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Our Great Hawaiian And Alaskan Volcanoes

( Originally Published 1906 )

Greatest Volcanoes in the World Are Under the American Flag—Huge Craters in Our Pacific Islands—Native Worship of the Gods of the Flaming Mountains—Eruptions of the Past—Heroic Defiance of Pele, the Goddess of Volcanoes, by a Brave Hawaiian Queen—The Spell of Superstition Broken —Volcanic Peaks in Alaska, Our Northern Territory — Aleutian Islands Report Eruptions,

UNDER the American flag we are ourselves the possessors of some of the greatest active volcanoes in the world, and the greatest of all craters, the latter extinct indeed, for many years, but with a latent power that no one could conceive should it once more begin activity.

Hawaii, Paradise of the Pacific, raised by the fires of the very Inferno out of the depths of the ocean centuries ago, to become in recent years a smiling land of tropic beauty and an American island possession! Hawaii is the land of great volcanoes, sometimes slumbering and again pouring forth floods of molten fire to overwhelm the peaceful villages and arouse the superstitious fears of the natives.

Alaska, too, is a region of great volcanic ranges and eruptive activity, the Aleutian islands being raised from the bed of the Pacific by the same natural forces.

The Hawaiian islands occupy a central position in the North Pacific ocean, about 2,000 miles west of the California coast. The group includes eight inhabited islands, all of volcanic origin, and they are, substantially, naught but solid aggregations of fused, basaltic rock shot up from the earth's center, during outbursts of bye-gone ages, and cooled into mountains of stone here in the midst of the greatest body of water on the globe. In many localities, however, the accretions of centuries have so covered them with vegetable growths that their general appearance is not greatly different from that of other sections of the earth's surface.

The largest of the group is Hawaii, and it includes nearly two-thirds of the total area. Here stand the highest mountains found on any island in the known world. Only a few peaks of the Alps are as high as Mauna Loa (Long mountain), which towers 13,675 feet above the level of the sea, and Mauna Kea (White mountain), the height of which is 13,805 feet. In east Maui stands Haleakala, with an elevation about equal to that of Mount 'Etna. This extinct volcano enjoys the distinction of having the largest crater in the world, a monstrous pit, thirty miles in circumference and z,000 feet deep. The vast, irregular floor contains more than a dozen subsidiary craters or great cones, some of them 750 feet high. At the Kaupo and Koolau gaps the lava is supposed to have burst through and made its way down the mountain sides. The cones are distinctly marked as one looks down upon them; and it is remark-able that from the summit the eye takes in the whole crater, and notes all its contents, diminished, of course, by their great distance. Not a tree, shrub, nor even a tuft of grass obstructs the view. The natives have no traditions of Haleakala in activity. There are signs of several lava flows, and one in particular is clearly much more recent than the others.

The greatest point of interest in the islands is the great crater of Kilauea. It is nine miles in circumference and perhaps a thousand feet deep. Nowhere else within the knowledge of mankind is there a living crater to be compared with it. Moreover, there is no crater which can be entered and explored with ease and comparative safety save Kilauea alone. There have been a few narrow escapes, but no accidents, and it is needless to add that no description can give anyone an adequate idea of the incomparable splendor of the scene. It is, indeed, a "bottomless pit," bounded on all sides by precipitous rocks. The entrance is effected by a series of steps, and below these by a scramble over lava and rock debris. The greater part of the crater is a mass of dead, though not cold, lava; and over this the journey is made to the farthest extremity of the pit, where it is necessary to ascend a tolerably steep hill of lava, which is the bank of the fiery lake. A step or two brings one close to the awful margin, and he looks down over smoking, frightful walls, three hundred feet or more, into a great boiling, bubbling, sizzling sea of fire.

