From the Vault: Mount St. Helens

By Eilene Lyon     May 18, 2021

The “From the Vault” series features an artifact or family photo from my collection to illustrate a tale from my distant past.

On this day 41 years ago, I was just a few weeks from the pinnacle of many a teen’s life – high school graduation. It also happened to be the day that Mount St. Helens detonated, taking innumerable lives in the process: flora, fauna, human.

I’ve had some experience with volcanic activity in Guatemala, but this time I was far from the event in Ohio. My relatives in Oregon had front row seats. They had a lot of company: a little over a million in the Portland metro area alone, including adjacent Vancouver, Washington. Spectators ogled from every imaginable viewpoint.

Mount St. Helens erupting. (Wikimedia Commons)

Notable seismic activities and gas releases began in March 1980. Magma intrusion formed an alarming bulge in the north face of the mountain. The eruption on May 18 began with the largest recorded landslide in history as the north slope sloughed away, releasing lava, ash, and scorching gases.

The human death toll was roughly 60 persons.

One stands out as a hero of the day: geologist/vulcanologist David A. Johnston. He remained at his observation post, well aware of the risk. He was the first to report the eruption. Johnston and his colleagues pressured the federal government to close the Mount St. Helens region to tourism as the fateful day approached, thus saving thousands of lives.

David A. Johnston, about 13 hours before he died in the Mount St. Helens eruption on May 18, 1980. (Wikimedia Commons)

The ash plume blotted out the sun near Portland and then to the north and east. Soon it spread in the upper atmosphere across the country, painting the skies crimson at sunrise and sunset. Meteorologists predicted it would cause a rainier and cooler summer and perhaps impact weather for several years if eruptions continued. Volcanic activity occurred regularly through October 1980 and sporadically into the early 1990s. The mountain is considered active still.

Ash fallout from the Mount St. Helens eruption on May 18, 1980. (Wikimedia Commons)

My grandfather, Laurence M. Smith, took a sight-seeing flight over Mount St. Helens in September 1986 and recorded these photos.

Then what to do with all that ash? Well, some of it has nourished new plant growth around the mountain and region. One enterprising person collected some and turned it into souvenirs. My grandparents sent me this glass egg made in 1983 from the ash. The patterns on the surface evoke the eruption. The interior bubbles and swirls reflect subterranean turmoil. Both are reminders of the power of the planet to destroy…and create anew.

Mount St. Helens. (E. Lyon 2002)
Mount St. Helens. (E. Lyon 2002)
Mount St. Helens. (E. Lyon 2002)

“Mount St. Helens Finally Blows Its Top” The Oregon Statesman (Salem). May 19, 1980, p. 1 – via

“Ash Cloud to Give Area Brilliant Sunrises, Sunsets” Dayton (OH) Daily News. May 20, 1980, p. 1 – via

43 thoughts on “From the Vault: Mount St. Helens

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  1. I’ve got an ornament made from the ash. Donald and Rose Wilson lived in SW Washington. They sent a container of ash, which I divided into small bottles and glued the lids on. They turned into “treasure” (hiding in the sandpile) for son Dan’s Tough Guy’s club for a treasure hunt around the back yard.

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  2. Before retiring, I worked at the Geological Society of America, and there was a display in the headquarters building with a couple of volcanic bombs from Mount St. Helens and a couple of photos of David A. Johnston, along with a page telling his story. He was a dedicated man.

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    1. Not at all. Just click on the link to Wikipedia at the bottom to learn more. We watched a documentary show recently about a woman who was working with him. He made her leave the night of the 17th and saved her life.

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  3. I was five months pregnant with my first child in May of 1980 and can barely remember this. So it was good to be reminded and learn all those details. Those eggs are beautiful!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I expect the pregnancy certainly had the bulk of your attention. Just one egg, seen from different sides. It was so hard to photograph, because it would always show reflections of everything around it, including me and my phone camera.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Some great photos! I remember Larry telling me how he was camping with friends, I can’t remember now if it was Banff or Waterton, and when they woke up and climbed out of their tents everything was covered with ash. They had no idea what had happened. I was still living in Ontario back then. Good read, thanks.

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  5. I remember this day. Thank you for the story of David Johnston. I was in Denver and the calendar on the wall for that month had a picture of Spirit Lake. We collected enough ash to fill a film canister. Thanks for the map.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I remember hearing the story and seeing the pictures of the ash covered everywhere – what an incredible sight it was. Your story was interesting Eilene and brought the facts to life after all these years. I saw an amazing picture of a volcano on fire, a bright orange ball of fire in the sky, the other day on Twitter. I did not remember where it was, but just Googled and it was the Stromboli volcano I saw.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Lava is spewing somewhere all the time! Seeing Fuego erupt in Guatemala in 1976 will remain etched in my memory until I die. An incredible spectacle. Fortunately, the ash blew away from the city. Not so fortunate for those living around Lake Atitlan.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I was fascinated with the photos of the lava in Hawaii a few years ago. I watched one video showing a parked car and the owners were not able to move it and they watched in horror as the molten hot lava kept coming, crossed the road and flowed right over the vehicle. I was both amazed and horrified.

        Liked by 1 person

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