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The Eruption of Mount St. Helens: The Untold History of this Cataclysmic Event

If you’re over age 40 or so and lived in Washington State in 1980, you probably have a story about the eruption of Mount St. Helens.

On Saturday, May 17, 1980, my wife Betsy and I were married on a bright, warm day in Spokane, Washington. The following morning, oblivious to any news, we saw a dark bank of what we thought were thunderhead clouds approaching Spokane from the southwest.

It turned out that the inky clouds carried volcanic ash from the 8:33 a.m. eruption of Mount St. Helens, more than 250 miles away. By afternoon, the Spokane sky was dark as night and a steady downpour of the powdery ash obscured the sun through the day.

Many of our wedding guests that Sunday were caught in the blinding ash storm as they drove west, toward Seattle. Several holed up in motels or emergency shelters in churches or schools for the day and sometimes longer.

Our friends eventually made it home unscathed but that wasn’t the case for everyone. The massive volcanic blast from Mount St. Helens left 57 people dead, dumped ash on eight U.S. states and five Canadian provinces, and caused more than a billion dollars of damage.

Acclaimed author Steve Olson deftly interweaves the history and science of this cataclysmic event in his groundbreaking new book Eruption: The Untold Story of Mount St. Helens (Norton). Based on exhaustive research, his book tells the story not only of the eruption and its toll, but also looks back at economic and political developments that determined the fate of those near the mountain when it blew, particularly the cozy relationship of the powerful Weyerhaeuser lumber company and some government bodies.

Mr. Olson’s book is a work of investigation as well as vivid storytelling that takes readers from the world of logging and railroad barons more than a century ago to the lives of scientists, loggers, government officials and many others at the time of the eruption. His book demonstrates how history is a constant presence in our lives as he illuminates fateful decisions that preceded the eruption and shares in evocative prose the previously untold stories of those who perished as well as those who survived this massive volcanic explosion. Mr. Olson also describes the aftermath of the eruption: the resilience of nature, scientific advances, policy changes, and the creation of a national monument—and he shares ideas on preparedness for natural disasters to come.

Mr. Olson is a Seattle-based science writer. His other books include Mapping Human History: Genes, Race, and Our Common Origins, a finalist for the National Book Award and recipient of the Science-in-Society Award from the National Association of Science Writers; Count Down: Six Kids Vie for Glory at the World’s Toughest Math Competition (Boston:  Houghton Mifflin), named a best science book of 2004 by Discover magazine; and, with co-author with Greg Graffin, Anarchy Evolution. His articles have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, Science, Smithsonian, The Washington Post, Scientific American, and many other magazines. Mr. Olson also has served as a consultant writer for the National Academy of Sciences and National Research Council, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, the National Institutes of Health, and many other organizations. 

Mr. Olson generously responded by email to a series of questions about his new book on Mount St. Helens.

Robin Lindley: You’re an accomplished author Steve, and you’ve written on a wide array of science topics. What inspired you to research and write about the Mount St. Helens’ eruption of May 1980?

Steve Olson: I grew up here in the Pacific Northwest, in a small farming town about 100 miles downwind of Mount St. Helens, but I went east for college in the 1970s and stayed there after meeting my future wife in the back of an English class (though I was a physics major in college who only later got interested in writing). In 2009, she got a job in Seattle, so we moved back to my native state. I’d written several previous trade books on mostly scientific topics, but when we got here I decided to write a book about the most dramatic thing that had ever happened in Washington – and the eruption of Mount St. Helens was the obvious choice.

Robin Lindley: Where were you when the mountain erupted? Did you know any people affected by the eruption?

Steve Olson: On May 18, 1980, I was living outside of Washington, DC, working as a freelance science and technology policy writer and editor, and was three weeks away from getting married. My grandmother, who still lived in the small town where I grew up, brought a jar of ash that she’d scraped from her driveway to the wedding as a conversation starter.

Robin Lindley: Much has been written about the eruption but you have done exhaustive research to revisit the history of the mountain and its explosion. What was your research process and how did the book evolve from the time you began working on it to its publication?

Steve Olson: Lots of previous books had been written about Mount St. Helens, but as I started doing research on the book I discovered that many parts of the story had never been written about before. In particular, I got interested in the 57 people who had been killed by the eruption. Why were they so close to such a dangerous volcano – some just three miles away from the summit?

It turned out that the danger zones were much too close to the mountain, running along the border between land owned by the Weyerhaeuser timber company to the west and the Gifford Pinchot National Forest to the east. I decided that I needed to tell why the border was there and not somewhere else, and that required telling the stories of both Weyerhaeuser and land use in the western United States.

Robin Lindley: You set forth the historical context of the eruption in 1980, and the Northwest was a much different place than now, 36 years later. What are few things you’d like readers to understand about that time?

Steve Olson: When I left the Pacific Northwest in 1974, there was little to keep an ambitious person who was curious about the world here. Weyerhaeuser and Boeing were the two big companies in the state. The economy was stagnant, the culture was idiosyncratic and isolated, and the rest of the United States seemed far away. All of that began to change in the 1980s, and the Northwest is now completely different than when I was growing up – except, of course, for the profound natural beauty surrounding us on all sides.

