Volcano Observations

Titus Coan

The Erupting Volcano

(A Letter)

October 15, 1855.—In a few days we may be called to announce the painful fact that our beauteous Hilo is no more—that our lovely, our inimitable landscape, our emerald bowers, our crescent strand and our silver bay are blotted out. A fiery sword hangs over us. A flood of burning ruin approaches us. Devouring fires are near us. With sure and solemn progress the glowing fusion advances through the dark forest and the dense jungle in our rear, cutting down ancient trees of enormous growth and sweeping away all vegetable life. For sixty-five days the great summit furnace on Mauna Loa has been in awful blast. Floods of burning destruction have swept wildly and widely over the top and down the sides of the mountain. The wrathful stream has overcome every obstacle, winding its fiery way from its high source to the bases of the everlasting hills, spreading in a molten sea over the plains, penetrating the ancient forests, driving the bellowing herds, the wild goats and the affrighted birds before its lurid glare, leaving nothing but ebon blackness and smoldering ruin in its track.

On the 12th of July, I wrote you on the state of old Kilauea, and on the 27th of September I announced to our mutual friend, Prof. Lyman, the fact and the state of our present eruption. Having made my quarterly pastoral tours, I started, on the 2nd inst, for the scene and the source of the flow. Our party consisted of Lawrence McCully, Esq., a graduate of Yale, and our police magistrate, four natives and myself. Taking the channel of the Wailuku (the river which enters Hilo Bay) as our track, we advanced, with much toil through the thicket along its banks, about twelve miles the first day. Here we rested at the roots of a large tree during the night. The next day we proceeded about twelve miles farther, for the most part along the bed of the stream, the water being low. During both of these days volcanic smoke had filled the forest and given the rays of the sun a yellow and baleful hue. At night when the shades gathered over those deep solitudes, unbroken except by the bellowing of the untamed bull, the barking of the wild dog, the grunt of the forest boar, the wing and the note of the restless bird, the falling of a timeworn tree, the gurgling of the rill and the roar of the cataract, we made our little bed of ferns under the trunk of a prostrate tree, and here, for the first time, we found that the molten stream had passed us, by many miles, on its way towards Hilo.

But as its track was several miles to the left of us, and as the jungle here was nearly impenetrable, we proceeded the next day up the stream, and at half past one, P. M., found ourselves fairly out of the forest, having been a little more than two and a half days in accomplishing this part of the tour.

I cannot stop to describe the beautiful and romantic scenery along our winding, rocky gorge; the cascades, basins, caves and natural bridges of this wild and solitary stream. Nor can I speak of the velvet masses, luxuriant creepers, hanging in festoons, the forest trees and other tropical glories which were mirrored in its limpid waters. We needed an artist and a naturalist to fix the glowing panorama, and to describe its flora and fauna.

When we emerged from the upper skirts of the woods on the third day, a dense fog obstructed our view of distant objects. We encamped early in a cave, but during the night the stars came out, and we could see the play of the volcanic fires from the summit to the base of the mountain, and far down in the forest toward Hilo. The next morning, Friday, we left our cavern, and at half-past seven, A. M., came to the smoldering lava-stream; from this time until ten, we walked on its right border, when we crossed over to the opposite side. This occupied us an hour and a quarter, and we judged the stream to be three miles wide at this point, which, however, was one of its 'narrows.' In some places it spread out into wide lakes, apparently from five to eight miles broad, enclosing, as is usually the case, little islands, not flooded by the fusion. Passing up the southern verge of the stream we found many trees felled by the lava, and lying crisped and half charred upon its stiffened and smoky surface. At night we slept upon the lava above the vegetation, with the heavens for our canopy and the stars for our lamps. From this high watch tower we could see the brilliant fire-works far above and far below us, as the dazzling fusion rushed down its burning duct, revealed here and there by an opening through its rocky-roof, serving as a vent for the gases.

