Stuck Between a Rock and a Hot Place

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Ho`opuloa Village, South Kona by Tai Sing Loo, April 18, 1926


One descriptive Hawaiian term for volcano is ahi `ai honua : ahi ~ fire, `ai ~ to eat, and honua ~ earth, land, foundation. String these three words together and what have you got? Fire eating earth or land eating fire, an accurate description of what lies in store for anything in an active volcano’s path. Death by the mouthful, burning bite by bite!

I have chosen this month’s photo of Ho`opuloa’s final hours because the news from Pahoa is not good. Lava from what is called the June 27 outbreak flow from Pu`u `O`o Crater is headed towards homes and highways. The flow is moving in an erratic fashion, making it difficult to predict if or when lava might consume a residential area. However, if the lava keeps crawling forward, it will eventually wreak havoc. The district of Puna has had a rough year, struck hard by Tropical Storm Iselle in early August and now tortured by fears of impending destruction. Kona knows full well what it is like to be inundated by cascades of molten rock, but our district has been spared that plight for the past sixty-four years. As this photo reminds us, no one is really safe living on the slopes of Mauna Loa or Kilauea. And, don’t fool yourself that Hualalai is a sure bet, either! It is not.

According to online accounts published by Hawaii Volcano Observatory and USGS, a series of earthquakes announced an eruption on April 10, 1926. A great red glow appeared in the sky as lava spewed from Mauna Loa’s fractured southwest rift zone, alerting everyone for miles around that Madame Pele was on the move. As we would expect, that indefatigable lover of volcanic activity, HVO Director Dr. Thomas A. Jaggar, was quickly on the spot. As luck would have it, topographical engineer E.G. Wingate was already on the scene, mapping the summit of Mauna Loa. When Jaggar arrived on horseback, he camped out for three nights in one of Wingate’s canvas tents. Eager to discover where the lava was heading next, he trotted back down the Ainapo Trail on Kapapala Ranch and headed north to wait for the flow to cross the rutted gravel road linking Kona and Ka`u Districts near Ho`opuloa Church. On April 16, as he stood by with his watch marking time, he noted the lava crossed the road in two minutes. Kona people who had come to sight-see quickly moved north, and Ka`u people and Jaggar retreated south, divided in mere moments by a scorching sea of lava fifteen to twenty feet high and five hundred feet wide. Horrors!

Jaggar and his assistant H.S. Palmer hastened to Ho`opuloa Village, assisted by cowboys and horses from Honomalino Ranch. They set up camp inside the now abandoned Ho`opuloa Store. Jaggar noted that the Chinese proprietor had swept the building “spotlessly clean after removing his stock of goods and furnishings.” On April 18th, “the flow rode over the stone walls behind the village and started burning outhouses. Pigs heard squealing in a pen were released. Destruction of the village was gradual and complete. As soon as lava began falling into the sea, steam shot up in jets. Hundreds of dead fish floated along the edge of the turbulent water that spread out from the contact area of hot rock and cold ocean. Hawaiians from Miloli`i came in their canoes and gathered the dead fish for salting and preserving. Jaggar collected some dead floating fish and noted they were perfectly fresh and in no sense cooked.” The

American Red Cross arrived in canoes to transport trapped residents to safety. Imagine that chaotic scene at the water’s edge: a stubborn old timer unwillingly abandoning his birthplace ; a frantic mother bravely comforting her terrified children; a cowboy hoisting his precious saddle into a canoe as steam and smoke filled the air. Maybe a dog or two was lifted to safety and resident donkeys were set free in time to seek refuge. My grandfather, William H. Greenwell, was a member of the rescue party. He and Mrs. Theodore Vredenberg were paddled along the coast by strong young Hawaiians who muttered among themselves how amusing it might be to capsize the canoe and see if the “haole” could swim. Irene Vredenberg, a fine Hawaiian lady, informed the men that Mr. Greenwell spoke Hawaiian fluently and could understand every word they uttered. The paddlers were so embarrassed that once the canoe landed, they ran off and hid.

Twenty-four years later, South Kona was in danger once more. On June 1, 1950, Mauna Loa’s spectacular eruption, the famous “Three Fingers Flow,” began its race to the sea. During twenty-three days of incessant activity, several small settlements were threatened and a few destroyed. Ho`okena was spared: the tongue of lava licking toward it stopped in its tracks thousands of feet above sea level. The unfortunate settlement of Pahoehoe was wiped out: a half-dozen homes, post office and gas station buried forever. The Ka`ohe flow destroyed several homes and a coconut grove at the beach. In total, a mile of highway was covered with lava. Hawaiian Airlines flew charter flights from Honolulu to Hilo and Kona, planes filled with tourists eager to see Madame Pele in action. Curious visitors drove from all over the island to view the face of the flow, eager to push coins into the molten lava and photograph each other smiling near the scorching front. Boats floated off shore, filled with spectators.

It is sad when a place is obliterated by lava, effectively erased from the face of the earth. Ho`opuloa was once a welcoming patch of green along Kona’s remote and rocky southern coast. Steamships anchored regularly off the wharf and harbor, taking on massive koa timbers harvested in the forest above for shipment to Honolulu where Chinese merchant, C.Q. Yee Hop, transformed the golden logs into furniture and flooring. An unpaved trail led along the coast to Miloli’i and linked the two settlements to the main road above, a cozy arrangement that worked well for decades. Huddled near the water’s edge in this photo is a cluster of residents waiting for the inevitable. By the time Tai Sing Loo took this photo, the escape route to Miloli`i had been buried beneath by a growling wall of red-hot `a`a lava. One wonders if he escaped by canoe or strapped his camera to the back of a sturdy little donkey and headed home on an old Hawaiian trail leading to safety. I tip my hat to this patient photographer who realized he had a “once in a lifetime” opportunity to capture Ho`opuloa’s final moments. He did not falter, but stood his ground, focused his camera and snapped the shutter. 

According to Place Names of Hawaii, Ho`opuloa means Put in together for a long time. “Omaka`a and his wife Okoe lived here: any travelers entering their house were put into an oven, where they ‘stayed together a long time.’ Finally Omaka`a and Okoe were pushed into a net by Ka-miki and his brother. They were spared when they promised not to harm travelers again.” In other words, Okoe and Omaka`a were murderers who were kindly let off the hook. The authors, Pukui, Elbert and Mookini, never said the word cannibal, but I wonder what that cold-blooded couple did with their well cooked visitors? Perhaps the place was unlucky and Madame Pele decided she would make a meal of the village herself!

Aloha no, e Kona.

by Maile Melrose