The Johnston Ridge Observatory

Most visitors who want to get close to Mount St. Helens, drive the 48 miles on the Spirit Lake Highway to the Johnston Ridge Observatory.

Here you are a mere 5.5 miles from an active volcano. This is well within the former Red Zone which was restricted to visitors in the winter and spring of 1980. Only certain people where allowed into the Red Zone and one of those was David Johnston, a volcanologist, who was there to monitor the volcano.

Johnston was really not supposed to be there the morning of May 18 but out of kindness he switched shifts with a colleague who was busy meeting with some foreign graduate students.

At the time of the eruption, Johnston was 30 years old and he had been working as an volcanologist who specialized in the study of volcanic gases and how these gases might help in the prediction of volcanic eruptions. He was at Mount St. Helens as one of the many scientists that were here to help monitor the volcano and to carefully watch the bulge on the north side of the mountain that was growing by five feet a day.

On Saturday May 17, Johnston stationed himself outside a USGS RV at a location called Coldwater II, 5.5 miles from the volcano. On the following morning Johnston made some measurements and observations and then at 8:32 AM, he radioed the USGS headquarters in Vancouver, Washington: “Vancouver, Vancouver, this is it!”

This field sketch is from the approximate position of Coldwater II, the observation position of David Johnston on May 18, 1980.

This was the last radio transmission from Johnston.

At 8:32 AM there was a 5.1 magnitude earthquake under the volcano causing the north face to fall away from the mountain causing the largest landslide in recorded geologic history. The avalanche travelled 14 miles before coming to a rest. This uncovered the over-pressured core of the volcano, releasing ash, magma, and rocks, fifteen miles into the atmosphere. The eruption of Mount St. Helens was now underway.

Johnston’s body was never found. The ridge where he was on that fateful day in 1980 is now named after him.

The memorial to the 57 who lost their lives and it’s cause in the background. David A. Johnston is one of them. The memorial is a short hike from the Johnston Ridge Observatory and it is this viewpoint that is in the featured sketch.
The incredible vista of Mount St. Helens from the Johnston Ridge Observatory.

Harry R. Truman

Soon after the earthquakes started in March of 1980, Harry Truman was urged to leave the lake and lodge he loved.

Harry R. Truman was born on October 30, 1896 in West Virginia. When he was a child, his family relocated to the state of Washington and settled in the eastern part of the state on 160 acres of farmland.

Harry first came to Spirit Lake in 1926. He then ran a shop and gas station that also rented boats. Over the years he built up Mount St. Helens Lodge which was on the shores of Spirit Lake and at the base Mount St. Helens. He ran his lodge for 52 years with the help of his third wife Edie.

Sprit Lake was a summer paradise, ringed with many camps, resorts, and lodges. Visitors enjoyed swimming, canoeing, and fishing on the cold waters and enjoyed stunning views of the mountain that loomed over the lake. Harry was looking forward to visitors for the upcoming summer season (being a curmudgeon, perhaps he was not so optimistic). But then the mountain started shaking.

Residents close to the mountain where evacuated but Harry refused to go. He had lost his wife five years previously and he had been wedded to the lake, the resort, and the mountain for fifty years. He was not going to leave.

Truman became a media darling and a folk hero. Many reporters where flown in to interview him. Truman often had his favorite drink in his hand, Coca-cola and Schenley whiskey. Harry once told a reporter that he hates to drink but people drive him to it. He also told another reporter, “If the mountain goes, I’m going with it. This area is heavily timbered, Sprit Lake is in between me and the mountain, and the mountain ain’t gonna hurt me.”

He could not have been more wrong. Just like the government officials, the press, and some members of the USGS who underestimated the incredible power of the sleeping giant that is Mount St. Helens. They certainly found out at 8:32 AM on May 18, 1980. But for Harry, he had little time to reassess his situation.

It has been estimated that Harry had about 22 seconds from when the landslide started to it’s arrival at his lodge. Harry must have heard and felt it coming but could do nothing to save his life.

He would become the first of the 57 causalities of the eruption of Mount St. Helens. And his body has never been found but is buried under 300 feet of the landslide that was the northern flank of Mount St. Helens. The mountain that Harry had loved and hiked upon now was his earthen grave.

This Roger Werth photograph of Truman sitting on the front steps of the Mount St. Helens Lodge was taken the day before the volcano erupted. The only thing missing from the photo is his cap and his drink.
Trumans name on the memorial to those that perished during the May 18, 1980 eruption of the mountain behind the memorial.