Nature Notes banner


VOL. V NOVEMBER 1953 No. 2

The Volcano House

Until 1894, a visit to Kilauea represented a major undertaking and called for a strong constitution. Extremely poor accesses into the region required two days of travel by horseback from either of the takeoff points existing at Hilo and Keauhou Landing. Half-way houses located between these takeoff points and Kilauea provided meals and lodgings for the hardy travellers—along with an abundance of fleas that did not make for good sleeping.

In 1891, Peter Lee, an enterprising pioneer with an eye to the future, built a 24-mile wagon road from Pahala to Kilauea, following by seven years the construction of a hotel at Punaluu, which then became a third takeoff point. Lee set upon this venture with the idea of popularizing the Punaluu-Pahala route to Kilauea, but by this time construction of the Volcano Road had begun and fifteen miles of it were completed by the following year. With the completion of the Volcano Road in 1894, four-horse stagecoaches came into the picture, reducing the travel time from Hilo from two days to six and one-half hours, and Hilo became the principal departure point for Kilauea. The two-rut, 30-mile road from Hilo cost $90,000 to build.

Consistently increasing numbers of sightseers to Kilauea stimulated the management of the Hilo Railroad in 1901 to extend its service to Glenwood, nine miles north of the volcano. Visitors transferred from the railroad coaches to horse-drawn carriages at Glenwood and later to motor busses for the remainder of the trip to Kilauea. Increasing acceptability of the horseless carriage and improvement of the Volcano Road caused the Hilo Railroad to discontinue its Glenwood run in 1926. By this time, surfacing of the Volcano Road to the park boundary had been almost completed.

In the short span between Ellis' visit in 1823 and the early 1840's, Kilauea began coming into its own and more and more visitors came to marvel at it. Shelters improvised from boughs, grass, fern fronds, and other readily available materials were constructed one after another to protect visitors from the damp climate of the region, but these lasted only briefly. The Polynesian for July 20, 1844, reported that visitors to Kilauea would be gratified to learn that an enterprising Hawaiian had erected a comfortable thatched house on the brink of the crater, provided food, and in other ways added to the comforts and conveniences of travellers.

This first business enterprise at Kilauea apparently did not receive much patronage, for it was out of business in 1846 when Benjamin Pitman, Sr., a Hilo businessman, built a grass hut on the northeastern side of the crater and appropriately called it the Volcano House, a name which was to last for a long time. James J. Jarves, Editor of the Polynesian, visited Kilauea in the fall of 1847 and reported to his readers on the rates at the Volcano House: 37-1/2 cents for a fowl, 62-1/2 for a hen turkey, 25 for a small calabash of potatoes, and $1 a head for lodging.

Pitman's enterprise apparently did not prove lucrative either, for Charles Hitchcock, an 1856 visitor, found the grass house but no sign of life in it, not even the manager. The primitive Volcano House of the day consisted of one room about fourteen by twenty feet in size. A mat covered the earthen floor. An 1860 visitor claims that twenty-three persons slept in that small space one night, another that it was capable of accommodating forty!

A partnership identified as J. L. Richardson & Co. and consisting of six local businessmen was formed in 1864 and the second Volcano House, per se, came into being in 1866. Richardson supervised the construction of the building and became the first manager of the business. The grass-thatched building boasted four bedrooms, a parlor, and a dining room, and advertisements in the Honolulu press that first year of operation assured visitors of comfortable rooms, a good table, prompt attendance, and reasonable prices.

Mark Twain, an 1866 visitor to Kilauea, was impressed by the Volcano House, commenting in a letter to a friend in California that the surprise of finding a good hotel at such an outlandish spot startled him considerably more than the volcano did. He approved of the food also, saying it was good.

Volcano House
The 1866—or second—Volcano House. Mark Twain, who was a guest in this building, wrote that the thought of finding a good hotel at such an outlandish spot startled him more than the volcano (Courtesy Territorial Archives).

