Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Historic Overview of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Watching Ken Burns’ spectacular series The National Parks: America’s Best Idea,” I learned that parks were created both in Hawaii and Alaska way before they were States. In fact Hawaii Volcanoes National Park here on the Big Island was established in 1916 and was actually just the country’s tenth national park.

So how did this happen on Hawaii Island? It appears that suggestions that the Kilauea summit area become a national park began appearing in the Volcano House guest register and in newspapers in Hawaii as early as 1903. Apparently its territorial status did not inhibit the United States federal government from acting.

Two men’s passions, Thomas Jaggar and Lorrin Thurston, crossed -- the former in his role in establishing the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (HVO) and the later for his effort in convincing the United States government to protect the volcano by making it a National Park. It is possible that we would have had a National Park without the HVO but I doubt if it would have happened nearly so soon. My guess is that the HVO greatly facilitated travel to the volcano and helped to heighten interest in it.

Thomas Augustus Jaggar, Jr.

Philadelphia born Thomas Augustus Jaggar (1871-1953) not only had a great name but he had three geology degrees from Harvard (A.B., A.M., and Ph.D.), studied in Munich and Heidelberg, and taught at Harvard! There was then only one volcano observatory in the world, at Vesuvius established in 1847 and Jaggar thought America needed one. He traveled to Hawaii in 1909 determined that Kilauea was to be the home of the first American volcano observatory.

Within a year of meeting Lorrin Thurston who (along with others) provided financial backing, a small observing station was set up on the rim of Halemaʻumaʻu crater (a pit crater within Kilauea's summit caldera). In 1912 construction of the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (HVO) began.

Lorrin Andrews Thurston

Lorrin Andrews Thurston (1858–1931) was born in Honolulu, grandson of one of the original missionaries from New England. He studied law at Columbia University and became a member of the Honolulu bar. In the Kingdom of Hawaii, Thurston served in both elected and appointed positions, but he was a leader in the revolution (January 17, 1893) that overthrew Queen Liliuokalani and ended the native monarchy.

He was also a volcano enthusiast and in 1891 he bought and expanded the Volcano House hotel at the rim of the volcano. Thurston commissioned a cyclorama of Kilauea which he displayed in his travels to the mainland, including the Chicago World's Columbian Exposition of 1893.

Thurston in Center

From 1906 to 1916 he and friends lobbied with national politicians to create a National Park to preserve the Hawaiian Volcanoes.

Building the Observatory

Starting in 1912 a foundation had to be dug only about 20 feet from the rim of the caldera for Jaggar's volcano observation post.

To help stretch limited funds 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

Plans and elevations for the piers were hand drawn by Professor F. Omori at the Seismological Institute, Imperial University, Tokyo, Japan, and mailed to Jaggar. Also shipped to Jaggar were an Omori-type seismometer and a seismograph for the observation of earthquakes

Mauna Loa Lava Flow

Why Jaggar chose Kilauea for his volcano observatory included the following reasons: (1) Kilauea was the safest known volcano in the world; (2) Kilauea and Mauna Loa were isolated, more than 2,000 miles away from complications other volcanic centers might impose; (3) Kilauea was reasonably accessible—it could be reached by a 30 mile road from Hilo harbor or a day's sail from Honolulu; (4) the central Pacific was good for recording distant earthquakes and was served by good transportation east or west; (5) the climate was uniform, with air clear enough for astronomy; (6) small earthquakes were frequent and easily studied; (7) hot and cold underground waters were available for both agricultural and scientific purposes; and (8) "The territory is American, and these volcanoes are famous in the history of science for their remarkably liquid lavas and nearly continuous activity" (Jaggar, 1917).

Becoming a National Park

While Jaggar established the HVO, Thurston used his newspaper to promote the national park idea and convinced the territorial legislature to fund a group of congressmen to visit Kilauea in 1907. The trip included a dinner cooked over active lava vents. He hosted a visit by the Secretary of the Interior James Rudolph Garfield (son of the then late-President) in 1908, and another congressional visit in 1909. He convinced Territorial Governor Walter F. Frear to introduce a resolution supporting the idea, and formed a survey team to propose exact boundaries. His newspaper printed endorsements of the park by President Theodore Roosevelt (who happened to be a classmate at Columbia), conservationist John Muir, and powerful Senator Henry Cabot Lodge. In 1913 he explored a lava tube in the park that is now named after him.

Today Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is the largest of the five national parks in Hawaii. It contains the active volcanoes of Mauna Loa and Kilauea and covers some 520 square miles (over 320,000 acres) of land. Over half of the park is designated wilderness. The east rift of Kilauea has been erupting continuously since 1983. Kilauea’s crater covers more than four square miles and is the largest active volcanic crater in the world. Its inner pit, Halemaumau, is sometimes called the “House of Everlasting Fire.” The park’s landscape includes the Kau Desert on the arid eastern slope of Kilauea and a luxuriant tree fern forest on its moist western side. And not to be missed is the Jaggar Museum (the Hawaii Volcano Observatory which adjoins the museum is not open to the public) and its incredible views.


  1. Interesting stuff! I always wondered why the Thurston Lava Tube was named that.

  2. Fascinating! Thanks for the research and links. It's reassuring to know that our (U.S.) early interest in Hawaii was not entirely economic.

  3. Loving your stuff Wes! Keep it up!


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