Eruption: The Untold Story of Mount St. Helens

By Steve Olson

I went into reading this book knowing nothing about Mount St. Helens except that it’s located in Washington state and it erupted in the 1980s. This book does a fabulous job of not only explaining the science behind volcanic eruptions, tectonic plate movement, and how exactly Mount St. Helens erupted, but it also delves into the rich history of the logging industry that plays a massive part of the pacific northwest’s history. The book pays homage to those who fought to conserve the forest lands in the late 1800s and early 1900s and gives a wonderful history lesson on why we have our forestlands today under the Department of Agriculture. It pays respect to those who passed during the eruption, explaining who they were and why they were located in the places they were during the explosion.  Olson does a great job of writing on the search and rescue efforts taken place, as well as looking at the impact of the eruption on several different communities. 

  • Logging History 

The Pacific Northwest has a rich logging history, much of which is and was controlled by the Weyerhaeuser logging company. Olson goes very in-depth explaining the long history behind this company and how it eventually became the predominant logging company in the US. This logging history, combined with railroad history, played an important part in designating the “safe zones” and “danger zones” for the future eruption of Mount St. Helen’s in the 1980s. In the 1890s, Weyerhaeuser began to look towards the rich forestland of the PNW and eventually became a monopoly in that regional as well. The deep explanation of this history gives reason as to how Weyerhaeuser owned so much land near Mount St. Helen’s, why it was hell-bent on logging, and why it carried such political weight when it came time to draw danger zone boundaries. 

  • Science of Mount St. Helen’s 

The mountain is a relatively young stratovolcano with a history of being the most active and explosive volcano in the US. With scientific study, discoveries of past “laterally directed explosions” and thick layers of ash from the mountain hundreds of miles away gave support to this claim. With eruption, it was predicted that mudslides , landslides, and floods would happen.  Dangerous pyroclastic flows, fast moving currents of hot gas and volcanic matter, would kill many. Over the past millennium, the mountain has erupted about once every one hundred years, with the last eruption being in 1857. So come 1980, that next eruption time had passed. Previous eruptions were depicted by writers and artists as violent, and scientist Mullineaux of the US Geological Survey warned the Forest Service of this in a 1980 conference. At this point in time, earthquakes had begun and the mountain was deemed no longer dormant. 

Around April of 1980, a great bulge had formed on the north side of the mountain over 300 feet outside the normal contour of the side. Geologists again warned that this bulge of built-up pressure and steam exploding. 

  • Why the State Couldn’t Prevent People From Being There 

-go into those who lived there, Sprit lake, blast zone reasons, media coverage 

Geologists who knew how dangerous and eruption could be urged the state to keep people out of designated potential blast zones around the volcano. The state worked to create a “red zone” and “blue zone” designations, the red zone only allowing permitted workers and scientists and the blue zone being a limited access for logging and camping were allowed. However, due to Weyerhaeuser’s power and influence on politics, the government decided they could not designate Weyerhaeuser land as prohibited areas. Thus, a large area of land in projected-danger zones was not sanctioned off. Of course, the public was enraged about not being able to camp, hike, or even go to their property in these blocked off zones.  Tourists wanted to come see the volcano and it’s bulging side (filling up with highly pressurized, and soon to be dangerous steam). Washington governor, Dixie Lee Ray, did not support these zoned- off areas and did not encourage people to stay away from the mountain. A man named Harry Truman owned a lodge on Spirit Lake (which is now obliterated due to the eruption) and he adamantly refused to leave his property. With the angry citizens, a protesting Truman, and a governor who seemed to applaud those who stood against the law, it is no surprise that blockades were not followed, police were unable to enforce prohibiting access, and citizens took Weyerhaeuser logging roads up the mountain instead. 

Not everyone ignored the rules and warnings of the eruption though. Weyerhaeuser loggers were being sent to work in dangerous blue zones, and they protested such safety issues. Unfortunately they were brushed off by a bureaucrat who thought they were just trying to get unemployment. It is a miracle that the eruption happened on a Sunday when the loggers’ presence was much less than a weekday. 

