Volcano Watch — Hilo's closest encounter with Pele: the 1880-81 Eruption

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On November 5, 1880, 115 years ago this week, an eruption began on Mauna Loa's northeast rift zone that would eventually send lava closer to Hilo Bay than any other in over a thousand years.

On November 5, 1880, 115 years ago this week, an eruption began on Mauna Loa's northeast rift zone that would eventually send lava closer to Hilo Bay than any other in over a thousand years.

The great eruption of 1880-1881 had actually begun on May 1st, when a small, short-lived eruption at Mauna Loa's summit heralded the beginning of an eruptive sequence that was to be followed six months later by the voluminous flank eruption which would soon threaten the then-small town of Hilo.

This is Mauna Loa's typical pattern, and HVO volcanologists expect its next eruptive sequence to begin with a small summit eruption, followed months or years later by flank activity on the southwest or northeast rift zones.

The November 5th outbreak was located near the 11,000-foot elevation, about a mile above Pu'u Ula'ula. High lava fountains, clearly visible from Hilo, fed an 'a'a flow which moved swiftly down Mauna Loa's north flank, soon approaching close to Mauna Kea at the present junction of the Saddle and Powerline Roads.

Another branch of 'a'a flowed to the southeast across the Kapapala Ranch, stopping within less than a mile of Kīlauea. This is the conspicuous, dark brown 'a'a one sees driving from the National Park towards Ka'u. After about two weeks of fountaining activity, the character of the eruption suddenly changed as the fountains waned and a new lava source opened downrift, about 500 yards northwest of Pu'u Ula'ula. There were no fountains from this new vent; pahoehoe lava simply oozed up from an earth crack with little fanfare.

Quiet pahoehoe eruptions of this sort are more dangerous than spectacular fountain-fed 'a'a flows however; the steady eruption of pahoehoe lava quickly builds internal "pyroducts" (lava tubes), and these well-insulated tubes can conduct lava for long distances down gentle slopes. This happened in 1880-81, and pahoehoe lavas moved steadily northeastward, mostly supplied by subterranean lava tubes, in much the same way that lava is being carried from Pu'u O'o to the sea today.

Hilo citizens could soon see the glow burning forests in Waiakea Uka, and the sound of methane explosions were reported to sound like faraway cannon fire. As the wide flow was moving very slowly, there was no major concern during the winter of 1880-81. By late March of 1881 the flow had reached within seven miles of Hilo above Kaumana. By early June, the flow was within five miles of Hilo, and concern mounted. A day of "Christian Prayer" was held, but the flow continued to advance.

Most Hilo residents remained calm, but some packed belongings and left for Honolulu (Honolulu was under a smallpox quarantine at this time, and although no one could leave Oahu, refugees were accepted).

On June 26th, the flow entered stream channels above Hilo, narrowed, and quickly picked up velocity. The flow entered Waipahoehoe stream near the present Chong Street Bridge and moved even faster. Reverend Titus Coan, Hawaii's "first volcanologist," wrote that the flow "came rushing down the rocky channel of a stream with terrific force and uproar, exploding rocks and driving off the waters. Hilo was now in trouble - [everyone knew] we were now in immediate danger. Its roar, on coming down the rough and rocky bed of the ravine, was like that of our Wailuku River during a freshlet, 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 progress of the flow was by now 100-500 feet per day."

C.C. Kennedy built a low stone wall to protect the Waiakea sugar mill, and Judge Severance dug a protective moat around the Hilo prison. King Kalakaua was in Europe, but Princess Ruth was sent from Honolulu to save Hilo, after the quarantine was lifted.

Ruth was a corpulent princess, and when the poor horse selected to pull her carriage up Halai Hills failed at the task, a large group of prisoners from the Hilo jail was recruited to pull the Princess to an appropriate vantage point in late July. By this time, a narrow branch of the flow had crossed Alenaio stream and was past the present Komohana Street. Whatever Princess Ruth did apparently had more effect than did the day of prayer in June, as all forward progress of the flow ceased by August 10th (or perhaps the results of the prayer were delayed).

The 1881 lavas reached within about one-and-a-half miles of Hilo Bay, just north of the University of Hawaii at Hilo campus. After crossing the present Komohana and Kumukoa Streets, a very narrow lobe crossed what is now Mohouli Street, about 300 yards above the intersection with Kapiolani Street. Several hundred homes are now built on pahoehoe lavas of the 1881 flow and can easily be recognized by their ubiquitous "rock gardens" (no soils have yet formed on this flow). Kaumana Cave was formed at this time and was a major supply conduit for the lavas that threatened Hilo during the great 1880-1881 eruption.

So far as the present threat of a flow similar to that of 1880-1881 is concerned, we can take comfort from the fact that no lava flow had come so close to Hilo Bay in over a thousand years. As long as future eruptions above Hilo remain spectacular, with high lava fountaining, the threat will be relatively low (as was the 1984 eruption). Should the lava fountains of future eruptions be replaced by the steady production of pahoehoe as it was in 1880, however, you can bet that no one at HVO will forget the lessons of 115 years ago!