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May 18, 1980: The Eruption of Mt. St. Helens
“Vancouver this is it,” were the last words heard from vulcanologist David Johnston on the morning of May 18, 1980. The lateral blast of Mt. St. Helens has been estimated to be the equivalent of 24 megatons of TNT.
Watching the eruption from Portland was both fascinating and humbling.
About 57 people were killed, including innkeeper and World War I veteran Harry R. Truman, photographers Reid Blackburn and Robert Landsburg, and geologist David A. Johnston. Hundreds of square miles were reduced to wasteland, causing over $1 billion in damage (equivalent to $3.6 billion in 2021), thousands of animals were killed, and Mount St. Helens was left with a crater on its north side. At the time of the eruption, the summit of the volcano was owned by the Burlington Northern Railroad, but afterward, the railroad donated the land to the United States Forest Service. The area was later preserved in the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument. – from Wikipedia
The second video is the story of personal memories of Washington National Guard helicopter pilots.
.Published in Environment
We were amazed how our cars, in So. Cal., were covered with volcanic ash. Unbelievable.
I drove from Spokane down to Pullman some time in August. All the roads had piles of ash along the sides; they had had to plow it like snow, and then it just sat there.
I wonder how many years that kind of evidence was visible.
North Eastern Washington got the heaviest ash falls. Prevailing winds and breezes tend to flow from the west to the east in the Pacific Northwest.
I lived in Sequim WA. then as I do now. It was Sunday Morning; we were getting ready for church. I heard 3 or 4 sharp explosions and my large front room windows moved inward under the sound pressure. There is a mountain range (The Olympics) between Sequim and Mt. St. Helens but the explosions sounded and felt like dynamite explosions next door. Sequim is 100 miles Northwest of St. Helens so we never got any ash, but we sure heard it go.
Wow. Great post Doug. I was stationed in Ft. Lewis during the early 90’s. We made a trip there @ ’93. It was unbelievable – completely humbling. I remember vaguely some information stated at the visitors center prior to going to see the area. 13 years after the fact we saw thousands of trees in Spirit Lake and it was stated that enough wood had already been removed from the lake to make 150,000 houses. There was a guy named Truman that lived up there in his late 60’s. He said he wasn’t leaving, his daughter and wife had both passed away in his house there and he was determined not to leave. It’s estimated his house is under a couple of hundred feet of mud at the bottom of Spirit Lake. The lake pushed enough water into all the rivers heading south to raise the Columbia River 13 feet at the point of the main tributary. As we drove around the area there were also thousands of trees like toothpicks snapped off. I am not talking sapling but big trees 4 -5 feet in diameter. Thanks again for the post.
A year or two before the eruption, the wife & I visited her parents, then living just a bit north of Vancouver: Later on they sent us some of the ash.
I understand it was sort of a popular thing to do.
I will always remember this photo taken by a hiker from Mt. Adams just as Mt. St. Helens blew up. I bet I would fall on my butt if that happened in front of me. Click to embiggen.
We did visit Spirit Lake before the eruption, picked some yellow (I think they were raspberries?)
I found a better version of the picture, more like I remember it from National Geographic.
On a clear day in Portland you can experience the Five Mountain Day. You can see Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Hood, the summit of Mt. Rainier, the summit of Mt. Adams, and Mt. Jefferson in Central Oregon.
There is a nice spot on OR-206 between Condon and Wasco where they have a concrete plaque that points out all the mountains. Click to embiggen the pictures.
A handy guide for identifying mountains
Details of the mountain identifier
From left to right, Mt. Jefferson, Mt. Hood, Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Adams, and Mt. Rainier
If you know what to look for
I was in college, heading into finals. I knew it was going on from hearing the news, but was pretty much oblivious to the coverage. Looking at the videos years later, I couldn’t figure out why I wasn’t glued to the television. Amazing.
I was a kid living just north of Boston, and will always remember the weird sky caused by the ash, even though we were so far away.
Wow! Thanks for this post! I was living in SoCal at the time. But my parents in Wyoming told us how they got so much ash on everything from the eruption. So, it went all the way to Boston, too? Wow! I flew up to Seattle about 15 years ago to see a family member and I remember flying over those mountains…pointy, pointy, pointy, HOLE, pointy!
