Monday, May 20, 2024
Volcano Watch

Kilauea photo from 1860s found

Sometimes you just don’t know what you’re going to find, and when you do find it, you’re not quite sure what it is. One afternoon last September, while thumbing through a binder containing old photographs in the HVO archive, a pale brown print almost jumped from the page. It looked vaguely familiar, like the childhood photo of a friend known only as an adult. Then it slowly became apparent. This was indeed an early image of a friend, Kilauea’s caldera, as viewed from Uwekahuna.

But many features on the print don’t match those seen today. When the print was turned over, there, lightly penciled in old-fashioned script, appeared the words, “First view of volcano in the 60s.”

It sure wasn’t the 1960s that was meant. A photograph of Kilauea’s caldera in the 1860s — now that is something!

Running outside with the print in one hand and a camera in the other, the place where the photographer stood was narrowed down to an area about halfway between HVO and the highest point at Uwekahuna, where the triangulation station is. Shadows tell that the photograph was taken in the afternoon.

But the match between the features in the print and those we see today remains poor, because of all the changes that have occurred in the caldera since the 1860s.

For one, Halemaumau is twice as wide today as it was then, but we knew that already, for the crater doubled in diameter during the explosions in 1924.

The most striking difference, completely unexpected, was the presence in the 1860s of a cliff, probably 10-15 m (30-50 feet) high, beyond Halemaumau, as viewed from Uwekahuna. The cliff could be a caldera fault or the wall of an older version of Halemaumau.

A large area of sulfur deposits mantled the northeast end of this cliff. Nineteenth-century visitors called this area the “southern sulphur bank” and noted that it was larger than the “northern sulphur bank” (today’s Sulphur Banks). Lava flows from Halemaumau covered it by mid-1879 and apparently also covered the high cliff, for not a trace of the cliff remains today, unless the slope just east of the Halemaumau parking lot is one.

The old photograph and a modern one taken from about the same place are available for viewing on our web site (

Who took the photograph, and when during “the 60s” was it taken? We don’t know the answer to either of these questions, but a little digging has led to a reasonable hypothesis.

William T. Brigham, future director of the Bishop Museum, first visited the summit of Kilauea in 1864, riding up the Ka`u trail. He reached Uwekahuna at about 1 p.m. and later wrote in his book, The Volcanoes of Kilauea and Mauna Loa, that “from here in the afternoon is a favorable view of Kilauea, perhaps the best.”

After another visit in early August 1865 to “make arrangements for a survey,” Brigham rode from Hilo to the summit on August 22, 1865, bringing with him “surveying instruments and photograph apparatus (wet plate most unsuitable to the vicinity of sulphur fumes).” The weather was poor for a week, but Brigham and his party surveyed, nonetheless.

Brigham wrote that “Sunday [August 27] was the first bright day I had had.” He was visited by pulu pickers after the morning service, who “told him the names of the various parts of the crater, and legends of various eruptions. Monday was rainy,…and the remainder of the week was too stormy to take photographs.” Brigham then returned to Hilo.

Perhaps the photograph was taken on that bright Sunday afternoon of August 27, 1865. Brigham had a “photograph apparatus” uncommon in Hawai`i in the 1860s, was chomping at the bit after a week of dull weather, was enthused by the information given him by the pulu pickers, and knew where to go to get “perhaps the best” afternoon view of Kilauea.

We asked the Bishop Museum whether Brigham left plates or prints when he retired, but it has none. So, we may never know if the above musings are correct. If any readers have relevant information, we’d certainly appreciate hearing it.

Activity Update

Eruptive activity at Pu`u `O`o continues. Spatter cones in the crater of Pu`u `O`o glow brightly on clear nights, but have not produced any lava flows for several months. The MLK vent area, at the southwest base of the cone, intermittently erupts small pahoehoe flows that stack up close to the vent.

The PKK flow continues to host substantial breakouts from above the top of Pulama pali to the coastal plain. Lava is not entering the ocean. As of January 20, lava flows were active on the coastal plain, about 500 m (550 yd) inland of the shore at West Highcastle. The area of breakouts is about 2.5 km (1.5 mi) from the end of the pavement on Chain of Craters Road in Hawai`i Volcanoes National Park. Expect a 1-to-1.5-hour walk each way and remember to bring lots of water. Stay well back from the sea cliff, regardless of whether there is an active ocean entry or not. Heed the National Park warning signs.

During the week ending January 20, there were no earthquakes felt on Hawai`i Island.

Mauna Loa is not erupting. The summit region continues to inflate. Since July 2004, the rate of inflation and number of deep earthquakes has increased. Weekly earthquake counts have varied from 5 to over 150. During the week ending January 20, fourteen earthquakes were recorded beneath the summit area. Nearly all are 30 km (18 mi) or more deep and half are the long-period type, with magnitudes less than 3.

This article was written by scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Hawaii Volcano Observatory and is republished by with permission.

Hawaii Star Wire

Press releases, media advisories, and other announcements submitted to the Hawaii Star.

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