Honoring the 40th "Eruptiversary" of Mount St. Helens


Mount St. Helens as it looks today. Many thanks to Alysa Adams, interpretive specialist the Mount St. Helens Visitor’s Center, for contributing this blog. She is excited to be returning to some of her duties this week, which include teaching people about the wonder and beauty of Mount St. Helens, though we are guessing her dog will miss her terribly. 

May 13, 2020

This year marks 40 years since that cataclysmic moment
on May 18, 1980, when Mount St. Helens erupted. Mt St Helens 40th anniversary logo pantone conversion

It was an event that started with a series of small earthquakes and ended in a global phenomenon that we still feel the effects of today.

This month is a time to reflect on the many ways Mount St. Helens has changed our world.

Sharing stories


Parks Interpretive Specialist Alysa Adams and other parks staff conducted many interviews with people who had recreated at and witnessed the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 2019. In this photo, Alysa interviews Joann "Josie" Wolff. Hear more about her story in this video

Over the last year, Washington State Parks’ Interpretive Program staff have been working on an oral history project to record the voices of the Mount St. Helens community. The results were inspiring, bringing to life the recreation and eruption scenes all over again, through the eyes of living spectators.

Note: All ages of the people quoted herein are the age they were at the time of the eruption.

A flashback to 40 years ago: The beauty before

Mount St. Helens pre-eruption photo iStock-168252453

Before it erupted in May of 1980, Mount St. Helens was nearly 2 miles high! What comes to mind when you think of Mount St. Helens?

For many, Mount St. Helens was a cherished place to live, visit and work. It was common for families to return year after year, through all the seasons. The Gifford Pinchot National Forest was a recreational paradise.


“It was quite magical living at the lake [Spirit Lake]. I would walk the shoreline around the lake, trying to catch some scenes; photo-ing (photographing) the different wildflowers, hiking trails, seeing the herds of elk, the bears that ran through our camp. There was just endless things to do and to enjoy”
— Jane Rosi-Pattison, 43, spent summers helping at the Longview YMCA Camp Loowit.

“It was like stepping back in time, it was like living in your grandmother’s era.” 
— Josie Wolff, 43, friend of Harry Truman and cabin owner/long time seasonal resident on Spirit Lake.

“The opportunities to commune with nature before the eruption I think probably influenced more people in the Pacific Northwest that got to visit there than you can imagine.” 
— Mark Smith, 20, whose family operated the Spirit Lake lodge. 

“It was beautiful, it’s like the pictures, the mountain reflected into Spirit Lake.
— Jacki Whittaker, 37, Toutle  schoolteacher.

“You never stick your hand in the water at Harmony falls because it was freezing, it comes off the glacier…” 
— Jo Weddell, 32, who spent summers helping at the Portland YMCA Camp Meehan.

The days preceding the eruption


The "bulge" inside the volcano as it looks today. What would you have thought when you turned on your radio or TV and heard reports about the volcano before it erupted? Would you have stayed or packed up and left if you lived nearby? Photo by Mt. St. Helens


“The scientists couldn’t predict what was going to happen. What seems obvious now was not obvious back then, that the bulge would fail.”
– Carolyn Driedger, 27, United States Geological Services glaciologist.

“Most people expected it to be a straight up SPECTACULAR eruption, nobody really thought of the death and destruction.” 
– Dan Tolva, 31, editor at The Columbian

The eruption

As this video from the USGS shows, the eruption of Mount.St. Helens was a spectacular and wide-reaching event. Can you imagine living through a volcanic eruption? How would your connections to the land change?

At 8:32 a.m. on a calm, spring Sunday, Mount St. Helens erupted, triggered by a massive earthquake occurring after a period of peace and quiet at the mountain.


“It was completely dark, raining sand, it smelt like lit matches and it happened for the rest of the day” 
— Janet Sjoholm, of Yakima, who graduated high school in 1980.

“All the trees flattened in a radial direction out from Mount St. Helens… these colossal trees all laid down together. It [the Cowlitz River] was full of wood, trees, root balls, and all kinds of debris and it wasn’t a water flood it was wet concrete flowing by.” 
— Richard Waitt, 37, USGS geologist.

“It [ash] was a monochromatic scene of death.”
— Les Badden, 33, photo reporter with KGWTV.

“You could see, I don’t know how many miles in each direction and all you saw was grey, nothin’, you didn’t see animals, you didn’t see birds, you didn’t see anything.” 
— Richard Ford, 33, Weyerhaeuser employee.

Then and now

st helens visitor center

Mount St. Helens is once again a recreation paradise. People from around the world visit the Mount St. Helens Visitor’s Center (pictured on the left), nearby Seaquest State Park, and hike the lush surrounding trails (pictured on the right). Have you ever been to the Mount St. Helens Visitor Center and surrounding area? Have you watched the vegetation and life return? 

With the current happenings in our world, it is hard not to make parallel connections. Many of us do so through shared experiences of hardship and teamwork toward recovery. In 1980, it was a volcanic eruption. In 2020, it’s a pandemic, but the reactions 40 years ago may sound rather familiar, and either way we’re once again wearing face masks.


“The stores looked like looters had been at work— all meat and perishables had been cleaned out.” 
— Cathy Clark, age unknown, a local resident.

“… The community pulled together.”
— Jacki Whittaker, 37, a Toutle schoolteacher.

“To our delight, the announcement was soon made that all schools were done for the year—summer break had started early, and the cleanup began.” 
— Tim McLaughlin, age unknown, a local resident.

“Nobody knew how to respond.”
— John Budke, 16, a Red Cross volunteer.

“As far as they knew they were all in the same situation, so you could see that sort of a comradery because they were facing the same dilemma. It was a good feeling to see that everybody was working together.”
— Richard Slayton Jr., 30, of Cougar.

Question: What other comparisons can you make between the events of today and the 1980 eruptions? Have any of your emotions echoed the thoughts above?

Mount St. Helens today

Mount St. Helens is once again a place of natural beauty. The 110,000-acre National Volcanic Monument is a living laboratory for us to witness the regrowth and recovery process. Flourishing forests and plentiful watersheds welcome the return of former inhabitants.

Mount St. Helens continues to change our world, and we invite you to check back in with us from time to time to see the progress firsthand!

Learn More

💻 We welcome you to join us for our 40th Eruption Anniversary program next week! 

Tune in to the Washington State Historical Societies’ Facebook page  6:30 to 8:30 p.m. May 18, to catch the Mount St. Helens Story Hour and craft program made possible by the Washington State Parks Folk and Traditional Arts program and the WSHS! A link to this event may also be found on the the Washington State Parks Facebook page.   

📆 Virtual events and online resources to commemorate the 40th Anniversary of the Mount St. Helens eruption:

✔ Mark your calendar for upcoming online programs to experience Mount St. Helens!

👩‍🏫  Mount St. Helens Educational Resources:

✔ Check out these links to discover more about Mount St. Helens!

👩‍💻 Social media pages: 

✔ Join us on social media for Memory Monday and Volcano Tuesday posts!


Instagram 2Instagram 


🕵️‍♀️ And follow these pages to stay up to date with Mount St. Helens happenings and 40th news! 

💡 Do you have a Mount St. Helens memory and photos to share? 
Tell us about it and share your photos on our Story Share portal