Hawaiian Volcano 



In July 1911, Perret selected a site on the eastern rim of Halemaumau that commanded a view of the entire lava lake; there he built a small frame building he called "Technology Station," a place name used in many early datelines of HVO weekly bulletins to the press. Perret lived in this cabin from July 24 through September 17, 1911. By mid-August, Perret noted that vapors from the vent had formed acid, which had consumed the zinc coating of the galvanized iron roof. His field assignment finished, Perret left the cabin and Hawaii.

Jaggar came on duty in January 1912 and discovered that the Technology Station had been vandalized the month before. He believed it was vulnerable because it stood close to the parking area at the end of the road. Jaggar had the cabin torn down and rebuilt, enlarged, and surrounded by a picket fence, at a different site a few yards back from the north rim. There it was used for the storage of instruments, as a seismometer station, and as an observation camp. By early February the cabin contained a rectangular concrete platform, which protruded through the board floor and soon held a seismometer.

In June 1918, laborers tore down Technology Station and rebuilt it again on the north rim of Kilauea caldera, where it joined other HVO buildings lining the rim. There the cabin was repaired and repainted to become a staff residence; it served until all the HVO facilities along the north rim were razed in 1940.


Jaggar reported that in 1912 an additional hut was constructed wholly without iron for possible magnetic work on the verge of Halemaumau, to allow sheltered direct instrument observation of the lava. Seismologist H.O. Wood described the hut as "at the very edge of the northern rim of Halemaumau" (Wood, 1913, p. 16). If the hut was still standing in 1924, it must have been destroyed by the enlargement of Halemaumau that accompanied a series of steam explosions that year.

In addition, over the years at least four cellars were excavated or constructed on the floor of Kilauea near Halemaumau to house instruments for the detection of earthquakes, ground tilt, or both. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park maintains a list of buildings with assigned numbers; the four known cellars are buildings number 136, 255, 308, and 309. Building 309, the "East Vault" near Halemaumau, was constructed in 1959 and razed in 1973. Three other cellars were built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) about 1932 as stone-wall pits. The "West Pit" was buried under a lava flow in September 1971; this flow also partially covered the cellar called "Outlet," about 1 km south of Halemaumau. That left only the "North Pit" on the floor of Kilauea caldera with working instruments inside.


The hole those prisoners dug on the north rim of Kilauea caldera in 1912, through six feet of volcanic ash, resulted in "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. This [basement beneath what became the main HVO building] is the Whitney Laboratory of Seismology. 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" (Wood, 1913, p. 16).

Jaggar was a true pioneer volcanologist; he made mistakes in locating and designing the Whitney vault, but he and his staff lived with their mistakes and tried to overcome them. They made their problems and progress known through their published writings, and early HVO mistakes helped others avoid similar ones when they built vaults elsewhere.

In the Whitney vault as first built, thick reinforced-concrete walls went up to ground level, about 1.7 m (5.5 ft) above the concrete floor. From ground level to the ceiling, glass panels were fixed in wooden frames to admit natural light. When the sun shone, the temperature rose sharply. Because of temperature variations, neither Jaggar nor Wood trusted the records made by the seismometers.

Not only were the temperature swings too great, but stray breezes also blew recording arms to make confusing marks on smoked drums, and dust seeped in around the windows, mixed with oil, and gummed up delicate mechanisms. Some of these problems were solved when the windows and frames were covered with boards and battens and sealed with coats of paint. This made the cellar dark day and night. Battery-operated lights served until 1921, when HVO acquired its first electric generator.

An earthquake in October 1913 opened a crack in the north wall of the Whitney vault. Water seeped from it onto the floor until the crack was repaired and sealed (the concrete floor of the Whitney vault contained no drain).

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.

The Whitney vault's location 20 feet from a cliff face also imposed special problems. Cliff-face rocks expanded and contracted, from heating and cooling, sun or shadow, wetting or drying, and all such movements were recorded. Whenever high winds pressed or let up against the face, it was recorded by the seismometers, sometimes masking data about tilting of the ground caused by underground lava movements.

