it was like the rattling of a regiment of musketry. Sometimes it was like the roar of the ocean along a rock-bound shore, and sometimes like the booming of distant thunder. The detonations were heard along the shores of Hilo.

The eruptions were not intermittent but continuous. Volumes of the fusion were constantly ascending and descending like a jet d'eau. The force which expelled those igneous columns from the orifice, shivered them into millions of fragments of unequal sizes, some of which would be rising, some falling, some shooting off laterally, others describing graceful curves; some moving in tangents, and some falling back in vertical lines into the mouth of the crater. Every particle shone with the brilliancy of Sirius, and all kinds of geometrical figures were being formed and broken up. No tongue, no pen, no pencil, can portray the beauty, the grandeur, the terrible sublimity of the scene. To be appreciated it must be felt.

Most Marvelous Are The Works of God

It was more than half an hour after my arrival at the crater before my guide came up. Night was approaching, and I had no defense against the piercing cold but in the wrapper and blanket committed to his care. I had began to fear that he had given up the pursuit, and, like my guide in 1843, left me to my own resources. I strained my eyes to examine every ridge and elevated spot on the track by which I approached the crater. At length his form rose to my view, slowly wending his way among the black and craggy masses of lava; and if ever my heart leaped for joy, or loved a man, or blessed the Lord, it was then. Throwing up his hands and opening his mouth like a crater, the old hero of the hills exclaimed, "Kapaianaha! Kapaianaha!!" Wonderful! Wonderful!! "Kapaianaha loa na hana ake Akua!!" Most marvelous are the works of God!!

Night coming on we now retired about a mile from the crater, and took up our position where we had a most perfect command of the whole scene. Here we halted, not indeed to sleep, for that were impossible, but to keep vigils—to listen to the awful roar and to watch the wonderful operations of this great furnace of Jehovah.

During the night the scene surpassed all power of description. Vast columns of lava, at a white heat, shot up continuously in the ever varying forms of pillars, pyramids, cones, towers, turrets, spires, minarets, etc. While the descending showers poured in one incessant cataract of fire upon the rim of the crater down its burning throat, and over the surrounding area—each falling avalanche containing matter enough to sink the proudest ship. A large fissure opening through the lower rim of the crater gave vent to the molten flood which constantly poured out of the orifice, and rolled down the mountain in a deep, broad river, at the rate, probably, of ten miles an hour. This fiery stream we could trace all the way down the mountain, until it was hidden from the eye by its windings in the forest—a distance of some thirty miles. The stream shone with great brilliancy in the night, and a long horizontal drapery of light hung over its whole course. But the great furnace on the mountain was the all-absorbing object. Hour after hour it sent out its thunders as the voice of Almighty God, and through the long night it loaded the atmosphere with its sulphurous breath, scattering far and wide its showers of fiery cinders, and throwing a terrible radiance over the dark and desolate mountain.

At day break on the 28th we retraced our steps down the rugged mountain, rejoined the baggagemen, broke up the camp, and, by a forced march, regained the confines of the woods before dark. This was on Saturday, and here we rested on the Sabbath. On Monday, by hard travelling for twelve hours, we reached Hilo. found all well, and felt rewarded an hundred fold for our toil of eight days.

March 6.—The fire has not yet reached the shore, and it may not. It is winding in the woods, filling our atmosphere with smoke, and sending down showers of ashes, charred leaves, etc.

The great furnace in the mountain is still in terrible blast. No decrease of activity, but rather an increase.

Old Kilauea is as dosy as ever. She has taken no interest in our exciting scenes, and seems to feel no sympathy with her fiery sister of the hills.

—Titus Coan, The American Journal of Science and Arts, Vol. XIV, November, 1852,  219-224


His wife Fidelia Also Contributed to Same Journal:

"Hilo, February 24, 1852.

Another eruption is now taking place on Mauna Loa. It presents a scene of sublimity unsurpassed. The side of the mountain has opened about midway down the dome, and the lava pours out with unrestrained effort and comes rolling, tumbling and flashing on toward Hilo. It is accompanied with frequent explosions. At night the imagination cannot conceive a spectacle more awfully grand. The immense flow of lava reflects upon the clouds its cherry red hue, and as they gather in density about the mountain, are caught up by the upward current of atmosphere, and hurried with rapidity into every imaginable shape, presenting in the heavens a wild picturesque scene. Though the distance from the mountain to the sea seems too far for the lava to flow, it is not impossible, and if it continues to flow for many days as freely as it now does, it is quite probable it will reach the sea somewhere near Hilo."

"Hilo, February 26, 1852.

Dear Sir:—I add a line to the above to inform you that up to this date the action of the late eruption is undiminished. Truly our island is on fire. A line from Mr. Coan informs me that he passed within five or six miles of a stream of lava, yesterday, which was burning its path through the woods, in the direction of Puna. The action on the mountains was more intense last night than it has been since the morning of the 17th. I need not add that we are all deeply interested in knowing when, and where, and how, this fiery flood is to reach the sea. The locality of its source almost precludes the hope that its progress can be as harmless as on a former occasion.

Yours truly, F. Coan."—The American Journal of Science and Arts, Vol. XIV, November, 1852, p.107