The History of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Kilauea Crater

Kilauea Crater, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

Almost every national park in America has an interesting story as to how it became one. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island of Hawaii is no exception. But the history of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park has aspects to it that are probably unique among the country’s other national parks. One interesting aspect of the park’s history was that one of leading proponents in creating the park, which protected an important Hawaiian natural wonder, was, ironically, an instrumental player in the downfall of one of key institutions of Hawaiian culture, the Hawaiian monarchy. The history of the park is also unique in that it might be one of the few, if not the only national park, that was later separated into two separate national parks.

Today, visitors from all over the world can still see constant volcanic activity within the park, especially in the form of continually flowing lava, which has been ongoing since 1983 and adding new land mass to the island. Traditionally Kilauea volcano and its Halemaʻumaʻu caldera were treated by ancient Hawaiians as the sacred home of the fire goddess Pele. The high frequency of its spectacular volcanic eruptions and lava flows have not only fascinated and intrigued the ancient Hawaiians, but also the non-native residents and visitors who were fortunate to see them.

One of those individuals was Lorrin A. Thurston. Thurston was a powerful player in Hawaiian politics who was one of the leaders behind the overthrow of  the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893. He was also a successful businessman as well as the  founder and publisher of the Honolulu Pacific Commercial Advertiser daily newspaper, which was the forerunner of today’s Honolulu Star Advertiser. He had a vested interest in making the area a national park as he had invested into a hotel situated near the rim of Kilauea Volcano, called the Volcano House. He also loved exploring the area and even discovered a lava tube which today bears his name, the Thurston Lava Tube. Thurston leveraged his ownership in the newspaper by publishing editorials in favor of establishing a national park, which would protect as well as help to promote the area. He also led the Territory of Hawaii’s lobbying efforts and having it to pay for the travel of 50 congressmen to visit the volcano.

Jaggar_and_Thurston_at_Kilauea - enhanced

Jagger and Thurston, second and third from left, at Kilauea. Source: USGS (Public Domain) via Wikimedia Commons.

However, it was not until volcanologist Dr. Thomas Jagger arrived in 1912, who founded and directed the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, that Thurston’s lobbying efforts became successful. Together, these two individuals were able to convince Congress of the value of creating a national park in this area of the then Territory of Hawaii.

Lava Flow

Freshly hardened lava flow in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park..

After 10 years of lobbying efforts, the park was established through an act of Congress which was subsequently approved by President Woodrow Wilson in 1916. The park which, was first named Hawaii National Park, became the nation’s 13th national park and was the first that was established within a territory, rather than within a state, of the country. At the time, the park initially only included the summits of Kilauea, Mauna Loa on the Big Island of Hawaii and Haleakala on Maui. Later, the Kilauea caldera area was added to the park. In 1960, through an act of Congress, the Haleakala section of Hawaii National Park on Maui became a separate national park, known as Haleakala National Park; while the section of the park on the Big Island then became known as Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

In addition to being among the nation’s 59 national parks, often referred to as “America’s Best Idea,” Hawaii Volcanoes National Park has been recognized throughout the world as a scientifically and culturally important site. In 1980, UNESCO named it as an International Biosphere citing it for its important volcanic sites, unique influence on the island’s ecosystem and cultural and historic sites.  In 1987, UNESCO also designated the park as World Heritage Site.