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The lava flow that came to Hilo—The 1880–81 eruption of Mauna Loa volcano, Island of Hawai‘i

November 6, 2019

The Mauna Loa eruption sequence of 1880–81 consists of two eruptions. The May 1880 eruption in Mokuʻāweoweo at the summit of Mauna Loa lasted just a few days and was followed 6 months later by three lava flows that issued from vents along the Northeast Rift Zone. The November 1880 eruption lasted almost a year and one of its flows nearly reached Hilo Bay.

Public reaction in Hilo to the advancing lava flow increased as the lava got closer, but a smallpox quarantine prevented travelers and government officials from leaving Honolulu, the government seat of the Hawaiian Kingdom, until July 1881. In the King’s absence, his sister Princess Regent Liliʻuokalani and key officials met in Hilo at the beginning of August to plan a government response. This included the first known plan to use barriers and explosives to divert the lava flow in Hawaiʻi. Fortunately, the lava flow stopped before the plan was enacted; however, both Christian prayer and traditional Hawaiian chants and gifts to the Hawaiian deity Pele were offered in the last few weeks of lava activity.

Mauna Loa was again restless in 2019 and the time seems optimum to review this and other Mauna Loa flows, in order to be ready for the next lava flow. Should the next flow threaten developed areas, review of past lava flow threats may provide valuable experience on how the public may best be provided with information.

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