Vintage Footage of the 1959 Eruption of Kilauea Iki

I’ve been trying to imagine what the 1959 eruption of Kilauea Iki looked like ever since I hiked the hardened crater floor a few weeks ago. That’s how I came across the video footage below of the eruption by Fred Rackle. In the early 90’s, Rackle donated the footage to the Center for the Study of Active Volcanoes at the University of Hawaii at Hilo. When Kilauea Iki erupted in 1959, Rackle left the camera shop that he worked at in Waikiki and flew to the Big Island to film the eruption using a 2nd hand Bell & Howell Filmo 70-DL that he picked up for $30.

“The entire 26-minute documentary of this volcanic eruption features early high fountains, rivers of lava pouring into the lava lake, the view from Volcano House, visitors for scale, hot cinders landing on the old road, fountains by day and night, heavily damaged forest, pieces of the cone sliding off into the lake, and NPS rangers planning trails over the devastated areas. Professional photographer Fred Rackle filmed the eruption with a B&H movie camera and a tripod. Decades later, he donated a narrated SVHS copy to CSAV, with permission to distribute. Now, 50 years after the eruption, we are pleased to honor Rackle by sharing this astonishing video with the world.”

The footage is truly amazing.

See photos of the eruption 1959 eruption below:

"Lava fountain shimmers across the lava lake in Kilauea Iki Crater just before the end of the fourth episode. Within a few minutes of this photograph, the entire lake began to lower even as the fountain continued to blast skyward. A strong current flowing in the direction of the vent was clearly visible along the south side of the lake (left)." Photograph by J.P. Eaton at 7:00 a.m. on December 5, 1959.

“Lava fountain shimmers across the lava lake in Kilauea Iki Crater just before the end of the fourth episode. Within a few minutes of this photograph, the entire lake began to lower even as the fountain continued to blast skyward. A strong current flowing in the direction of the vent was clearly visible along the south side of the lake (left).” Photograph by J.P. Eaton at 7:00 a.m. on December 5, 1959.

"Early in the morning of December 11, the lava fountain jetted straight up to heights of 180 to 300 m (above). At 3:30 a.m., however, the fountain suddenly bent over to about 45° and sent a shower of spatter onto the opposite side of Kilauea Iki (trees in foreground). Some pieces of spatter were 1 m in diameter. The bombardment of the north crater rim covered an area of about 0.4 hectare (1 acre) with spatter and completely denuded the lush forest. This was the only occasion during the entire eruption that lava landed in this area. The area was often crowded with visitors watching the activity, and it was indeed fortunate that the shower occurred so early in the morning." Photograph by J.P. Eaton at 7:00 a.m. on December 11, 1959.

“Early in the morning of December 11, the lava fountain jetted straight up to heights of 180 to 300 m (above). At 3:30 a.m., however, the fountain suddenly bent over to about 45° and sent a shower of spatter onto the opposite side of Kilauea Iki (trees in foreground). Some pieces of spatter were 1 m in diameter. The bombardment of the north crater rim covered an area of about 0.4 hectare (1 acre) with spatter and completely denuded the lush forest. This was the only occasion during the entire eruption that lava landed in this area. The area was often crowded with visitors watching the activity, and it was indeed fortunate that the shower occurred so early in the morning.” Photograph by J.P. Eaton at 7:00 a.m. on December 11, 1959.

"Incandescent tephra falls from the lava fountain. During the 3rd episode, a few incandescent pieces of pumice were wafted more than 100 m above the lava fountain, and cooler pieces were carried even higher by the hot draft above the fountain. Variations in the wind created a constantly changing pattern in the "pumice plume" that was mesmerizing to watch. Often, glowing clouds of pumice swirled directly overhead, only to be blown far away into the forest before falling." Photograph by J.P. Eaton at 2:00 p.m. on December 17, 1959.

“Incandescent tephra falls from the lava fountain. During the 3rd episode, a few incandescent pieces of pumice were wafted more than 100 m above the lava fountain, and cooler pieces were carried even higher by the hot draft above the fountain. Variations in the wind created a constantly changing pattern in the “pumice plume” that was mesmerizing to watch. Often, glowing clouds of pumice swirled directly overhead, only to be blown far away into the forest before falling.” Photograph by J.P. Eaton at 2:00 p.m. on December 17, 1959.

"Great quantities of lava pour from the base of a 480-m-tall fountain about 65 minutes after the start of episode 16. Lava discharge at this time was about 1.3 million m3/hr, which sent lava over the entire lake by 4:05 a.m. The lava fountain illuminates the top of Pu`u Pua`i, which is about half as high as the fountain. The arcuate pattern of glow just below the summit of the cone is the headwall scarp of a slide that plunged into the vent area." Photograph by J.P. Eaton at 3:45 a.m. on December 19, 1959.

“Great quantities of lava pour from the base of a 480-m-tall fountain about 65 minutes after the start of episode 16. Lava discharge at this time was about 1.3 million m3/hr, which sent lava over the entire lake by 4:05 a.m. The lava fountain illuminates the top of Pu`u Pua`i, which is about half as high as the fountain. The arcuate pattern of glow just below the summit of the cone is the headwall scarp of a slide that plunged into the vent area.” Photograph by J.P. Eaton at 3:45 a.m. on December 19, 1959.

"Lava drains back into the vent about 70 minutes after the 16th episode ended; this episode covered the entire lava lake with new lava. Only part of the small west crater of Kilauea Iki Crater is visible in this view of the vent area. As the lava poured into the vent, large sections of the dark lake crust were pulled apart by the differential movement of the molten lava below. The river of lava flowing back into the depths of Kilauea is about 60 m wide. The inner walls of Pu`u Pua`i cone glow where slides have bared the incandescent interior." Photograph by J.P. Eaton at 7:30 a.m. on December 19, 1959.

“Lava drains back into the vent about 70 minutes after the 16th episode ended; this episode covered the entire lava lake with new lava. Only part of the small west crater of Kilauea Iki Crater is visible in this view of the vent area. As the lava poured into the vent, large sections of the dark lake crust were pulled apart by the differential movement of the molten lava below. The river of lava flowing back into the depths of Kilauea is about 60 m wide. The inner walls of Pu`u Pua`i cone glow where slides have bared the incandescent interior.” Photograph by J.P. Eaton at 7:30 a.m. on December 19, 1959.

Photos above via the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).

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2 comments

    • I agree, Bob! Excellent stuff and pretty unreal to consider that this kind of eruption/flow happened not so long ago. If it ever does this again, I’m booking a ticket to the Big Island ASAP!

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