Robin Lindley: How does the violence of the eruption of Mount St. Helens compare with other volcanic eruptions?

Steve Olson: In a global and geological context, the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens was not particularly large.

As I write in the book, more than 20 larger eruptions have occurred around the world in the past 500 years. Mount St. Helens has had much larger eruptions in the past. When Mount Mazama erupted in Oregon about 7,000 years ago, it released 100 times as much ash as Mount St. Helens did in 1980 before collapsing to form what is today Crater Lake. That said, the avalanche that destroyed the northern flank of Mount St. Helens in 1980 was the largest in recorded human history (so over the past few thousand years), and the blast that destroyed 230 square miles of forest and took 57 lives was largely unexpected by geologists, so it was a major event.

Robin Lindley: How was the mountain and its vicinity changed by the eruption? What was the area destroyed by the volcano, flora and fauna lost, and the amount of ash strewn to the east?

Steve Olson: The 1980 eruption emitted about a cubic kilometer of ash, which fell across the United States from Washington to New York State and eventually traveled all the way around the world on high-altitude winds. In addition to the people killed, many thousands of animals in the surrounding forests died, along with almost all the plant life in the blast zone, including gigantic old growth trees that had been growing for centuries.

Robin Lindley: The mountain rumbled and bulged in March and April 1980. Did scientists predict the lateral blast to the north that actually occurred by then or were they convinced the mountain would blow out the top and upward?

Steve Olson: They didn’t predict a lateral blast to the north, but they knew it was possible. Mount St. Helens had blown out to the side before, and they knew of other volcanoes that had done so. Still, the size of the blast did take them by surprise. Volcanoes in Russia and in Japan had erupted laterally, but the size of the devastated zone was not as great as at Mount St. Helens. However, once Mount St. Helens erupted that way, volcanologists took a look at deposits by other volcanoes in the past and realized that the 1980 eruption was not a geologically unusual event. On the contrary, some volcanic avalanches and lateral blasts have been much larger.

Robin Lindley: Your book serves as a tribute to the 57 people lost in the eruption. You took great pains to collect their stories from archives and from friends and family members, among others. For you, it seems, the roots of their demise may rest in the history of logging and railroads a century earlier? Why is that?

Steve Olson: I think of those 57 people as victims of history. Some of the history was short-term and personal, related to their specific circumstances and decisions, but other parts of the history that came into play at Mount St. Helens extended decades or centuries into the past.

Robin Lindley: How did Weyerhaeuser acquire vast timberlands in the Cascades and on the Olympic Peninsula and what was the role of railroad magnate James J. Hill?

Steve Olson: To me, this was the most interesting part of the historical story. As I said, the danger zone on the western and northwestern sides of the mountain was drawn along the boundary between Weyerhaeuser land and the Gifford Pinchot National Forest.

How did Weyerhaeuser, a company formed on the banks of the Mississippi River in the 19th century, come to own so much land in southwestern Washington state? It’s not an overstatement to say that it arose in large part because Frederick Weyerhaeuser, the German immigrant who started the company, happened to buy the house in 1891 next to Jim Hill on Summit Avenue in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Hill, who was the owner and driving force behind the Great Northern Railway from St. Paul to Seattle, had recently acquired control of the Northern Pacific Railroad, which was built, starting in 1870, from Duluth to Tacoma. In the 1890s, Hill wanted to buy the rail line from Chicago to Burlington, Iowa (which is why it’s called the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad today), and needed money to do so. To raise the money, he sold much of the Northern Pacific’s land grants in Washington State to his next door neighbor Frederick Weyerhaeuser, who realized that the forests of the upper Midwest were being depleted and needed new sources of timber. It’s a rich, convoluted, intricate history that had direct consequences for the people around the mountain on May 18, 1980.

Robin Lindley: Many people may not realize that logging was allowed on the mountain. What was happening with the Weyerhaeuser operation there at the time of the eruption? Did logging interests ignore scientists and the Forest Service on safety?

Steve Olson: Weyerhaeuser had been logging the land west of Mount St. Helens hard for the eight decades before 1980. When the mountain began to shake in March, two months before the big eruption, the company continued to log its land, despite the hazards of working near the volcano. If the mountain had erupted on a weekday rather than a Sunday morning, hundreds of Weyerhaeuser loggers in the surrounding woods likely would have died.

Robin Lindley: What was the role of Washington state and Governor Dixy Lee Ray in creating danger zones at Mount St. Helens?

Steve Olson: The state appears not to have wanted to interfere with Weyerhaeuser’s operations west of the mountain. The easy way to do that was to avoid drawing the danger zones on Weyerhaeuser property. The governor of Washington State in 1980, Dixy Lee Ray, signed the order establishing the danger zones knowing that they were too small. But the geologists’ predictions of what the mountain would do were uncertain, and Ray was the kind of person who believed that people should simply be sensible enough to stay away from the mountain on their own. (Though she had toured it several times from aircraft overhead.)

