Friday, May 18, 2018

May 18, 1980 - Mt St Helens: The Burlington Northern Connection

My how time flies!  Today marks the 38th anniversary of the Mt. St. Helens eruption.  Here is how I originally presented the story  ...

Portland Oregon, May 18, 1980.
After months of teasing us, Mt St Helens finally blew her top off. Literally. One square mile of it!

The mountain is about 60 miles north and slightly to the east of the Portland - Vancouver metroplex. You just had to find a hill with an unobstructed view to the north, to enjoy this, the most violent of natures land re-distribution schemes. These folks were watching from the Pittock Mansion located on a hill overlooking Portland.


Prevailing weather patterns took the ash plume into Eastern Washington, Northern Idaho and beyond. Residents of Ritzville in eastern Washington explore the moon like dust. On a positive note, the ash-fall from Mt St Helens is often credited for the richness of the soils in the Palouse Region, famous for it's wheat, pea, and lentil crops.

The Internet is rich with the history and background leading up to the Big Blast, which I will not reiterate. This site is one of the better ones; you will be challenged to look up more than a half dozen references!
While most of the ash fall was to the east, changes in weather patterns brought ash south into the Vancouver - Portland area, on several occasions. And of course like everyone else, I had to collect a jar or two.

This is my last jar. When you look at it carefully, you have to marvel at the mechanism that creates millions of tons of this stuff, and blasts it into the atmosphere. I could only shake my head at anxious passengers who are still being disrupted by the eruption in Iceland.

They grouse about not being able to fly. While it looks pretty and feels soft to the touch, it is composed of silicates, and can damage human lungs and internal combustion engines with equal aplomb. Does this read like something you would be comfortable inhaling?

This jar had been sealed since I collected the ash in 1980. When I took the lid off last night, a strong odor of hydrogen sulfide gas was emitted!



This was early in the morning of May 25, 1980. Looks like snow falling, but that is volcanic ash! Taken from my living room window in North Portland, facing west, the volcano would be to the right ... 60 miles north!

This is what we woke up to on May 25th. Deceptively beautiful. These are the roofs of two other buildings in the small complex where I bivouacked. Several of us spent the day helping the landlord get this off the roofs, before rain turned it into dangerously heavy mud, which would threaten the structures.

Trying to hose the roof down resulted in creating heavy mud, which clogged the drains. It had to be shoveled and swept.


Check the '80's look! I look like a ding-dong, I cleverly inscribed "Mt. Ash" on my truck. This despite constant warnings by authorities NOT to drive in or breath the ash, which had the composition of grinding grit! Those "Mt. Ash" engravings were visible on my vehicle for many years following.

And, of course I just had to see what was going on in the neighborhood. Notice the lack of motor vehicles, which meant only a few of us were out trying to clog air filters!

And automotive air filters flew off the shelves of parts stores! This photo shows folks navigating in downtown Portland. Not only automotive air filters, but any kind of filter was hard to locate, and commanded a considerable "markup" when located.

The ash was deceptively beautiful. One could hardly avoid touching it. Since it is silica based, cottage industries sprung up with creative people making coffee mugs, icons, and of course, ash trays, out of the stuff.

A report issued by the US Geological Survey gives this assessment of potential disruption to railroad operations, should there be renewed activity on Mt St Helens:

  • Rail transportation is less vulnerable to volcanic ash than roads and highways,with disruptions mainly caused by poor visibility and breathing problems for train crews. Moving trains will also stir up fallen ash, which can affect residents living near railway tracks and urban areas through which railway lines run.
  • Fine ash can enter engines and cause increased wear on all moving parts. Light rain on fallen ash may also lead to short-circuiting of signal equipment.
  • Temporary shutdown disruptions caused by poor visibility and breathing problems for train crews, and potential damage to engines and other equipment, can result in the temporary shutdown of rail services or the delay in normal schedules. For example, ten trains in western Montana (USA) were shut down for nearly a day because of 1-2 mm of ash fall resulting from the eruption of Mount St. Helens volcano, 625 km to the west. Rail services were back to normal operations within 3 days.
Mt St Helens today with a Lenticular cloud cap. Elevation 8,363 ft after loosing 1,314 feet.

Oh! You remember I mentioned the top one square mile of Mt St Helens blew away? Well that land was owned by Burlington Northern (read Northern Pacific!)  Dating back to the days of railroad land grants, the Northern Pacific railroad owned the land covering a large segment of the top of the mountain.

In an effort to protect themselves from accident or injury liability, what with scientists and TV crews landing helicopters on the summit almost daily, Burlington Northern Railroad Loss Prevention asked the US Forest Service (USFS) to declare their property on the summit as closed.

But television crews who had landed on the summit days before were immune to prosecution. They had landed on property just outside the closure area enforced by the USFS.

And it all became a mute point following the eruption; the entire area was scattered over five states!

The joke around town was, "Did the Burlington Northern Railway file an Environmental Impact Statement prior to setting off the explosion, as required by the EPA?" 

The US Forest Service and Burlington Northern swapped parcels of land on August 26, 1982. This was done to facilitate the Mount St Helen's National Volcanic Monument.

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