The Last Volcano: A Man, A Romance, And The Quest To Understand Nature’s Most Magnificent Fury

John Dvorak

I very much enjoyed Dvorak’s Earthquake Storms (reviewed here) and so I picked up this book without hesitation. Sadly, it was a bit of a disappointment.

The Last Volcano is effectively a biography of Thomas Jaggar, the pioneering geologist who established the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory and kept it going from 1912 until his retirement in 1940. There is an ample cast of supporting characters, and some fairly interesting geology. Of these, Isabel Jaggar and Kilauea are most significant.

Jaggar was the son of an American Episcopalian bishop who was prominent in Indiana and an early advocate of what would now be called the Social Gospel. Jaggar absorbed this sense of mission from his father, but he also had the wanderlust, at least as a younger man. When his sister died of a mysterious ailment at age 19, their father was left a broken man; on advice of his physician, he took the family to Europe, where Jaggar saw Vesuvius and was hooked.

Jaggar studied geology at Harvard, constructing his own apparatus to model sand ripples and getting himself assigned to the Hague expedition to Yellowstone in 1893. Here he managed to drop a loaded rifle, which went off, sending a bullet into a bank of Cambrian limestone that knocked loose a chunk of rock that gave Jaggar a slight wound. He later joked that “The trilobites took a shot at me!” Jaggar studied in Germany and made a second trip to Yellowstone. He then scandalized his parents by announcing plans to marry a divorced opera singer, though the marriage never actually materialized. Dvorak treads lightly around it, but the impression I get is that Jaggar was something of a womanizer.

Expeditions to Vesuvius and Alaska followed, and Jaggar invited himself to join the Navy relief expedition to Martinique following the eruption of Pelee that destroye St. Pierre. The sight of the ruined city seemed to have engaged Jaggar’s sense of mission, and he devoted the rest of his life to vulcanology. Dvorak gives a pretty gripping description of the eruption itself.

After returning from the Caribbean, Jaggar began to court Helen Kline, a rich heiress. The courtship was difficult, not helped by the unannounced arrival of a woman from Europe who smoked, dressed provocatively, and wanted to talk with Jaggar about marriage and money. Nevertheless, the marriage (to Helen) took place, and proved fully as difficult as one might anticipate. Jaggar would not sit still; he made another trip to Vesuvius, secured funding for an expedition to Alaska, and bought a home as close to the middle of nowhere as was possible in Massachusetts; his wife found this entirely unsatisfactory. Jaggar tried to mend fences by taking his wife to Japan, with a stop in Hawaii to see the famous lava lake at Kilauea.

In Hawaii, Jaggar became acquainted with Lorrin Thurston, a very wealthy sugar planter who had played a role in the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy and subsequent annexation of Hawaii to the United States. (Dvorak tells the story in some detail.) Thurston was willing to help fund a Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, purportedly for its potential to draw tourists and tourist dollars. However his venture to buy Volcano House, the hotel on the rim of Kilauea, fell through when the lava lake abruptly drained and the tourist potential seemed to have drained with it.

Things got worse with the Jaggar marriage. Thomas’ father died shortly before Helen and their two children arrived in Hawaii, and Dvorak delicately informs us that Jaggar’s response was to go to Honolulu and send a night with his female secretary. Shortly thereafter Helen arrived from the States. She was not keen on Hawaii, and even less keen on Kilauea, preferring to stay in Honolulu with their two children. Attempts to reconcile were in vain, and the couple divorced. This was still scandalous in the early 20th century, and Helen was all but ostracized by her family; her mother fired the family cook and informed Helen that she was to take the cook’s place, and that her children were not to be seen in the lower story of the house. Eventually Helen’s father quietly gave her some money to get a house of her own. Jaggar rarely saw his children after the divorce.

Jaggar meanwhile had been trying to understand the workings of Kilauea, perfecting the art of collecting volcanic gases for analysis (they turned out to be mostly water vapor, with significant carbon dioxide and some sulfur oxides) and making some of the first reliable measurements of lava temperature (nearly 1200 Centigrade). Both required climbing into the actual crater of Kilauea, Halema’uma’u, which was filled with a lava lake at this time. A certain amount of daring was required, notwithstanding the relatively gentle nature of Hawaiian eruptions.

Not long after his divorce, Jaggar met a new woman, Isabel Maydwell, a widow who had come to Kilauea as a tourist. About this time, Thurston tried to get Jaggar fired as director of the observatory, possibly because of the wiff of scandal in Jaggar’s personal life, but the other directors of the Observatory arranged to have a quorum at a meeting where Thurston was not present and took a binding vote to keep Jaggar on. With his funding and salary assured for a time, Jaggar married Isabel, and they lived together atop Kilauea for most of the rest of their lives, Isabel becoming a capable and reliable assistant in Jaggar’s scientific work.

Jaggar became fairly proficient at predicting the course of eruptions at Kilauea and Mauna Loa, and began attempting to predict tsunamis. There were some successful predictions, but also some misses, which were viewed by many prominent Hawaiians as worse than no prediction at all; but Jaggar got a fair amount of support from the U.S. Navy, whose commander let Jaggar know that he wanted the predictions to continue. I suppose taking your fleet to sea avoid a tsunami is not as big a deal when you are accustomed to regularly taking your fleet to sea anyway.

Funding and support continued to fluctuate, with the Observatory bouncing back and forth between different government agencies before finally landing more or less securely in the U.S. Geological Survey (where it seems like should have belonged all along.)

Jaggar retired in 1940; he died in 1953 and his ashes were scattered somewhere at Kilauea. Dvorak apparently found documentation of the exact spot, but felt obligated to preserve its privacy. Isabel had her ashes scattered in their garden when she subsequently passed on.

I think there are a couple of reasons why this book is not as terrific as Dvorak’s earlier book. One is that Jaggar comes across as a surprisingly bland character for a man who visited many of the most famous volcanoes in the world, did field work at Yellowstone and in Alaska, apparently had a colorful private life, and frikkin’ climbed into craters full of boiling lava to make scientific measurements. I’m not quite sure how that is possible. Another is that the book is surprisingly light on geology. For example, Dvorak discusses the use of seismographs to measure both vibrations and tilt of volcanoes, and I kept waiting for him to explain harmonic tremor; but the phrase does not appear even once in the book. I expected more discussion of the origin of magma; there is none at all, and only a superficial discussion of how dissolved gases power volcanic explosions.

Perhaps the problem is that, with Earthquake Storms, the main character was the San Andreas fault, whereas with The Last Volcano, the main character was the geologist Thomas Jagger.

Look, it’s a very readable book; it’s just not up to the high standard set by Earthquake Storms. I can only give it one thumb up.



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