The tendency of the current, if it may be so called, is centripetal, though at times it varies, flowing to one side; while along the borders of the pit, waves of slumbering lava, apparently as unmovable as those over which the traveler has just crossed, lie in wrinkled folds and masses, heaped against the shore. If one watches those waves closely, however, he will presently observe what appears like a fiery, red serpent coming up out of the lake and creeping through and under them, like a chain of brilliant flame, its form lengthening as it goes, until it has circumscribed a large share of the entire basin. Then it begins to spread and flatten, as though the body had burst asunder and was dissolving back again, along its whole trail, into the fierce flood of turbulent fury whence it came.

Soon the broad, thick mass of lava, thus surrounded, which seemed fixed and immovable, slowly drifts off from the shore to the center of the lake; reminding one of detached cakes of broken ice, such as are often seen in winter when the thaws come, or during spring freshets when the streams burst their encrusted chains. The force of this comparison is strengthened when these cakes reach the center, for there they go to pieces exactly after the manner of large pieces of ice, and turning upon their edges, disappear in the ravenous vortex below, which is forever swallowing up all that approaches it, giving nothing back in return.

Two kinds of lava form on the face of the lake. One is stony, hard, and brittle; the other flexible and tough, similar to India-rubber. The flexible kind forms exclusively on one side of the basin and spreads over it like an immense, sombre blanket; and, as it floats down in slow procession to the central abyss, occasionally rises and falls with a flapping motion, by force of the generated gases underneath, like a sheet shaken in the wind.

Occasionally, the fire forces its way through this covering and launches huge, sputtering fountains of red-hot liquid lava high into the air, with a noise that resembles distant bombs exploding; and again, multitudes of smaller founts burst into blossom all over the lake, presenting a spectacle of wild beauty across its entire surface.

In Hawaiian mythology, Pele was the goddess of volcanoes, and she and her numerous family formed a class of deities by themselves. She with her six sisters, Hiiaka, her brother Kamohoalii, and others, were said to have emigrated from Kahiki (Samoa) in ancient times. They were said to have first lived at Moanalua in Oahu, then to have moved their residence to Kalaupapa, Molokai, then to Haleakala, and finally to have settled on Hawaii. Their headquarters were in the Halemau-mau, in the crater of Kilauea, but they also caused the eruptions of Mauna Loa and Hualalai. In southern Hawaii Pele was feared more than any other deity, and no one dared to approach her abode without making her an offering of the ohelo-berries that grow in the neighborhood. Whenever an eruption took place, great quantities of hogs and other articles of property were thrown into the lava stream in order to appease her anger.

In 1824, Kapiolani, the daughter of a great chief of Hilo, having been converted to Christianity by the missionaries, determined to break the spell of the native belief in Pele. In spite of the strenuous opposition of her friends and even of her husband, she made a journey of about 150 miles, mostly on foot, from Kealakekua to Hilo, visiting the great crater of Kilauea on her way, in order to defy the wrath of Pele, and to prove that no such being existed.

On approaching the volcano, she met the priestess of Pele, who warned her not to go near the crater and predicted her death if she violated the tabus of the goddess.

"Who are you?" demanded Kapiolani.

"One in whom the goddess dwells," she replied.

In answer to a pretended letter of Pele, Kapiolani quoted passages from the Bible until the priestess was silenced. Kapiolani then went forward to the crater, where Mr. Goodrich, one of the missionaries, met her. A hut was built for her on the eastern brink of the crater, and here she passed the night.

The next morning she and her company of about eighty persons descended over 500 feet to the "Black Ledge." There, in full view of the grand and terrific action of the inner crater, she ate the berries consecrated to Pele, and threw stones into the burning lake, saying: "Jehovah is my God. He kindled these fires. I fear not Pele. If I perish by her anger, then you may fear Pele; but if I trust in Jehovah, and he preserve me when breaking her tabus, then you must fear and serve him alone...."

It is needless to say that she was not harmed, and this act did much to destroy the superstitious dread in which the heathen goddess was held by the ignorant and credulous natives.

The history of Hawaiian volcanic eruptions tells no such tales of horror as regards the loss of life and property as may be read in the accounts of other great volcanoes of the globe. This, however, is simply because the region is less populated, and their tremendous manifestations of power have lacked material to destroy. There have been fatal catastrophes, and ruin has been wrought which seems slight only in comparison with the greater disasters of a similar nature.

