Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
By Charles Nordhoff (18301901)
[Born in Erwitte, Westphalia, Prussia, 1830. Died in San Francisco, Cal., 1901. Northern California, Oregon, and the Sandwich Islands. 1874.]
WHAT we saw there on the 3d of March, 1873, was two huge pits, caldrons, or lakes, filled with a red, molten, fiery, sulphurous, raging, roaring, restless mass of matter, to watch whose unceasing tumult was one of the most fascinating experiences of my life .
What, therefore, Madame Pele will show you hereafter is uncertain. What we saw was this: two large lakes or caldrons, each nearly circular, with the lower shelf or bank red-hot, from which the molten lava was repelled toward the centre without cessation. The surface of these lakes was of a lustrous and beautiful gray, and this, which was a cooling and tolerably solid scum, was broken by jagged circles of fire, which appeared of a vivid rose-color in contrast with the gray. These circles, starting at the red-hot bank or shore, moved more or less rapidly toward the centre where, at intervals of perhaps a minute, the whole mass of lava suddenly but slowly bulged up, burst the thin crust, and flung aloft a huge, fiery wave, which sometimes shot as high as thirty feet in the air. Then ensued a turmoil, accompanied with hissing, and occasionally with a dull roar as the gases sought to escape, and spray was flung in every direction; and presently the agitation subsided, to begin again in the same place, or perhaps in another.
Meantime the fiery rings moved forward perpetually toward the centre, a new one reappearing at the shore before the old was engulfed; and not unfrequently the mass of lava was so fiercely driven by some force from the bank near which we stood, that it was ten or fifteen feet higher near the centre than at the circumference. Thus somewhat of the depth was revealed to us, and there seemed something peculiarly awful to me in the fierce glowing red heat of the shores themselves, which never cooled with exposure to the air and light.
Thus acted the first of the two lakes. But when, favored by a strong breeze, we ventured farther, to the side of the furthermost one, a still more terrible spectacle greeted us. The mass in this lake was in yet more violent agitation; but it spent its fury upon the precipitous southern bank, against which it dashed with a vehemence equal to a heavy surf breaking against cliffs. It had undermined this lava cliff, and for a space of perhaps one hundred and fifty feet the lava beat and surged into glaring, red-hot, cavernous depths, and was repelled with a dull, heavy roar, not exactly like the boom of breakers, because the lava is so much heavier than water, but with a voice of its own, less resonant, and, as we who listened thought, full of even more deadly fury.
It seems a little absurd to couple the word terrible with any action of mere inanimate matter, from which, after all, we stood in no very evident peril. Yet terrible is the only word for it. Grand it was not, because in all its action and voice it seemed infernal. Though its movement is slow and deliberate, it would scarcely occur to you to call either the constant impulse from one side toward the other, or the vehement and vast bulging of the lava wave as it explodes its thin crust or dashes a fiery mass against the cliff, majestic, for devilish seems a better word.
Meantime, though we were favored with a cool and strong breeze, bearing the sulphurous stench of the burning lake away from us, the heat of the lava on which we stood, at least eighty feet above the pit, was so great as to be almost unendurable. We stood first upon one foot, and then on the other, because the soles of our feet seemed to be scorching through thick shoes. A lady sitting down upon a bundle of shawls had to rise because the wraps began to scorch; our faces seemed on fire from the reflection of the heat below; the guides tin water-canteen, lying near my feet, became presently so hot that it burned my fingers when I took it up; and at intervals there came up from behind us a draught of air so hot, and so laden with sulphur, that, even with the strong wind carrying it rapidly away, it was scarcely endurable. It was while we were coughing and spluttering at one of these hot blasts, which came from the numerous fissures in the lava which we had passed over, that a lady of our party remarked that she had read an excellent description of this place in the New Testament; and so far as I observed, no one disagreed with her.
After the lakes came the cones. When the surface of this lava is so rapidly cooling that the action below is too weak to break it, the gases forcing their way out break small vents, through which lava is then ejected. This, cooling rapidly as it comes to the outer air, forms by its accretions a conical pipe of greater or less circumference, and sometimes growing twenty or thirty feet high, open at the top, and often with openings also blown out at the sides. There are several of these cones on the summit bank of the lake, all ruined, as it seemed to me, by some too violent explosion, which had blown off most of the top, and in one case the whole of it, leaving then only a wide hole.
Into these holes we looked, and saw a very wonderful and terrible sight. Below us was a stream of lava, rolling and surging and beating against huge, precipitous, red-hot cliffs, and higher up, suspended from other, also red- or white-hot overhanging cliffs, depended huge stalactites, like masses of fiercely glowing fern leaves waving about in the subterraneous wind; and here we saw how thin was in some such places the crust over which we walked, and how near the melting-point must be its under surface. For, as far as we could judge, these little craters or cones rested upon a crust not thicker than twelve or fourteen inches, and one fierce blast from below seemed sufficient to melt away the whole place. Fortunately one cannot stay very long near these openings, for they exhale a very poisonous breath; and so we were drawn back to the more fascinating but less perilous spectacle of the lakes; and then back over the rough lava, our minds filled with memories of a spectacle which is certainly one of the most remarkable our planet affords.