Then, on December 19, 1921, the nearby Volcano House began to run a Fairbanks-Morse engine to power 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 until, months later, the exhaust was directed away from a steam crack and into the air. Apparently HVO's own generating plant never caused any such problems.

Whitney vault seismometers over the years recorded much of the truck and automobile traffic that passed on the nearby road. Seismologists quickly learned to separate natural events from the local man-caused ones, but all must have wondered how much the vibrations caused by man obfuscated the records.

Except for changes in the concrete piers as instruments came and went, there was no basic change in the Whitney vault until early 1941. In that year, the building above 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 45 cm (18 in.) of topsoil. The isolation (from the building above) and insulation (from the ambient air) resulted in a nearly constant temperature around 35 C (95 F), and the daily variation seldom exceeded 0.5 C (1 F).

Two other unfortunate vault characteristics persisted, however. One was that quick body movements often caused recording arms to move because of the air currents generated. Another was the oppressive warmth caused by the natural steam heat. Scientists through the active life of the vault (1912-1963) bundled up in wooly sweaters, scarfs, and raincoats to walk to the vault through the chilling rains and fog at 1,200-m (4,000-ft) altitude and then peeled clown to undershirts when they entered the vault to attend the instruments.

The Whitney Laboratory of Seismology went out of active service in 1963 and is, since July 24, 1974, a property in the National Register of Historic Places, complete with some of the original instruments. Part of its nomination to the Register reads: "The Whitney Seismograph Vault, built in 1912, represents the beginnings of the continuous and resident study by American scientists of the earth's volcanic and seismic activity at Kilauea and Mauna Loa volcanoes. The Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, a U.S. Government facility since 1919, used the vault from 1912 through 1963 when more sophisticated instrumentation made the seismometers and tiltmeters it was designed to house obsolete" (U.S. Department of the Interior, 1973).


Original facilities in 1912 included water-storage tanks, a stable (complete with horse), and a garage. Added over the years were at least one staff residence (1918), a shop and electric plant (1922), an archives building used for storage of records, with corrugated-iron walls and roof to reduce the fire hazard (1922); a chemistry laboratory (complete with chemist O.H. Emerson) (1922, 1923); a new machine shop (complete with instrument maker F.Y. Boyrie) (1927); and additional water tanks, garages, and various sheds, outbuildings, and shacks. After 1922, a drill tower also stood along the rim. All these were built with HVRA funds. Except for the Whitney vault, all rimside buildings and facilities were razed in 1940.

Also built in 1912, standing above the Whitney Laboratory, with the ceiling of the vault part of the floor, was the main HVO building--a "substantial, wood frame structure containing a photographic darkroom; a workshop and storage room; a large, well-lighted room for drafting, study, routine work, etc.; a room designed for the storage and exhibit of collections, photographs, seismograms, maps, etc., and the accommodation of visiting workers; and an office room for the Director" (Wood, 1913, p. 16).

A covered porch on two sides permitted views, weather obliging, of the volcanoes Kilauea, Mauna Loa, and Mauna Kea. On the Kilauea caldera side, set so its top could be used from the porch, was a concrete pyramid with an elevation bench mark. The flat top served as a mount for a Theodolite or a camera. A photograph of Halemaumau lava lake was taken daily, and a vertical-angle shot to a bench mark on Halemaumau's rim was also recorded if weather permitted.

The main Observatory building was razed in 1940. Now only the concrete post remains; it, like the nearby Whitney vault, is a property in the National Register of Historic Places. Also in 1940, on February 11, the main Volcano House burned to the ground, and it was this, in fact, that led to the relocating of the HVO facilities. The two-story hotel, built in 1891, had been enlarged in 1921. Owner-manager "Uncle George" Lycurgus left immediately after the hotel burned down for Washington, D.C., to confer with the many friends in Government whom he had entertained over the years in his hotel at Kilauea. In effect, Uncle George called in his chips.