In 1855 an eruption of Mauna Loa occurred. The lava flowed toward Hilo, and for several months, spreading through the dense forests which belt the mountain, crept slowly shore-wards, threatening this beautiful portion of Hawaii with the fate of the Cities of the Plain. For five months the inhabit-ants watched the inundation, which came a little nearer every day. Should they flee or not? Would their beautiful homes become a waste of jagged lava and black sand, like the neigh-boring district of Puna, once as fair as Hilo? Such questions suggested themselves as they nightly watched the nearing glare, till the fiery waves met with obstacles which piled them up in hillocks eight miles from Hilo, and the suspense was over.

Only gigantic causes can account for the gigantic phenomena of this lava-flow. The eruption traveled forty miles in a straight line, or sixty including sinuosities. It was from one to three miles broad, and from five to 200 feet deep, according to the contours of the mountain slopes over which it flowed. It lasted for thirteen months, pouring out a torrent of lava which covered nearly 300 square miles of land, and its volume was estimated at 38,000,000,000 cubic feet! In 1859 lava fountains 400 feet in height, and with a nearly equal diameter, played on the summit of Mauna Loa. This eruption ran fifty miles to the sea in eight days, but the flow lasted much longer, and added a new promontory to Hawaii.

On March 27, 1868, a series of earthquakes began and became more startling from day to day, until their succession became so rapid that the island quivered like the lid of a boiling pot nearly all the time between the heavier shocks. The trembling was like that of a ship struck by a heavy wave. Late in the afternoon of April 2, the climax came. The crust of the earth rose and sank like the sea in a storm. Rocks were rent, mountains fell, buildings and their contents were shattered, trees swayed like reeds, animals ran about demented; men thought the judgment had come. The earth opened in thousands of places, the roads in Hilo cracked open; horses and their riders, and people afoot, were thrown violently to the ground. At Kilauea the shocks were as frequent as the ticking of a watch. In Kau, south of Hilo, 300 shocks were counted during the day. An avalanche of red earth, supposed to be lava, burst from the mountain side, throwing rocks high into the air swallowing up houses, trees, men and animals, and traveling three miles in as many minutes, burying a hamlet with thirty-one inhabitants, and 500 head of cattle.

The people of the valleys fled to the mountains, which themselves were splitting in all directions, and collecting on an elevated spot, with the earth reeling under them, they spent a night of terror. Looking toward the shore, they saw it sink, and at the same moment a wave, whose height was estimated at from forty to sixty feet, hurled itself upon the coast and receded five times, destroying whole villages and engulfing forever forty-six people who had lingered too near the shore.

Still the earthquakes continued, and still the volcanoes gave no sign. People put their ears to the quivering ground and heard, or thought they heard, the surgings of the imprisoned lava sea rending its way among the ribs of the earth. Five days after the destructive earthquake of April 2, the ground south of Hilo burst ,open with a crash and a roar, which at once answered all questions concerning the volcano. The molten river, after traveling underground for twenty miles, emerged through a fissure two miles in length with a tremendous force and volume. Four huge fountains boiled up with terrific fury, throwing crimson lava and rocks weighing many tons from 50o to 1,000 feet.

Mr. Whitney, of Honolulu, who was near the spot, says: "From these great fountains to the sea flowed a rapid stream of red lava, rolling, rushing, and tumbling like a swollen river, bearing along in its current large rocks that made the lava foam as it dashed down the precipice and through the valley into the sea, surging and roaring throughout its length like a cataract, with a power and fury perfectly indescribable. It was nothing else than a river of fire from 200 to 800 feet wide and twenty deep, with a speed varying from ten to twenty-five miles an hour. From the scene of these fire fountains, whose united length was about one mile, the river in its rush to the sea divided itself into four streams, between which it shut up men and beasts. Where it entered the sea it extended the coast-line half a mile, but this worthless accession to Hawaiian acreage was dearly purchased by the loss, for ages at least, of 4,000 acres of valuable agricultural land, and a much larger quantity of magnificent forest.