Early on Saturday, the 6th, we were ascending our rugged pathway amidst steam and smoke and heat which almost blinded and scathed us. At ten we came to open orifices down which we looked into the fiery river which rushed madly under our feet. Up to this we had come to no open lake or stream of active fusion. We had seen in the night many lights like street lamps, glowing along the slope of the mountains at considerable distances from each other, while the stream made its way in a subterranean channel traced only by these vents. From ten A. M., and onward, these fiery vents were frequent, some of them measuring ten, twenty, fifty or one hundred feet in diameter. In one place only we saw the river uncovered for thirty rods and rushing down a declivity of from ten to twenty-five degrees. The scene was awful, the momentum incredible, the fusion perfect (a white heat), and the velocity forty miles an hour. The banks on each side of the stream were red-hot, jagged and overhanging, adorned with burning stalactites and festooned with immense quantities of filamentous, capillary glass, called 'Pele's hair.' From this point to the summit crater all was inexpressibly interesting. Valve after valve opened as we went up, out of which issued 'fire and smoke and brimstone, and down which we looked as into the caverns of Pluto. The gases were so pungent that we had to use the greatest caution, approaching an orifice on the windward side, and watching every change or gyration of the breeze. Sometimes whirlwinds would sweep along, loaded with deadly gases and threatening the unwary traveler. After a hot and weary struggle over smoking masses of jagged scoria and slag thrown in wild confusion into hills, cones and ridges, and spread out over vast fields, we came at one P. M., to the terminal or summit crater. This we found to be a low elongated cone, or rather a series of cones, standing over a great fissure in the mountain. Mounting to the crest of the highest cone, about one hundred feet, so toppling was it, so great the heat and so excoriating the gases, we could find no position where we could look down the orifice. The molten stream first appears some two miles below the fountain crater, and as we viewed it rushing out from under its ebon counterpane, and in the twinkling of eye diving again into its fiery den, it seemed to say, 'Stand off; scan me not! I am God's messenger. A work to do! Away!'

This summit crater I estimate at twelve thousand feet elevation, the principal stream (there are many lateral ones) including all its windings, sixty miles long, averaging breadth three miles, depth from three to three hundred feet, according to the surface over which it flows.

Late on Saturday afternoon we came a short distance down the mountain where we encamped on the naked rocks until Monday.

Unwittingly we passed the last watering place in our ascent on Friday morning, and having only one quart in our canteen, this was our whole supply until 9 A. M. on Monday. We were soon reduced to a single spoonful each, and this only at our meals. Our food being dry and hard, we suffered not a little. The dew which fell upon our garments, our food buckets and the rocks around us, congealed and became frost or thin scales of ice, and from an oilcloth spread for the purpose we collected a few spoonfuls, while our parched lips readily kissed the rocks to obtain a little moisture. There was snow on another part of the mountain far below us. The fires had melted all in this region. ... At one P. M. a dense fog obscured our track, our guide lost his way, and we were obliged to encamp.

Early on Tuesday we were astir, wandering through jungle and over rough fields of scoria, when, fortunately, at half-past nine, we found the only track which could lead us out of this cruel labyrinth. On the nth we reached home, having been absent ten days. The great summit fountain is still playing with fearful energy, and the devouring stream rushes madly down toward us. It is now about ten miles distant, and heading directly for our bay. Some are planning, some packing, many running to and fro, and all talking and conjecturing. Never was Hilo in such a state before; and yet all is hushed and solemn. Nothing but the hand of Omnipotence can arrest the fearful progress of the fire and save our beautiful town from utter desolation."

And God's hand did deliver Hilo from its danger, but not until the faith of those who trusted in Him had been tried for six long months, as they watched the approaching flood. The molten lava was within seven miles of the sea. No natural obstacles intervened to stop its progress. Science could give no reason why the "billions of cubic feet of molten rock" that for nine months continued to descend from the crater in the same direction as at the first did not push forward and destroy the town. Mr. Coan and other Christians believed it was in answer to prayers.”— Lydia Bingham Coan, Titus Coan: a Memorial