One of the original partners in the 1866 Volcano House venture, George W. C. Jones, acquired sole interest in the business in 1876, and the following year constructed a larger and better appointed building. This historic structure stands today, much the same in appearance as it looked in 1877. William H. Lentz, who supervised the construction of the 1877 Volcano House, succeeded Jones as owner and in 1883 sold out to Oliver T. Shipman and James F. Jordan. Two years later, Wilder's Steamship Company, of Honolulu, purchased the Volcano House and actively operated it until 1891. As manager of the hotel, Wilder's placed John H. Maby, a walking encyclopedia of Hawaiian places and names and something of a prankster as well. It is said that the popular host, in an effort to liven up the business of the Volcano House after a serious lull, went to the rim of Halemaumau one night with a big load of wood and kindled a fire which he subsequently pushed into the fire pit. Following this, he returned to the hotel and immediately dispatched a messenger to Hilo with word that there was fire in the pit. For the next few days, the Volcano House teemed with visitors, as Maby had hoped. But the hoaxer did not qualify the nature of the fire and sympathized with all of his guests because it had been so shortlived.

Lorrin A. Thurston, the Hawaii National Park movement spearpoint, along with others formed the Volcano House Company in 1891 and acquired the hotel from Wilder's. At the same time, the company purchased the Punaluu Hotel from Peter Lee, who was placed as manager of both hotels. A new building was constructed by Thurston and his associates in 1891 and the 1877 Volcano House underwent remodelling and was added to the new structure. The new two-story frame building contained fourteen rooms and included a special observation room to enable visitors to see the lava activity in the crater, several hundred yards away. A billiard table was installed in the 1877 structure and frequently doubled as a bed!

George and Demosthenes Lycurgus took over the management of the hotel in December 1904 after becoming the principal stockholders of the Volcano House Company. Kilauea conspired against the Volcano House by being inactive for almost a year before the hotel changed hands, and this told drastically on the cash receipts. Less than two months after the Lycurguses acquired the business, the volcano erupted. When word of the eruption reached Honolulu, seventy-five people immediately set out for Hilo in a steamer, but by the time the ship docked the volcano's activity had ceased. Knowing that the Volcano House had recently changed hands, a passenger was heard to remark that George Lycurgus was up to his old tricks.

George Lycurgus came to Hawaii in 1889 more by accident than plan. After he arrived in San Francisco from his native Greece in 1881, he ventured into the wholesale fruit business and shipped California fruits to his cousin, a banana grower and fruit merchant in Honolulu. Lycurgus distributed his cousin's bananas in San Francisco and his Hawaii cousin the California fruits sent him by Lycurgus. Ships of the Oceanic Steamship Company, which was owned by the Spreckels family, carried the shipments both ways. In an effort to expand their shipping business, Gus and Rudolph Spreckels attempted to interest Lycurgus into entering the banana growing industry with his cousin in Honolulu. But Lycurgus was happy with his lot in San Francisco and spurned the suggestion just as regularly as it was renewed.

In October, 1889, Lycurgus went to the San Francisco docks to see off a shipment of fruits consigned to his cousin in Honolulu. There he ran into the Spreckels brothers, who invited him down to the ship's cabin for a chat. The conversation was undoubtedly stimulating and the refreshments good, for when Lycurgus bid his goodbye and went on deck to leave the ship he was astonished to find himself at sea well beyond the Farallon Islands, en route to Hawaii. "I was shanghaied," says Lycurgus.

The Spartan remained in Honolulu for a week and returned to San Francisco, but the islands had made their imprint upon him and the following year he came to stay, going back and forth from time to time to look after his mainland interests. In 1893, he entered the hotel business in Honolulu. Robert Louis Stevenson, Jack London, and other greats were numbered among his guests and friends. A year later, Lycurgus made his first trip to Kilauea as a guest of Admiral Ingersoll, travelling to Hilo aboard the USS Philadelphia. The Kilauea region impressed him, and his enterprising mind took note of the business possibilities there.

