USGS
Hawaiian Volcano 
Observatory


PIONEERING, 1912-1953

Halemaumau--the circular pit within Kilauea caldera--contained an active lava lake about 65 percent of the time from 1823 to 1924. The lake rose and fell and sometimes overflowed onto the main caldera floor. This rare volcanic feature made Kilauea a tourist destination as well as an attraction to scientists. Two hotels, the Volcano House (1866-present) and the Crater Hotel (1911-21), provided accommodations. By 1911, roads had replaced foot and horseback trails to connect Kilauea's summit area with Hilo 50 km (30 mi) away. The altitude of Kilauea's summit, 1,200 m (4,000 ft) above sea level, created a cool climate and made it an attractive place to visit. Part of Kilauea caldera and part of its rim area were owned by the estate of Bernice Pauahi Bishop, a princess and the last survivor of the royal Kamehameha line. The Volcano House leased its extensive lands on the rim of Kilauea caldera from the Bishop estate, and in 1912, with the estate's permission, it subleased to the Hawaiian Volcano Research Association a site on the rim for the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory.

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. When Thurston escorted Congressional parties and Federal officials to his Volcano House to show them the boiling lava in Halemaumau, he promoted both a national park and an observatory. In December 1915, Jaggar was commissioned by the HVRA and M.I.T. to appeal to Congress to take over HVO as a permanent governmental institution and establish under the Weather Bureau a division of volcano observatories and also to help with the national park bill then pending. Jaggar failed in 1916 to acquire an independent Federal sponsorship for the observatory, but he did succeed with the national park, which became the surrogate sponsor.

The hearing in Washington (February 3, 1916) covered subjects ranging from volcanology to Hawaiian folklore; the Jaggar bill for a Hawaii National Park was reported favorably out of committee, passed by both Houses of Congress, and signed into law by President Wilson on August 1, 1916. Thurston had primed those Congressmen who visited the Islands; Jaggar in Washington had convinced many of the rest. (Congress changed the name to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park in 1961, by which time much additional land had been added). As the National Park Service took up resident management and acquired the land with existing leases and subleases, it became, among other things, the landlord for the Volcano House and HVO (Apple, 1954).

In the absence of Government sponsorship, HVO's founding organization, the privately financed HVRA, continued its support of volcano research well into the 1940's. It employed seismograph observers who worked in detached cellars, such as in Hilo and Kona, and others on research fellowships. It supplied or paid for shops, machine tools, instruments, laboratories, stationery, supplies, expeditions, books, boats, specialists, vehicles, and machines, thus making possible pathbreaking investigations that could not have been so readily attacked under Government alone, owing to the restrictions that control Government funds. The HVRA also published volcano notes from many lands, the weekly reports from Kilauea, Lassen Observatory notes from California, reviews of volcanologic books, and popular statements of the technical works in progress.

In general, after the National Park was created, the Federal Government paid the salaries of the permanent staff, while the HVRA supplied all buildings, much of the equipment and facilities, and services such as publications. The buildings and equipment, for instance, were owned by HVRA and leased to the sponsoring Federal agency. As HVRA support phased out in the late 1940's, HVO came more fully under Federal appropriations and control. By the early 1950's, ownership of all HVRA buildings and chattels had been transferred to the Federal Government.

Publications over the decades listed HVO sponsoring organizations as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Hawaiian Volcano Research Association, the University of Hawaii, the U.S. Weather Bureau, the National Park Service, and the U.S. Geological Survey, in various combinations. Sponsoring organizations of HVO are shown in the following table:

OrganizationPeriod of sponsoring
Massachusetts Institute of Technology1911-1917
Hawaiian Volcano Research Association1912-1940's
University of Hawaii1912-1942
U.S. Weather Bureau1919-1924
U.S. Geological Survey1924-1935
National Park Service1935-1947
U.S. Geological Survey1947-present

The USGS has sponsored HVO twice. In 1926, Congress established within the USGS a Section of Volcanology, with Jaggar in charge. Jaggar quickly instituted new stations and staff in California and Alaska. Contraction followed within a few years because of the economic depression. Looking back almost two decades later, Jaggar reminisced as follows: "First it was a splurge of high water mark in appropriations with work in Lassen and Alaska and Hawaii and a maximum staff. There was a navy trip to Tin Can Island and all sorts of cooperation public and private. Then came the big bust in 1932 and an 83 percent cut but we kept Hawaiian volcanology alive and there were immense accumulations to study and publish, and typewriter paper is cheap. The Hawaii business men [HVRA] came to the rescue and never faltered" (T.A. Jaggar, unpublished notes, copy in personal collection of J.P. Lockwood).

Geologist Howard A. Powers, who joined the HVO staff in 1929, also recalled that period of boom and bust. Powers received his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1929 and went to Washington to try to get sworn into the USGS there, "but they said that I would have to be sworn in at the Observatory. (Cagey--that way I had to pay my own way to Hawaii.) * * * The staff at that time was T.A. Jaggar, Richmond Hodges, accounting clerk; and two local men not civil service--Yasunaka, general handyman and husband of Jaggar's maid, and Tai On Au (a local Chinese who had graduated in machine shop from the Hilo Boarding School) The next two years were affluent--we picked up Austin Jones, graduate seismologist from Berkeley, Ed Wingate, a top-notch Topographer to take on problems of starting useful tilt recording. Then the huge cut for fiscal 1933. I was transferred to the USGS Ground Water Branch, Ed Wingate was transferred to USNPS as Superintendent of Hawaii National Park, Tai On Au was released, Austin Jones was kept on as Seismologist, Yasunaka continued his job, and Richmond Hodges transferred to the office of Headquarters, Hawaii National Park" (H.A. Powers, written commun., 1985).

ABSTRACT
INTRODUCTION
JAGGER AND THURSTON: BACKGROUND
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

BEGINNINGS OF THE OBSERVATORY

BUILDINGS AND FACILITIES
TECHNOLOGY STATION (1911-1918)
INSTRUMENT HOUSES
WHITNEY LABORATORY OF SEISMOLOGY (1912-PRESENT)
OTHER FACILITIES
BUILDING 41 (1940-PRESENT)
BUILDING 131 AT UWEKAHUNA (1927-PRESENT)
NEW BUILDING AT UWEKAHUNA (1985-PRESENT)

PUBLICATIONS AND DOCUMENTS

VOLCANO EXPERIMENTS

MAUNA LOA
ACCESS ROUTES AND FACILITIES
THE 1926 ERUPTION
CONTROLLING LAVA FLOWS

THE OHIKI AND OTHER EXPERIMENTS

SEISMOLOGY
INSTRUMENTS
TRAVEL TIMES OF EARTHQUAKE WAVES
SCALES OF EARTHQUAKE INTENSITY
TSUNAMIS

TILT

SCIENCE AND THE PUBLIC

REFERENCES CITED

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