The entire southeast shore of Hawaii sank from four to six feet, which involved the destruction of several hamlets and the beautiful fringe of cocoanut trees. Though the region was very thinly peopled, Too lives were sacrificed in this week of horrors; and from the reeling mountains, the uplifted ocean, and the fiery inundation, the terrified survivors fled into Hilo, each with a tale of woe and loss. The number of shocks of earthquake counted was 2,000 in two weeks, an average of 140 a day; but on the other side of the island the number was incalculable.

Since that time there have been several eruptions of these great Hawaiian volcanoes, but none so destructive to life and property. Only two years ago the crater of Mauna Loa was in eruption for some weeks, and travelers journeyed to the vicinity from all over the world to see the grand display of Nature's power in the fountains of lava and the blazing rivers flowing down the mountain side. The spectacle could be viewed perfectly at night from ships at sea, and from places of safety on shore.

Across the North Pacific, from Kamschatka to Alaska, is a continuous chain of craters in the Aleutian islands, forming almost a bridge over the ocean, and from Alaska down the western coasts of the two Americas is a string of the mightiest volcanoes in existence. Iceland is a seething caldron under its eternal snows, and in a hundred places where some great, jagged cone of a volcano rises, seemingly dead and lifeless, only a fire-brand in the hand of nature may be needed to awaken it to a fury like that of which its vast lava beds, pinnacles, and craters are so eloquent.

The world's record for the extent of an eruption probably belongs to the great volcano Skaptan Jokul, in Iceland. This eruption began on June 11, 1783, having been preceded by violent earthquakes. A torrent of lava welled up into the crater, overflowed it, and ran down the sides of the cone into the channel of the Skapta river, completely drying it up. The river had occupied a rocky gorge, from 400 to 600 feet deep, and averaging 200 feet wide. This gorge was filled, a deep lake was filled, and the rock, still at white heat, flowed on into subterranean caverns. Tremendous explosions followed, throwing boulders to enormous heights. A week after the first eruption another stream of lava followed the first, debouched over a precipice into the channel of another river, and finally, at the end of two years, the lava had spread over the plains below in great lakes twelve to fifteen miles wide and a hundred feet deep. Twenty villages were destroyed by fire, and out of 50,000 inhabitants nearly 9,000 perished, either from fire or from noxious vapors.

The Skapta river branch of this lava stream was fifty miles long and in places twelve to fifteen miles wide; the other stream was forty miles long, seven miles broad, and the range of depth in each stream was from 10o to 600 feet. Professor Bischoff has called this, in quantity, the greatest eruption of the world, the lava, piled, having been estimated as of greater volume than is Mont Blanc.

Regarding the volcanoes of the United States, Mount Shasta is one of the most interesting of them. It has an altitude of 14,350 feet, towering more than a mile above its nearest neighbor. Four thousand feet of its peak are above timber line, covered with glaciers, while the mountain's base is seventeen miles in diameter. Shasta is almost continually showing slight evidences of its internal fires. Another of the famous cones is that of Mount Hood, standing 11,225 feet, snow-capped, and regarded as an extinct volcano.

As to the volcanic records of the great West, they may be read in the chains of mountains that stretch from Alaska 10,000 miles to Tierra del Fuego. In the giant geysers and hot springs of the Yellowstone Park are evidences of existing fires in the United States; while as to the extent of seismic disturbances of the past, the famous lava beds of Dakota, in which Captain Jack, the Modoc chief, held out against government troops till starved into submission, are volcanic areas full of mute testimony regarding nature's convulsions.

How soon, if ever, some of these volcanic areas of the United States may burst forth into fresh activity, no one can predict. If the slumbering giants should arouse themselves and shake off the rock fetters which bind their strength, the results might be terrible to contemplate. Those who dwell in the shadow of such peaks as are believed to be extinct, become indifferent to such a possible threat after many years of immunity, but such a disaster as that of St, Pierre arouses thought and directs scrutiny once more upon the ancient volcanic peaks of the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevadans.



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