In 1866, fifty years before what is now Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park was established, author and humorist Mark Twain ventured to the then-erupting summit of Kīlauea. Part of a four month visit to the islands as a correspondent for the Daily Union newspaper of Sacramento, he traveled to Oʻahu, Maui, and the island of Hawaiʻi. His dispatches were published serially in the newspaper throughout that year and later compiled in a volume entitled "Letters From Hawaii".
On the island of Hawaiʻi, Twain spent time at Kealakekua Bay, the "city of refuge" (Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau), and the small settlement of Waiohinu, but wrote perhaps most romantically about "a scene of wild beauty" at the fiery Kīlauea.
After a long and rough horseback trek up to the summit from Kaʻū, Twain initially expressed disappointment at the sight of the massive caldera. "A wide, level, black plain," he remarked that it seemed to be "a large cellar - nothing more".
Only after a deeper look at the scenery did a sense of scale descend upon him. "The reason the walls looked so low is because the basin inclosed is so large. The place looked a little larger and a little deeper every five minutes, by the watch." Soon, he notes, "About this time I saw an object which helped to increase the size of the crater. It was a house perched on the extreme edge of the wall, at the far end of the basin, two miles and a half away; it looked like a martin box under the eaves of a cathedral!"
While at Kīlauea, Twain stayed at Volcano House, which was situated in a different location on the rim than it is today. He described the hotel in glowing terms, saying it was, "neat, roomy, well furnished and well kept." "The surprise of finding a good hotel in such an outlandish spot startled me considerably more than the volcano did."
"Eternity made tangible"
That night, he ventured to an observation point overlooking the caldera, which at that time was in the middle of a prolonged period of eruption. The summit of Kīlauea consistently featured a lava lake during the period from 1790 to 1924.
"The greater part of the vast floor of the desert under us was as black as ink, and apparently smooth and level; but over a mile square of it was ringed and streaked and striped with a thousand branching streams of liquid and gorgeously brilliant fire! It looked like a colossal railroad map of the State of Massachusetts done in chain lightning on a midnight sky"
"...the fiercest jagged lightning. These streams met other streams, and they mingled with and crossed and recrossed each other in every conceivable direction, like skate tracks on a popular skating ground. Sometimes streams twenty or thirty feet wide flowed from the holes to some distance without dividing - and through the opera-glasses we could see that they ran down small, steep hills and were genuine cataracts of fire, white at their source but soon cooling and turning to the richest red, grained with alternate lines of black and gold."
The lava lake engaged Twain's other senses as well. "The noise made by the bubbling lava is not great, heard as we heard it from our lofty perch. It makes three distinct sounds - a rushing, a hissing, and a coughing or puffing sound; and if you stand on the brink and close your eyes it is no trick at all to imagine that you are sweeping down a river on a large low pressure steamer, and that you hear the hissing of the steam about her boilers, the puffing from her escape pipes and the churning rush of the water abaft her wheels. The smell of sulfur is strong, but not unpleasant to a sinner."
After returning to the Volcano House, he gazed back at the large cloud gathered above the crater. "I thought it just possible that its like had not been seen since the children of Israel wandered on their long march through the desert,"
"And I was sure that I now had a vivid conception of what the majestic "pillar of fire" was like, which almost amounted to a revelation."