Truman had a very popular lodge. The day of the actual explosion tourists had given up waiting for the mountain to explode,so it is likely some were on the way to the lodge when the mountain blew apart.
Americans being as impatient in 1981 just as now, many people decided that the situation was all clear since the prediction of the volcano going off had not materialized, then it probably wouldn’t.
The memorial for Harry Truman, the man who wouldn’t leave his lodge on Mount St Helens:
I was living in Anchorage at the time. All of the ash went south. I flew over several years later and it still looked freshly blown. I have those aerial photos somewhere…
There was a restaurant in Anchorage called Harry’s, named in memory of Mr. Truman. It was good, back in the early ’80s. No idea if it’s still there.
My wife and I were young love birds living a few miles SW of Portland. Her parents lived in Spokane.
My wife’s uncles were in the lumber and wood products industry in SW Washington. One uncle had a home with a view of the peak of Mt St Helens. After the eruption . . .
One uncle made pretty good money off the downed timber.
I remember that day well. I was teaching a climbing seminar down in Spanaway, south of Tacoma, at a site called Spire Rock which is a man-made climbing practice rock. Sometime in the mid afternoon a few of my friends turned up covered in what I learned was ash from the eruption. They had been on the Muir Snowfield on Mount Rainier heading down when they saw the blast. Not too long after that they were enveloped in a cloud of ash and desperately trying to find their way down to Paradise where they had parked their cars.
Where I was it would have been possible to hear the explosion, but we were close to an airbase with planes taking off and landing all day, so no one noticed anything out of the ordinary.
I had been on St. Helens a couple of weeks before trying to climb the one route on the mountain that I had never done before it disappeared. A few minor earthquakes made that effort seem a bit stupid, so we opted to descend and go home.
It was a memorable period following the eruption, lots of fear of ash coming to Seattle, people buying special filters for their air intakes on their cars, and purchasing masks, but nothing came of any of that.
Over the years I saw the layer of ash in the soil when climbing in the Cascades. It was an interesting education into the geology of the planet. After the mountain settled down my Mountain Rescue group was invited to make a climb to the summit from the south to get some experience on the route before it opened to the public. It was a very interesting climb, though not particularly interesting from a technical viewpoint. The glaciers were gone. It was just a long snow slog. Our once beautiful, nearly symmetrical peak was a sort of hollowed out shell surrounded by the devastated forest lands once so lush and beautiful.
It is coming back, proving the old adage, that this too will pass. Nothing lasts forever.
I am not a geologist (nor did I study geology), but I have heard a lot over my 67 years about how most of what we see as stable normal earth surface is the result of past often violent activities that greatly disturbed what was there before.
For the people who did not have first hand contact with the explosion, I want to perhaps clarify “ash.” The “ash” from the explosion of Mt. St. Helens was actually pulverized rock. It was very gritty, and thus very abrasive.
I had just left Salem, Oregon for summer break from law school when the first explosion occurred. But I was back in Salem for a subsequent secondary explosion. I had read plenty of stories about the “ash,” and was expecting something like the flaky wood ash stuff that rains down on Southern California (where I was from) downwind of a large brush fire. So I was surprised after that subsequent explosion of Mt. St. Helens when I discovered first hand how gritty the Mt. St. Helens “ash” was.
I took an Amtrak trip in the spring of 1985 through the Pacific Northwest [Empire Builder and Coast Starlight] and the ash was still pretty visible along the rivers even then.
Edit: I’m not 100% sure, but I believe this is a picture of ash from that March 1985 Amtrak trip, somewhere south of Seattle on the Coast Starlight route. If it’s not, I can’t figure out what else I was trying to take a picture of…
Way over in Lisle Illinois, I was out on a small man-made lake on a raft.
A couple of guys I knew paddled over on a raft or canoe to talk with me.
Being young and with the day being hot, I was wearing shorts and a halter top.
While the guys were talking with me, I noticed ash appearing on m arms. I chided them for letting their cigarette ash come down on me.
At first they looked puzzled, but they finally said “Won’t happen again.”
We continued joking around.
After they left, ash still came down on me. I then realized it was the ash descending from the jet stream, which had carried it all the way from Mount St Helens to Illinois.
In eastern Washington the highway departments used snow plows to clear the ash.
Yes, it is gritty and abrasive.
Sounds like the personality characteristics of a few of us on Ricochet.