THERE have been two entirely distinct modifications in Kilauea. One belongs to the centuries and the mountain which the crater has been trying to build. The other relates to the fire-pit and the fire-lake therein.
Kilauea is a mountain a little over 4,000 feet in altitude, closely connected with Mauna Loa, which is about 13,000 feet in altitude. It has been stated that there is some connection which affects the action of two lakes of lava in the two craters.
Kilauea is a great bowl sunken in a plain which seems level but which slopes decidedly toward the large mountain on the one side and the ocean on the other. Above the present fire-pit rise great plateaus and a summit 500 feet above the edges of the present crater, and about one mile east of it. This elevation shows that at one time the lake of fire had its real crater rim extending far back of the site of the Volcano Hotel and very much higher than at present, and that great floods of lava were poured out over the
surrounding country at a height impossible for the new crater to attain. After these eruptions the fire-pit sank away, leaving great precipitous walls and wide cracks out of which even now pour clouds of steam of such intense heat and such powerful sulphur fumes that animals falling in are killed instantly.
There are several terraces showing how the precipices, cracks, and plateaus followed each other step by step down to the bed of Kilauea itself. There are hints of these changes in the traditions of the Hawaiians, but it is impossible to know exactly what is meant. Rev. William Ellis, author of "Polynesian Researches," and a deputation of the American missionaries studying the opportunities for missionary labor, while making a tour around Hawaii in 1823, visited Kilauea and wrote the following description of the volcano. In this report, afterward incorporated in "Polynesian Researches" as Volume IV, the following account is given of ancient Kilauea. "We asked the natives with us to tell us what they knew of the history of this volcano. From them we learned that it had been burning from time immemorial, or to use their own words 'mai ka po mai' (from chaos until now) and had inundated some part of the country during the reign of every king that had governed Hawaii. In earlier ages it used to boil
up, overflow its banks, and inundate the adjacent country; but for many kings' reigns past it had kept below the level of the surrounding plain, continually extending its surface and increasing its depth, and occasionally throwing up with violent explosions huge rocks and red hot stones. These eruptions, they said, were always accompanied by dreadful earthquakes, loud claps of thunder and vivid and quick succeeding lightning. No great explosion, they added, had taken place since the days of Keoua (a part of whose army was destroyed by a shower of ashes and foul gases in 1790), but many places near the sea had since been overflowed, on which occasions Pele went by a road underground from her house in the crater to the shore."
Concerning Pele the natives said, ''Kirauea had been burning ever since the islands had emerged from night, but it was not inhabited till after the 'Tai a ka Hina rii,' the sea or deluge of Hina the chief." Shortly, after this flood they say the present volcanic family carne from Tahiti, meaning some foreign country, to Hawaii.
When the crater was "boiling up, overflowing its banks, and inundating the adjacent territory," as the natives said, it poured out lava which became solid rock. As it went westward, the character of its overflow changed, becoming explosive, hurling out cinders and ashes instead of
boiling lava, so that all the land, especially toward the south and west, is covered with volcanic ash. For more than a hundred years there has been no uplift of lava or ashes over the outside crater rim.
During this century there has been no marked change in the great edge of the bowl, but the interior has been kaleidoscopic. The bowl is flat-bottomed with a surface creased and cracked and rough, with twisted piles of dead lava. In innumerable spots any cool morning welcomes rising clouds of steam and in the western part is the Lua-Pele, a pit filled with living fire. This outer crater is about three and a half miles across.
A hundred years ago the floor of this crater was the scene of continual activity. Around the entire rim was a black ledge or balcony against which fountains of lava hurled their repeated drops, falling on the black ledge. Now, the fire-pit is but a little over a quarter of a mile in diameter, and yet it has the same form of black ledge which had been built up in the great crater so many years before.
When first visited by the missionaries, there were many hilly islands, fountain cones, and hissing blowholes. Later, the great floor began to cool and lakes appeared in different sections.
In 1890, when the writer first saw the home of the fire-goddess, there were three lakes through which eruptive gases burst with explosions like
the continual rattle of artillery, and there were two great rivers of lava flowing across the wide, black floor of the vast crater. Now there is only one lake of fire. Ka Lua Pele, the "Pit of Pele," is at present on a small scale what the crater of Kilauea was in its magnitude in 1823 and for many years thereafter.
The brief mention of shifting fires, flowing rivers, raging lakes, deep pits, falling walls, and frozen uneven lava surfaces must suffice to make evident the stupendous forces of nature which have terrified the Hawaiians for centuries and have made them build up legends in and around these terrors and have created the demand for a special fire-goddess to take rank with the other gods worshipped.