Video: Historic 1960 Kilauea Volcano Eruption at Kapoho, Hawaii Island

Spectacular footage of a Big Island town being swallowed by lava in January 1960.

In January 1960, a seam of lava opened up behind the small agricultural town of Kapoho on Hawaii Island. Over the course of nearly two months, the small town watched, waited and tried to control the molten rock. Unfortunately, all but a small handful of the town’s homes and buildings were slowly overtaken, and only a dark puddle of rock remains in its place today.

The 27-minute video (above), by photographer and narrator Fred Rackle of the Center for the Study of Active Volcanoes at the University of Hawaii, Hilo, details with spectacular footage the entire sequence of events leading up to the town’s demise.

Kapoho town was just five miles from Pahoa town, which was threatened by volcanic lava in 2014 from the Puu Oo cone more than 15 miles from the town. Lava approached buildings and roads, claimed a house, picked up speed, slowed, branched and stalled along the way, stopping activity in the town. 

While there are many differences between what happened in Kapoho and the flow threatening Pahoa, we wanted to share this video because it provides a fascinating look into the past and beautifully illustrates the powerful and unpredictable forces of Kilauea’s lava.

The whole video is worth a watch, but if you only have time for snippets, try these video highlights:

Start—The video begins in Pahoa town, and gives a nice glimpse of how parts of the town appeared 55 years ago.

1:00—Fountain and flow begin outside of Kapoho town.

3:15—Illustrates how the flow moves through brush and ignites pockets of methane gas seeping from the ground.

3:50—The fountain hits an underground aquifer and sends lava and steam flying.

5:30—Aerial view of the lava seam and town, the shot then transitions to ground level where you can see the growing cinder cone formed by the lava fountain behind the town. (Note: The present day eruption in Pahoa is a flow only and doesn’t show the fountaining the Kapoho eruption did.)

6:28—Curious tourists poke and prod the lava.

7:45—One of the first farm homes is overtaken by the lava flow.

8:00, 13:50, 15:10 and 18:30—Attempts to stop or slow the lava fail. Bulldozers are shown creating earthen dykes, which the lava overtakes or bypasses. In the final clip, firefighters water down buildings that come in contact with the lava in an attempt to slow the loss of property.

14:41—The narrator shows his sense of humor when he loses his rental car near a moving flow front.

25:57—Fountaining stops and Kapoho town before and after scenes are shown.

For a detailed history on the Jan.-Feb. 1960 Kapoho eruption, see the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory’s account.

Once there was a Kapoho

Where children played barefooted

Until the evening sun disappeared

And kerosene lamps and gas lamps

Beckoned each child home.

Yes, once there was such a place

Until MADAME PELE said, “No more!”

And scattered all the children

Like stars in the universe,

Echoing Thomas Wolfe,

“You can’t go home again.”

The first and last stanzas of the poem, “Once there was a Kapoho,” by Frances H. Kakugawa. Click here to see the poem in its entirety.

Categories: Hawai‘i Island, Watch, Watch & Listen