Robin Lindley: You believe the people who died and were injured in the blast got a bad rap as risk takers or scofflaws. What would you like readers to know about these people?

Steve Olson: After the eruption, Dixy Lee Ray insinuated that the people killed in the eruption were in the danger zones illegally, and Jimmy Carter, who flew over the blast zone a few days after the eruption, repeated the accusation. But only 3 of the 57 people killed were in the designated off-limits zone – and two of them had permission to be there. The only person in the danger zone illegally was the one person people tend to remember from the eruption – Harry R. Truman, who refused to leave his lodge on the south end of Spirit Lake, right beneath the mountain’s northern flank.

Robin Lindley: How did most of the deaths occur? Were fatalities caused by heat or suffocation or burial in ash or other reasons?

Steve Olson: The majority of the victims suffocated when they were caught in the blast cloud, which consisted of ash, hot rock, and volcanic gases. But others were blown off ridge tops, hit by falling trees, and carried away by mudflows. The bodies of nearly half the people killed were never found and remain buried around the mountain.

Robin Lindley: Lodge owner Harry Truman is probably the best known person who died in the eruption. Did you learn anything new about the steadfast and stubborn Mr. Truman?

Steve Olson: In the weeks before the eruption and after his death, Harry Truman was often portrayed by the media as a hero who proudly and defiantly held out against a nanny state government that wanted to remove him to safety. But up close the situation was more complicated. Harry’s presence near the mountain gave other people a bargaining chip to pressure law enforcement personnel to let them enter the danger zones, and those who succeeded in getting in are lucky the blast occurred when it did.

Harry knew that he was in great danger and was scared of what the mountain might do to him. But after being built up in the media, he had a reputation to uphold. Also, he was 83, his wife had died suddenly a few years before, he was drinking heavily. It’s probably fair to say that Harry Truman met the fate he would have hoped he would meet.

Robin Lindley: Was there ever a formal investigation of why people were on the mountain on May 18 and how the restricted zones were created and enforced?

Steve Olson: There were hearings at which geologists and public officials testified. But probably the most consequential follow-up was a lawsuit brought by several families of victims against the state (which was dismissed) and against Weyerhaeuser. The case against Weyerhaeuser went to trial in King County in 1985 and ended in a hung jury. The majority of the jurors were convinced that Weyerhaeuser was not at fault in not providing its employees with more information about the dangers of working so close to the mountain, but a solid minority disagreed. Instead of insisting upon a new trial, the families settled for a small amount of money, saying that their intention was more to clear the names of the dead than to reap a large settlement.

Robin Lindley: Did the state breach its responsibility to keep citizens safe?

Steve Olson: Yes. The danger zones to the west and northwest of the mountain were too small, and the state was aware of that. In the week before the May 18 eruption, a concerted effort, led by local law enforcement officials, was under way to expand the danger zone to the west, which would have encompassed much of the area where the 57 victims were killed. A proposal to do so was put on Dixy Lee Ray’s desk on Saturday, May 17, but she was at a parade that weekend and did not go to her office. The proposal was still sitting on her desk when the volcano erupted Sunday morning.

Robin Lindley: Mount St. Helens is now a national monument in part because of the efforts of conservationists and environmentalists. Didn’t commercial interests resist this designation? Can logging, mining or other interests still exploit the monument?

Steve Olson: Weyerhaeuser and the other companies that owned land in the area protected their interests, as would be expected. But they also cooperated with the state and federal governments in establishing the monument, exchanging land they owned inside the monument for land outside the monument. Today, Weyerhaeuser is still logging the land it owns around the monument, and exploratory shafts are still being drilled on old mining claims, which could result in large open air mines right on the border of the monument.

Robin Lindley: You note that scientists have learned a great deal about volcanoes and more from the Mount St. Helens’ eruption. What are some of those lessons from this massive event?

Steve Olson: For one thing, public safety officials will never let people get so close to a dangerous volcano, though every volcano is different, and they all have the capacity to surprise. Scientifically, U.S. geologists have been studying Mount St. Helens carefully ever since the eruption and have learned much more about the signs that precede an eruption, so much so that they have been able to predict every eruption of Mount St. Helens that has occurred since that date. The technology is also so much more sophisticated now than it was then, which has further increased understanding of volcanic behavior.

Robin Lindley: What have you been learning from your readers and people acquainted with the story of the eruption since your book came out?

Steve Olson: People have been contacting me to tell me their stories of that day. I haven’t yet heard of anything that would require me to make changes in the paperback edition of the book, but I hope I do. I tried to get the history just as accurate as I possibly could, but I know that written histories are only an effort to get close to the truth, not to capture it completely.

Robin Lindley: Thanks Steve for your insights and thoughtful comments. And congratulations on your groundbreaking and revelatory new book.

Steve Olson: Thanks, Robin. It’s a fascinating story. I always enjoy talking about it.