A strong affection for, and interest in, the Hawaiians resulted in an enjoyable friendship between Lycurgus and the royal family, and in the shortlived but ineffective 1895 attempt to restore the monarchy, he sided with the royalists. For this he spent fifty-one days in jail.

To assist him in his business ventures, Lycurgus sent to Greece for his young nephew, Demosthenes, who actively managed the Volcano House from 1904 until 1919. Demosthenes is remembered by kamaainas (old timers) for the warm greeting and jovial smile with which be welcomed all of his guests. By tragic coincidence, he passed away in Greece on his wedding night.

In addition to his Volcano House enterprise, George Lycurgus and several others in 1907 formed a company that engaged in logging the abundant ohia forests in some of the present Keauhou Ranch lands. The lumbermen erected a sawmill on the site where they rough-milled the ohia and shipped it by rail to the present 29-Mile community where Peter Lee finished the milling of the wood into railroad ties. From there the ties were hauled by wagon to the rail terminal at Glenwood and shipped to Hilo for further consignment to the mainland. The enterprise proved profitable for a time, but after two years the demand for Hawaiian railroad ties lessened and the business started going downhill. Lycurgus and his partners then began to log the koa (an indigenous mahogany used in the manufacture of furniture) forests in the area, but found the cores of the tree trunks rotten and the wood useless. Lycurgus lost $10,000 in his lumbering venture. Sections of the railbed laid by the lumbermen remain in evidence in the Land of Pele in the half century that has passed.

The Lycurgus' interest in the Volcano House was purchased in 1921 by the Inter-Island Steam Navigation Company, which immediately embarked on a $150,000 improvement program that resulted in the expansion of the building to 115 rooms. In 1932, George Lycurgus reacquired the property for $300 at a receivership sale.

The volcano had been inactive for some time when Lycurgus reacquired the Volcano House and the change in management did not impel the volcano goddess to alter the situation, for Kilauea slumbered during the remainder of 1932 and all of 1933. By late summer of 1934, Lycurgus claims that he was practically bankrupt. The Volcano House was empty and few guests had shown up during the summer months. A firm believer in Pele, the Spartan took matters into his own hands on the night of September 5, 1934. He and Alec Lancaster, a Cherokee Indian who had guided visitors around the region since 1885, walked down to Halemaumau and invoked some prayers to the volcano goddess. Following that, they tossed into the fire pit an ohelo berry lei made by Lancaster. As a final gesture, Lycurgus tossed in a bottle of gin which had been partially drained by him and Lancaster on the walk to the pit. More prayers followed and the two of them returned to the Volcano House for the night.

A few hours after they went to bed, at 2:44 a.m. on September 6, the volcano erupted for the first time in almost four years. Lycurgus immediately got on the telephone to pass the word to the press and his friends, greeting them with "Happy New Year! The volcano has erupted again!" The response to this greeting from one of his sleepy and astonished friends was, "George, you have been drinking again."

The 1934 eruption lasted for only a month and two days, but the crowds of sightseers patronizing the Volcano House reduced appreciably the financial worries that Lycurgus had been facing for some time. But this did not impress him as much as the fact that Pele had helped him out at a time when he was desperate, and his faith in her is a serious matter to this day.

Shortly after the 1952 eruption of Halemaumau began, Lycurgus hatched the idea of staging a homage to Pele on the rim of the fire pit. The volcano was erupting for the first time in eighteen years and putting on a magnificent show. Knowing that his plan would not be looked upon approvingly by park officials because of its incompatability with park use, Lycurgus inconspicuously primed the press and radio stations before he presented it to Park Superintendent Francis R. Oberhansley. By then, Lycurgus' plan had received such wide publicity that it was too late for Oberhansley to do anything but reluctantly go along with it.

Two days before the ceremony was staged, the 93-year-old Lycurgus walked into Oberhansley's office and let the park superintendent in on his plans for his (Lycurgus') own part in the show. He planned, he told Oberhansley, to ride a horse over the Halemaumau Trail to the edge of the fire pit, as he had done hundreds of times in the past. His arrival at the ceremony would be timed in such a way that the spectators and entertainers would precede him, and he had in mind tossing into the fire pit the traditional ohelo berries and a bottle of gin as offerings to the goddess.