Lycurgus' Washington conferences resulted in five proposals: (1) The site for a new Volcano House was to be near the old site on the north rim of Kilauea, where HVO facilities had stood since 1912; (2) all HVO structures (except the Whitney vault) on the north rim were to be razed to make room for the hotel; (3) the new hotel building was to be constructed with Lycurgus funds; (4) the Volcano House operating contract would be renewed, with Lycurgus continuing as National Park concessioner but with a different fee structure; and (5) a new building would be built with Federal funds, well back from the rim, to house the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory and provide a place where Park naturalists could meet the public. Such a new HVO building had been in the talking stage since at least 1938.

This proposed HVO building was assigned the number 41 by the National Park Service and labeled the "Volcano Observatory and Naturalist Building." Plans were quickly initiated and whisked through the National Park bureaucracy, and the CCC began construction as soon as the plans were received.

The new Volcano House opened for business in November 1941, an elapsed time of 21 months since the fire. During that time the first four of the five points above were accomplished, and the fifth (Building 41) was almost completed. Inserted in the cornerstone of the "Kilauea Volcano House" and dated July 20, 1941, was a memorandum by Jaggar which said in part: "Under the hotel lobby is a drilled 4-inch well sixty feet deep where drilling experiments were made in 1922, one of about thirty wells for measuring temperatures. The line of observatory houses was strung out exactly where the hotel now stands. The U.S. National Park Service now is erecting a larger laboratory under R.H. Finch. The records are being duplicated at the University of Hawaii, where Jaggar is now research associate in geophysics. It is appropriate that the actual gazing upon crater fires from the old Observatory site should hereafter be the privilege of volcano hotel guests."


Workers from the CCC began construction of the "Volcano Observatory and Naturalist Building" 180 m (600 ft) in from the rim of Kilauea caldera in 1940. Delays were experienced, but by March 1942 Building 41 was almost complete. By that time, a vertical-component seismometer had been installed and tested in Building 41's basement seismograph vault. The building also had a fireproof room for storage of HVO records and what was considered ample office, machine shop, drafting, and library space. Its seismograph cellar was about 195 m (640 ft) from the north cliff of Kilauea caldera. Only slight diurnal and seasonal temperature variations were anticipated, because this vault and basement (unlike the earlier Whitney vault) butted against only a few steam cracks.

Like the Whitney Laboratory, Building 41's seismometer vault also had a building topside. The so-called "second vault" kept its temperature at about an even 29 C (85 F), but because Building 41 swayed back and forth in response to above-ground daily temperature variations, ground-tilt data collected in the vault proved to be unreliable. Building 41 's vault was as close to the through road (60 m [200 ft] away) as was the Whitney vault, and its records also were marred by the frequent passing of heavy trucks. HVO seismologists maintained only the vertical-component seismometer and a tiltmeter under Building 41, and kept the Whitney vault instruments in operation.

When the HVO rimside buildings were vacated in 1940, records, gear, supplies, machines, furniture, and other chattels had been stored in various places in the national park, including the CCC camp on the rim of Kilauea Iki. As the basement of Building 41 became available--while carpenters finished the floor above--some of the stored items were moved in. Martial law, which came to Hawaii with World War II, was in effect in 1942, and the U.S. Army commandeered Building 41 as soon as it was completed. It became the Island Military Headquarters--a convenience more to the officers and men stationed there because of the nearby Kilauea Military Camp) than to the rest of the military and to civilians who had business with an Island Headquarters. By October 1942, Island Headquarters was ordered to move to Hilo so as to be close to population center, port, and military and communication facilities. The U.S. Army returned Building 41 to the National Park Service with not so much as a "thank you."

Army occupation of Building 41 had not greatly inconvenienced National Park management, but it certainly continued the delay in providing HVO with its own operating facility. Park Headquarters, which until 1932 had been in a cottage on the rim along with the HVO buildings, occupied a new headquarters building 30 m (100 ft) back from the rim and handy to the road from Hilo. Because of its location, it had escaped the 1940 razing and had then played host to the HVO staff, who crowded into the headquarters building with the park staff. (This headquarters building is now a detached annex of Volcano House.) With the Army out, HVO occupied Building 41 from October 1942 to September 1948, when HVO was evicted from Building 41 and moved to the building HVRA had built in 1927 at Uwekahuna, on the west rim of Kilauea caldera. At that time, Building 41 became Park Headquarters. Now, greatly modified and enlarged, it serves both as Park Headquarters and Kilauea Visitor Center.