  • Those Who Passed 

57 people were killed in the Mount St. Helen’s eruption early Sunday morning on May 18, 1980. Frequently the victims are blamed for “going around roadblocks” or “otherwise breaking the law to get where they were”. In reality, nobody was acting illegally because there was no law to break. The governor of Washington, Dixie Lee Ray, did not believe in the blue zone regulations and did not sign an extension of the blue zone. None of the people who were camping that morning went around the Spirit Lake Highway roadblock, and since the red and blue zones ended on Weyerhaeuser property, the police did not try to stop people from entering this land. Only three people were in the red zone, two of which were authorized to be there. The only person who died in the eruption by breaking a law was Harry Truman, who refused to leave his property on Spirit Lake. The governor commended him for his fortitude and he became something of a celebrity for his stubbornness, which ended up causing his death. 

While it is heartbreaking that this many lives were lost, it is amazing that only 57 were killed by Mount St. Helen’s. Had the eruption been on Saturday or Sunday afternoon, or on Monday, the number of deaths would have been several times greater. Just Saturday afternoon, people with property off of the red-zoned Spirit Lake Highway were allowed to quickly go back in and retrieve their belongings. They would’ve been killed had the eruption been earlier. There would have been many more hikers had it been during the daytime. Had the eruption been on Monday, the Weyerhaeuser logging zone would have been densely populated with workers, most of which would have died. 

  • The Eruption

This website does a great job of explaining the eruption. 

  • Those Who Lived 

Several people lived, often by luck and pure grit carrying them out of the ashes. Some campers in the Green River Zone were lucky and were not blasted by the eruption based on the contours of the land. Others walked miles on severely burnt and broken extremities, losing copious amounts of blood and breathing in air thick with ashes. What was interesting about the eruption is that since it came off of the side of the mountain, not the top, and was caused by built up pressure beneath “the bulge”, the eruptive forces drove their way down 

138 people were rescued by helicopters after the eruption, and shockingly nobody was further injured in rescue attempts. Miraculously, two reserve Air Force units were conducting training near Mount St. Helens that weekend. The National Guard was also training at the Yakima Firing Center east of the volcano as well. When they saw the smoke plume and the downfall ashes following it, they mobilized as many helos as they could. Helicopter Rescue attempts were largely on the northwest side of the mountain, where the blast hit most severely. 

  • Impacts 

-Ash attracts large amounts of static electricity due to the friction caused by the densely packed ash particles rubbing against one another. This causes lighting storms within the ash, which can make helicopter rescues difficult. Not to mention the severely limited visibility due to the ashes. 

-Floods p 178 

-prolonged ashfall 

In 1982, president Ronald Regan signed a bill making Mt. St. Helen’s a National Volcanic Monument. The monument’s creation has provided scientific research on how landscapes recover from disaster. The area around the volcano was expected to recover from the outside in, but the inverse happened. Plants and animals became established in the inner zone, and from these tiny bubbles of life more colonization would happen. A plant crucial to the area’s regrowth and population was the prairie lupine, a legume that does not need nitrogen from the soil. Small nodules in the prairie legume’s roots make it possible for the plant to not be dependent on the soil, and thus grow anywhere. Although these plants died within a few years, their death and remains provided the necessary nitrogen for future plant growth. What also was discovered during this growth period was that areas left on their own had the best regrowth. The less human intervention the better. For example, downed trees not removed from the renewal area are able to rot and provide soil for new plants. 

Some Names/Terms: 

-Susan Saul: worked for the Fish and Wildlife Service; pushed hard before and after the eruption to have Mount St. Helen’s become a protected area; helped create the Washington Wilderness Act of 1984 which created new wilderness areas and expanded existing ones

-Dave Johnston: volcano expert, the first to make a public statement on Mt. St. Helen’s reawakening 

-Gifford Pinchot: the father of American Forestry 

-Frederick Weyerhaeuser: from Illinois, “self-made 19th-century American tycoon”. He became head of the largest logging conglomerate in America by merging with Chippewa Falls lumbermen in 1880. Weyerhaeuser used generosity and cooperation with his competitors when retribution was expected, thus gaining respect and eventually business from and with adversaries. 

-George Weyerhaeuser: in charge of Weyerhaeuser logging when the eruption occurred; was kidnapped in 1935 

-phreatic eruptions: molten gas or rock inside a volcano that heat up the surface, heating up ground water in the volcano’s surface rocks so much that is flashes into steam through a newly formed crater à USGS


  1. Might be noted Harry Truman’s name actually was Harry R.Truman? I do not desire to be picky but the article that lead me here to read this story had a picture of Harry S. Truman on it. Two very different Truman’s. Funny but, not note worthy! Good read.


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