A horse lover from his youth, Lycurgus rode daily until he reached the age of eighty-nine, and then it took strong persuasion by his family and doctor to dissuade him from continuing it. Oberhansley tried as hard as he could to discourage Lycurgus from travelling to the ceremony on horseback, for he feared that the Spartan might fall on the way and get hurt. Lycurgus' son, Nick, who manages the Volcano House, and his daughter, Georgina Maggioros, deplored the idea fully as much as Oberhansley did, but they could not prevail upon their father to give it up. When he recognized how intent Lycurgus was on riding the horse to the fire pit, Oberhansley seemingly went along with the idea to keep from deflating the old timer, but as soon as Lycurgus left, he called in Chief Ranger Ernest K. Field and instructed him to see to it that the gate to the corral where Lycurgus' horses are kept was "accidentally" opened on the morning of the ceremony so that the animals would escape to the Mauna Loa Strip pasture several miles away. Then Oberhansley and the Lycurgus family relaxed.

On the morning of the ceremony, the old Spartan walked into Oberhansley's office, and he huffed and he puffed and he swore over the disappearance of the horses. Oberhansley lent a sympathetic ear and continued to relax.

Several hundred people gathered on the rim of the fire pit later in the morning for the homage to Pele, but Lycurgus was not there. Within a few minutes, he came into view—astride a horse! Oberhansley was flabbergasted, at the same time relieved that Lycurgus had made the trip safely. Lycurgus got off the horse and joined in the ceremony, tossing into the pit his ohelo berries and bottle of gin.

Lycurgus had outwitted Oberhansley by quietly making arrangements beforehand with Don Forbes, a horse owner who keeps his animals on a ranch adjoining the park, to furnish him an animal for the trip. Lycurgus told Oberhansley that he had a hunch his horses would not be in the corral on the morning of the ceremony, and had insured his horseback ride by arranging for it with Forbes, who had been pledged to secrecy. Oberhansley's comment to this was, "Uncle George, it looks like you out-foxed me." Lycurgus chuckled and replied, "Go to hell!"

To this day George Lycurgus does not know that, on the morning of the ceremony, Forbes was up at dawn wearing out the horse the Spartan would ride later in the day. According to Forbes, he held his breath on the ride to the fire pit for fear the horse would collapse, for he had exhausted the animal completely.

George Lycurgus
"Uncle" George Lycurgus observing the 1952 eruption of Halemaumau from the Volcano House lanai. The ninety-three year-old Spartan had his first glimpse of the Land of Pele in 1894 (Werner Stoy, Camera Hawaii).

Lycurgus' age is a remarkable thing indeed to his guests but to him it is merely a state of mind. The years have slowed his gait, but every morning he can be seen walking along the Steam Flats on his three-mile constitutional. And regardless of the state of the weather—whether it is raining an inch an hour or the sky is cloudless—he appraises every day as a lovely one. Lycurgus' pastime is cribbage and in this he has few peers. But his guests get the best of him at his game now and then, and when this happens he chuckles and tells them, "More luck than brains!"

Lycurgus was eighty-one years of age in 1940 when the Volcano House burned to the ground following a fire which originated in the hotel's kitchen. When someone sympathized with him over his loss, he boomed out: "What the hell! We'll build a new and better one." And he did. The attractive, well-designed structure was completed the following year. For good measure, in 1953 Lycurgus expanded the accommodations at the Volcano House by building an 8-room addition designed by Bruce P. Harden of Hilo. The addition boasts some of the finest hotel accommodations to be found anywhere in the Territory.

To the seemingly ageless Spartan, the Volcano House is not a hotel but his "villa" and visitors are guests in his home. However he may think of it, the Volcano House is synonymous with the Land of Pele—and its famous host with it.

<<< Previous
> Cover <
Next >>>