Mount St. Helens belongs as much to Oregon as Washington. Relatively few people in Washington live within sight of the mountain, while hundreds of thousands of Oregonians can see its truncated peak on any clear day. When the volcano began erupting in 1980, Portland got more ashfall than most major Washington cities (Yakima and Spokane were the exceptions). I'd wager that the guest registers in the visitor centers contain as many Oregon as Washington entries.
So the question might be asked: Why do I write almost exclusively about Washington state in my new book Eruption: The Untold Story of Mount St. Helens
? Wouldn't it have made more sense to write about the entire region and how it was affected by the 1980 eruption?
But to potential Oregon readers, I'd say: don't give up on the book. The issues I write about have just as much relevance to your state as they do to the state where I live — and in some cases even more relevance.
My principal goal in writing the book was to figure out why the 57 people killed by the eruption were so close to such a dangerous volcano. After all, Pompeii, which was covered with 15 feet of ash just a few hours after Mt. Vesuvius erupted unexpectedly in AD 79, was six miles away from the volcano, and several of the victims of Mount St. Helens were closer than that.
The reason for the victims' proximity turned out to be a fascinating but historically involved story. It began with the land grants given to the Northern Pacific Railway for building the rail line from Kalama — just opposite Goble on the Columbia River — to Tacoma in the early 1870s. By the end of the 19th century, those land grants had come under the control of James J. Hill, the Canadian-born railroad tycoon responsible for the construction of the Great Northern Railway from St. Paul to Seattle. On Summit Avenue in St. Paul, Hill lived next to Frederick Weyerhaeuser, the German-born lumber baron who, with his Midwestern associates, had made a fortune cutting down the trees of Wisconsin and Minnesota.
The eruption of Mount St. Helens was a vivid reminder — the first since European settlers began filtering into the region in the 19th century — that people in the Pacific Northwest are living in the midst of serious volcanic hazards. But those hazards are just as bad, and possibly worse, in Oregon as in Washington.
At the turn of the century, Hill needed money to settle a bond issue, and Weyerhaeuser needed trees to expand his logging empire. On January 3, 1900, they announced one of the largest land purchases in U.S. history. For $6 an acre, Weyerhaeuser and his associates bought 900,000 acres of timberland in southwestern Washington owned by the Northern Pacific. That's how the Weyerhaeuser Company came to own much of the land between I-5 and Mount St. Helens.
The story of the railroad land grants played out differently in Oregon than in Washington, but they still had a big effect on land use in the state. The Oregon and California Railroad received more than two and a half million acres of land in western Oregon to build a rail line between Portland and San Francisco. As in Washington, the railroad found ways to sell a large portion of this land to logging companies, though in Oregon part of the land grants became the subject of a protracted legal dispute over who actually owned the property and how it should be used. But in large parts of Oregon, railroad land grants had just as much influence on the use and appearance of the land as in Washington.
When Mount St. Helens started rumbling and emitting puffs of steam and ash in the late winter of 1980, the land grants had a critical influence on what happened. Government officials drew danger zones around the mountain to keep people away from a potential eruption. But on the western and northwestern sides of the mountain, they chose not to extend the danger zones onto Weyerhaeuser property, because they did not want to interfere with the company's logging of its last old-growth trees. As a result, the danger zone was less than four miles away from the peak of the volcano on the mountain's western side. That, ultimately, is why so many people were so close to the mountain when it violently erupted on Sunday, May 18, 1980.
The eruption of Mount St. Helens was a vivid reminder — the first since European settlers began filtering into the region in the 19th century — that people in the Pacific Northwest are living in the midst of serious volcanic hazards. But those hazards are just as bad, and possibly worse, in Oregon as in Washington. When Mount Mazama erupted 7,000 years ago — an event still reflected in the stories of Native peoples — it emitted a hundred times as much ash as Mount St. Helens did in 1980, before collapsing to create the perfect volcanic cone that cradles Crater Lake. The lava flows around Santiam and McKenzie passes are much more extensive and recent than anything in Washington State. Whether the next Cascades eruption will occur in Washington or in Oregon is an open question.
Certainly the volcanic features in Oregon had a greater role in motivating me to write this book than did those of Washington. Ever since my children, who are now 24 and 26, were infants, we have been vacationing in the high country of central Oregon and marveling at the volcanism in the region. Our explorations of Lava Butte, Lava River Cave, and Big Obsidian Flow south of Bend made all of us life-long volcano enthusiasts.
Many of the people who were scattered around Mount St. Helens the morning of May 18 were fellow enthusiasts. If I'd been living in Washington State at the time, rather than in Washington, DC, I'd certainly have been eager to go see the mountain, and I would have gotten as close as was legally permitted. And if I'd done that on the weekend of May 18 — the first sunny weekend after a long and rainy spring — I wouldn't be here today to write these words.
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is the author of Eruption: The Untold Story of Mount St. Helens
. He grew up in eastern Washington State but moved east in 1974 and stayed there for 35 years before returning to the Pacific Northwest in 2009. He lives in Seattle.