When a hotel on the rim of Kilauea caldera became a permanent facility in 1866, its series of guest registers became a repository of reports and observations by the guests, an almost daily record (by observers who varied from the scientist to the joker) of earthquakes felt and unfelt and of volcanism seen and unseen on Kilauea and Mauna Loa.
In the hope that science could close the gaps in geological knowledge and learn to predict earthquakes and eruptions, some New Englanders were willing for humanitarian reasons to finance foreign trips and support work abroad for scientists.
For instance, the Springfield (Massachusetts) Volcanic Research Society supported, at least in part, the travels and studies of Frank A. Perret, an electrical engineer and inventor turned volcanologist who became well known for his studies at Vesuvius, Etna, and Stromboli. The Springfield society also helped support Perret’s 1911 work at Kilauea.
It was in this climate of opinion that the trustees of the estates of Edward and Caroline Whitney gave to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) the sum of $25,000 for a memorial fund; the principal and interest were to be expended at MIT’s discretion for research or teaching in geophysics, especially seismology.
Investigations in Hawaii were recommended. The Whitney fund was deeded to MIT by the trustees on July 1, 1909, and three years later a group of twelve other New Englanders supplied MIT with supplemental funds for geophysical research in Hawaii.
MIT gave Thomas A Jaggar a leave of absence in December 1911 and directed him to Kilauea to continue the investigations made in the summer of 1909. Jaggar arrived at Kilauea on January 17, 1912.
Work then started on what would be the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (Observatory.) A cellar excavation on the north rim of Kilauea caldera started on February 16, 1912, marking the beginning of permanent facilities for the Observatory.
The Observatory was largely the creation of Jaggar (1871-1953), then a MIT professor, who recognized the advantages, for the study of volcanism, of onsite facilities at an active volcano.
Wooden stakes marked the corners of a rectangle about 24-feet long by 22-feet wide only about 20-feet from the cliff-like rim of Kilauea caldera on the Island of Hawaii.
A hole was to be dug by hand. The diggers were prisoners of the Territory of Hawaii, sentenced to a term of hard labor. The prisoners dug through almost six feet of volcanic ash and pumice to a layer of thick pahoehoe lava – a firm base for the concrete piers on which seismometers would be anchored.
Jaggar had contracted with Hackfeld for the forms and concrete work for the seismometer vault, and for the wooden structures that were to stand over and adjacent to the vault – the rim-side facilities of the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory.
The result was “a basement room, eighteen feet square, with piers and floor of concrete, reposing upon the upper surface of the basalt, and high walls of concrete (and became known as) the Whitney Laboratory of Seismology.” A building was built above.
“A constant emanation of hot steam from cracks in contact with the concrete walls keeps this room at a fairly uniform temperature and thus improves it for the purposes of seismology.” (Apple)
“Concrete tables on the floor of the cellar held the pair of east-west and north-south horizontal pendulums, recording with delicate pens on smoked paper, stretched over a chronograph drum.”
“These paper records, removed every day and fixed with shellac varnish, became the seismograms of the permanent files. Long belts of wavy lines on each paper exhibited seconds, minutes, and hours; and when a sharp zigzag in one of the lines occurred, it was evidence of either a local or a distant earthquake.” (Jaggar)
However, the “oppressive warmth caused by the natural steam heat” added challenges to the scientists’ daily lives. Scientists through the active life of the vault bundled up in wooly sweaters, scarfs, and raincoats to walk to the vault through the chilling rains and fog at 4,000-foot altitude and then peeled clown to undershirts when they entered the vault to attend the instruments.
Being a basement vault with a building above also created problems. Even in calm weather, movements of the building were recorded by the seismometers in the vault below.
Winter Kona storms swept high winds from the south across Kilauea caldera, hitting with full force against the north rim and causing such rocking and trembling of the building above as to mask the records on the seismograms.
In the winter of 1915-16, gale-force winds stripped the sheets of corrugated iron from the roof of the building. Rain water in the offices above poured into the vault to wash away the seismograms on their drums, flood the floor, and soak the instruments. Repairs took weeks.
On December 19, 1921, the nearby Volcano House began to run a generator for the first electric lights at Kilauea. Variations in the engine speed as well as the exact times of starting and stopping were duly recorded by seismometers in the Whitney vault.
On February 11, 1940, the main Volcano House burned to the ground, and this led to the relocating of the Observatory facilities. (The present Volcano House was opened for business in November 1941.)
That year, the building above the observatory was dismantled, and a reinforced-concrete slab was poured by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) to become the vault’s new roof. The slab was covered with 18-inches of topsoil (the vault mound is on the crater side of the Volcano House.)
On December 28, 1947, the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory was transferred within the Department of the Interior from the National Park Service to the United States Geological Survey.
In 1948, the Observatory was moved to a building at the top of Uwekahuna Bluff on the northwest rim of Kilauea caldera; a new and larger building there was completed in 1986. (The bulk of the information here comes from Russell Apple’s (retired National Park Service historian) history of the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory.)
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