“We could hear the explosions in Hilo; it was like the noise of battle.”
“Day and night the ancient forest was ablaze, and the scene was vivid beyond description. By the 25th of March the lava was within seven miles of Hilo, and steadily advancing. Until this time we had hoped that Hilo would not be threatened. But the stream pursued its way.” (Coan)
On November 5, 1880, an eruption located near the 11,000-foot elevation, about a mile above Puʻu Ulaʻula 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.
May 1st, 1881, 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.
“The glare was intense, and was seen at great distances. Brilliant jets of lava were thrown high in the air, and a pillar of blazing gases mounted thousands of feet skyward, spreading out into a canopy of sanguinary light which resembled, though upon a larger scale, the so-called “pine-tree appendage” formed over Vesuvius during its eruptions by the vertical column of vapors with its great horizontal cloud.”
“Meanwhile a raging river of lava, about three-fourths of a mile wide and from fifteen to thirty feet deep, rushed down the north-east flank of the great dome, and ran some thirty miles to the base of Mauna Kea.” (Coan)
“We met crowds of people returning from the flow, and all reported it active and coming rapidly down the gulch. We rode up to it before dark and found that the stream was entirely confined to the gulch and intensely active.”
“The flow was on an average about seventy-five feet wide and from ten to thirty feet in depth as it filled the gulch up level with its banks. The sight was grand. The whole frontage was one mass of liquid lava carrying on its surface huge cakes of partially cooled lava. Soon after we arrived the flow reached a deep hole, some ten or fifteen feet in depth, with perpendicular sides.” (Hitchcock)
“Troops of boys and girls, young men and women, were watching the flow. They plunged poles into the viscid lava as it urged itself slowly onward; drawing out small lumps of the adhering fusion, they moulded it, before it had time to cool, into various forms at will.”
“They made cups, canes, vases, tubes, and other articles out of this molten clay, and these they sold to visitors and strangers at from twenty-five cents to a dollar or more for a specimen. All went away with fresh spoils from the spoiler. (Coan)
The advancing lava flow split into three forks at the 2,400-foot elevation (8.5-miles from Hilo Bay), only to reunite into a single flow at the 1,600-foot elevation (6.3 miles from the bay. The flow again split into two forks—north and south—at the 300-foot) elevation (1.6 miles from the bay.) (USGS)
The 1881 lavas reached just north of the present University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo campus. After crossing the present Komohana and Kumukoa Streets, a very narrow section crossed what is now Mohouli Street, about 300 yards above the intersection with Kapiʻolani Street.
Several hundred homes are now built on pāhoehoe 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. (USGS)
“The lava stream surrounded a single kalo-plant, growing on an islet of eighteen inches in diameter, and on another one twice as broad, a single banana plant. They have survived the heat and are growing finely, the only green things left in the garden”. (Coan)
The people asked Keʻelikōlani (Princess Ruth) to intercede. The Hawaiian-language newspaper Ko Hawai‘i Pae Aina published a letter with the heading “Ka Pele ai Honua ma Hilo” (Pele, devourer of land at Hilo) that describes the immediate danger, “Hapalua Mile ka Mamao mai ke Koana aku” (the distance from town being only one half mile.) (Bishop Museum)
“Without delay a council, high and solemn, was held in Honolulu by the principal natives; and Princess Ruth, or Luka, as her name was in Hawaiian, a lineal descendant of Kamehameha the Great, the conqueror of all Hawaii, was dispatched to offer compelling sacrifices to the goddess”.
“(T)his six decades after the first American missionaries had come to convert the Hawaiians to Christianity, fifty years or so after the zealous Hawaiians had carved blocks of stone from coral reefs and dragged them inland, there to erect churches that stand to this day. … (T)he princess accordingly embarked on the Iwalani at Honolulu.”
“An innumerable throng saw her embark and sail from Honolulu for Kailua. … Other boats took the retainers, pigs, pigeons, and the remainder of the paraphernalia for the rites at the burning mountain, and the second mate, Kauhane, went on shore to supervise operations there.” (Cameron, 1928)
“The flood came on until all agreed that in two or three days more it would be pouring into our beautiful bay. On the 10th of August it was but one mile from the sea, and half a mile from Hilo town.” (Coan)
Keʻelikōlani offered traditional oli (chants) and hoʻokupu (tribute) to Pele and later reportedly camped at the foot of the flow. (Bishop Museum)
“Ruth did manage to perform the rites, assisted by many kahunas; she made her burnt offerings, which Pele gladly accepted. Perhaps the goddess hungered for roast pig; maybe she was overawed by the royal descent of Ruth; more probably Pele stood in terror of the mortal.”
“Whatever the explanation, the lava flow ceased.” (Cameron, 1928)
Dynamite explosives had been suggested as a means to divert lava flows threatening Hilo. (Lockwood & Torgerson) However, before that plan could be put into execution, the lava flow stopped – August 10, 1881. (Kuykendall)