In 1931, two new members were added to HVO's professional staff. Two two-story buildings were acquired by HVRA to house them and add badly needed storage space. Years before, the two buildings had housed employees of the Volcano House; one was known as the "Japanese boarding house," and the other as the "Stage Station." The Stage Station (NPS Building 39) was razed in 1956; the Japanese boarding house (Building 40) was razed in 1959. After he retired in 1940, Jaggar maintained an office in the upper story of Building 40. I interviewed him there several times and, after his death, sorted, classified, and shipped his office papers to be added to the Jaggar Collection in the Archives of the University of Hawaii, Manoa.

Sometime in the 1920's, a residence for Jaggar was built by him (or the HVRA) on the north rim of Kilauea. This residence (Building 78) was razed in 1956, along with its garage and maid's quarters (Building 77). The former maid's quarters were assigned at times to visiting USGS personnel in the late 1940's and early 1950's; they were handy to the 1941 Volcano House hotel, where meals were available.


From the very beginning in 1912, volcano visitors often asked questions of HVO staff members they met in the field or found in HVO buildings. When Hawaii National Park came into existence, uniformed personnel began to assume the public-contact work. In 1926, the businessmen of the HVRA raised $20,000 to build an information center on the west rim of Kilauea caldera, to be staffed by park naturalists, which would keep the increasing numbers of visitors away from HVO and its staff. Ground was broken for the new building on February 22, 1927. The site selected was the actual summit of Kilauea, on top of Uwekahuna Bluff. The main building was built of iron and concrete, with stone cornerposts; a large terrace was enclosed by rough stone and fitted with stone benches.

In April 1927 the new building at Uwekahuna was turned over to the Secretary of the Interior and the Director of the National Park Service, which designated it as Building 131. From 1927 to 1948, park naturalists met the public, gave talks, and were headquartered in this building at Uwekahuna. Its view of Kilauea caldera is excellent, and, weather obliging, the view is equally good of Mauna Loa. Park interpreters and park visitors found the facility an ideal place for orientation to local geography and volcanology. Over time, as the numbers of its visitors grew, the "National Park Museum and Lecture Hall" was lengthened and widened, with architecture that matched the original building.

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--the second time the USGS was host agency. In 1948 HVO was moved to Building 131 at Uwekahuna, and NPS offices and public services were then consolidated in Building 41 on the north rim.

In preparation for the move, the Uwekahuna Seismograph Vault (Building 135) was built in 1948 in a location well back from the Uwekahuna cliff face and road and far from any building that could move in sun or wind. The cellar is 3.6 x 6 m (12 x 20 ft), and a small entranceway serves as an airlock and processing room. The roof is a reinforced-concrete slab covered with about 45 cm (18 in.) of volcanic ash. This vault continues in service.

To receive HVO, the National Park Service in 1948 remodeled Building 131. The former movie hall was converted into offices and machine shop, and most of the exhibit floor became offices and laboratories. HVO moved in during the fall of 1948.

At the time of the move in 1948, it was pointed out by volcanologist R.H. Finch, then the Director of HVO, that Uwekahuna had been the first site selected by Jaggar for the Observatory in 1912 but was given up on account of the scarcity of water and its relative inaccessibility at the time.


In May 1985, construction of a new facility for HVO began at Uwekahuna. This new building was completed and occupied a year later. Building 131 was renovated and returned to the National Park Service as an interpretation facility named the Jaggar museum. Thus, the original vision of the HVRA of a center combining ongoing scientific studies and interpretation of those studies to the public is, after 75 years, finally realized in a fully modern facility.



PIONEERING, 1912-1953









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