by Jesse White

As a little boy, I remember being in the backseat of the car while driving around Mount St. Helens. Back then it was a stunning 9,677 ft stratovolcano. With its snow-capped peak towering above Spirit Lake and surrounding timberlands it was known as the Mount Fuji of the United States.

Mount Saint Helens from the Longview “Y” Camp, circa 1937.  Courtesy of the Washington State Historical Society; original photo by Claude Palmer of Photo Art Studios, Inc., Portland, OR.
Mount Saint Helens from the Longview “Y” Camp, circa 1937. Courtesy of the Washington State Historical Society; original photo by Claude Palmer of Photo Art Studios, Inc., Portland, OR.

A few years later, on May 18th, 1980 in Chewelah, WA, our family of four was having a picnic in the backyard while listening to the radio. I remember the eruption as if it were yesterday. Only 5 years of age, I watched a looming darkness approach that eclipsed the sky. I remember thinking to myself “Is the world coming to an end?”

By 3:30pm, we’d all hunkered down in the house as the ash fell. I watched from the family room through the sliding glass door as light-gray ash coated the backyard, picnic table, garden, greenhouse, trees, and brought the rhubarb plants to the ground.

Photo taken 14 seconds after start of the lateral eruption on May 18th, 1980, as seen from Bear Ridge, 7 miles northeast of the volcano.  Photo by Keith Ronnholm.
Photo taken 14 seconds after start of the lateral eruption on May 18th, 1980, as seen from Bear Ridge, 7 miles northeast of the volcano. Photo by Keith Ronnholm.

The following morning scene resembled a moonscape with a thin layer of ash covering everything. Much of eastern and north-eastern Washington State was affected by the propagation and direction of the ash plume with some areas east of the mountain receiving up to 20 inches of ash.

May 18th, 1980 wasn’t the first time Mount St. Helens erupted and most certainly won’t be the last. But it made an impact on me as a child. With the influence of my Great Grandfather Arthur Warsinkse, and extensive travel and nature experiences across the PNW, Montana, BC, and Alberta provided by my parents Kirby and Dianne, I decided to become a geologist.

Months preceding the main 1980 eruption, numerous volcano-seismic events provided warning that Mount Saint Helen’s had the potential to erupt, but no one could have predicted how or when. The volcano had been dormant for 123 years.

Native Legends

Mount St. Helens is a geologically young addition to the Cascade Range. Its tumultuous eruptive history over the last 40,000 years lends insight into the explosivity and cyclic nature of the volcano.

Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest witnessed numerous eruptions of Mount Saint Helens passed on through the generations as native legends.

A Puyallup legend tells a story of a massive landslide creating Tamanawas, a natural bridge spanning the Columbia River (near Cascade Locks). The arch of the bridge (also known as the Bridge of the Gods) contained the only fire in the world. Tribes came from all directions to obtain embers from the sacred fire tended by Loowitlatkla (Lady of the Fire) who lived at the center of the bridge. She was a kind, wrinkled, old woman who was eventually noticed by the great chief Tyee Sahale to which he bestowed the gift of eternal life. Weeping, Loowit didn’t want to live forever as an old woman and thus granted her one wish. Her wish was to be young and beautiful with the fame of her glorious beauty to be spread far and wide.

The chief’s sons, Pahto and Wy’east, whom had also been granted eternal life fell in love with Loowit but she couldn’t choose between them. Meeting at Tamanawas Bridge the brothers fought over her with tremendous fury burning villages and entire forests in the process. Furious at their display, Tyee Sahale crushed the bridge into the Columbia into boiling water. He struck down Loowit, Pahto, and Wy’east raising them into volcanoes. Loowit (Mount Saint Helens), Wy’east (Mount Hood), and Pahto (Mount Adams).

Mount Saint Helens from Silver Lake exhibiting a puff of steam and ash four weeks prior to the May 18th, 1980 eruption.  Photo by Duane D. Cap.
Mount Saint Helens from Silver Lake exhibiting a puff of steam and ash four weeks prior to the May 18th, 1980 eruption. Photo by Duane D. Cap.

The Yakima call Mount Saint Helens Si Yett, a beautiful white maiden placed on Earth by the Great Spirit to protect the Tamanawas from Wy’east and Pahto.

The Cowlitz tell of a time when Mount Rainier had an argument with his two wives, Mount Saint Helens (Lavelatla) and Mount Adams. Lavelatla became jealous and blew her top, knocking the head off Mount Rainier.

Early European Explorers

The first documented observation of Mount St Helens by European explorers was by George Vancouver on May 19th, 1792 as he charted the inlets of Puget-Sound at Point Lawton. He named the mountain after Alleyne Fitzherbert, Baron Saint Helens, a British diplomat. The earliest recorded eruption and effects of ashfall were noted by the Sanpoil and Spokane Indians of Eastern Washington in 1800.

Later eruptions were recorded by Dr. Meredith Gairdner (a physician for the Hudson’s Bay Company) who wrote of darkness and haze in 1831 and 1835 reporting the effects of mudflows, pyroclastic flows, and incandescent rocks. Reverend Josiah Parrish witnessed an eruption in November of 1842 corroborated by missionaries at The Dalles, Oregon that witnessed ash fallout.

After 40 Years

Mount Saint Helens vertical eruption column and ash cloud.  Photo by Richard Bowen.

Mount Saint Helen’s will certainly erupt again, possibly within our lifetime. In the Cascade Range Mount Baker, Mount Rainier, Mount Adams, and Glacier Peak are all susceptible to catastrophic eruption. It is also important to understand the true eruptive power of the Yellowstone Hotspot (Yellowstone National Park).

I have visited Mount St. Helens since the eruption. And I believe that everyone and anyone that can go to the Johnston Ridge Observatory and/or explore the mountain should see it with their own eyes.

It is my humble opinion that we as Washingtonians should respect the wisdom of our Native American friends, explore this beautiful state in which we live, and appreciate nature and the web of life now more than ever before.

Jesse Garnett White

Born and raised in Washington, I'm a geologist with a BS from University of Idaho and MS from University of Alaska-Fairbanks. I'm excited to share with you the geological and naturalist view of Washington state. The present landscapes are the result of a number of geologic processes providing us with fertile grounds for agriculture, beautiful beaches, estuaries, hot springs, islands, lakes, mountains, and rivers. But why are they here? I can't wait to help you think outside the box and really “dig into” understanding the phenomenal natural surroundings of Washington state.
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