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When St Helens Made Headlines

Published by Steve Campion. Category: History

Most of us consider the Mt St Helens eruption of 1980, old news.  If you’re under 30, it was never news; it was history.  Ancient history, maybe.  That’s normal.  Time moves forward.  Everything that happens today will be history before you know it.

Let’s go back to a time before St Helens blew her top: before it was history; before it was even news.  On the first day of spring, 1980, people were talking about hostages in Iran and the Sonics heading for the playoffs.  No one was discussing volcanoes in Washington State.  Few people around here expected to see an active volcano in their midst during their lifetimes — let alone a violent eruption within nine weeks!  But that was before the pristine, symmetrical snow-clad peak northeast of Vancouver started spitting steam and ash.

If you only glanced at the front page, you might not have thought anything was amiss until March 25, 1980 — 32 years ago today — when a small photo and headline (shown above) appeared above the masthead in the Tuesday afternoon edition of the Seattle Times.  A science reporter’s article at the bottom of page B-1 talked about a swarm of earthquakes around the mountain.  “Geologists aren’t sure what the quakes portend,” the reporter wrote.  And the developing events didn’t even hold the newspaper’s interest for very long.  After a flurry of prominent articles, the shaking and bulging volcano had become routine and dropped off the front page for almost three weeks (April 17 to May 5), before reappearing only four more times before May 18.  On eruption Sunday, while local TV were broadcasting non-stop coverage, Seattle Times readers had to turn to page C-1 (the 49th page overall) for any mention of the mountain.

To get a sense how the story played out in the press, we listed three months of front page headlines from the Seattle Times that spring, from the first hint of trouble to the week after the big blow.

MOUNT SAINT HELENS ON THE FRONT PAGE OF THE SEATTLE TIMES, SPRING 1980

Date Headline
March 25 (Tue) St. Helens restless after quakes B 1 (above masthead with small photo)
March 26 (Wed) St. Helens area evacuated; earthquakes less violent (photo)
March 27 (Thu) Mt. St. Helens spews steam, ash (photo)
March 28 (Fri) Mount St. Helen’s fusillade continues; new pit sighted (photo, map); Two more quakes rattle mountainConcern grows in nearby Cougar
March 29 (Sat) St. Helens spews 3-foot rocks (2 photos); ‘Once in a lifetime sight’ is unseen (photo)
March 30 (Sun) Peak spouts steam, ashes (2 photos, diagram)
March 31 (Mon) Volcanic encore: 2nd vent opens (photo)
April 1 (Tue) New, stronger quakes hit volcano (photo)
April 2 (Wed) Volcanic dust falling in Portland (photo); TV viewers erupt
(regarding a Boston TV station running April Fools joke
about a local ski resort hill using footage from St Helens)
April 3 (Thu) Major eruption of St. Helens predicted
April 4 (Fri) State readying for major eruption (photo)
April 5 (Sat) Face of volcano still changing expressions
April 6 (Sun) Sight-seers pose volcanic problem
April 7 no mention on the front page
April 8 (Tue) Melting ice feeds 2 crater lakes
April 9 (Wed) Mount St. Helens shaken by 2 more sharp quakes
April 10 no mention on the front page
April 11 (Fri) St. Helens poses slide threat (photo)
April 12 (Sat) Good weather will give clear view of new vents on St. Helens; Best viewing spots
April 13 – 15 no mention on the front page
April 16 (Wed) The edge … of the crater and the law (photo)
April 17 – May 5 no mention on the front page
May 6 (Tue) Bulging volcano; Molten rock expanding side of St. Helens, say scientists
May 7 no mention on the front page
May 8 (Thu) St. Helens again spews smoke, ash B 1
May 9 -10 no mention on the front page
May 11 (Sun) Volcano created Spirit Lake; now it threatens it (map, diagram)
May 12 – 16 no mention on the front page
May 17 (Sat) ‘Unlock the gate and step aside’ St. Helens’ cabin owners to defy state roadblock
May 18 (Sun) On the morning of the big eruption the first mention of the mountain in the Seattle Times was in an article on C-1, the 49th page overall: “Owners visit cabins at Spirit Lake”
May 19 (Mon) St. Helens still spewing ash, but scientists believe the worst is over (photo); Mudslide, flooding; Volcano eruption kills 2 hikers camped 30 miles away
May 20 (Tue) Missing-persons total nears 100
May 21 (Wed) St. Helens death toll now at 10; Carter declares state disaster area
May 22 (Thu) Mountain sending new danger signs; Carter views devastation (photo); Train brought hope to ashen Ritzville
May 23 (Fri) Death toll reaches 17 (photo)
May 24 (Sat) Peak lost 2,300 feet in eruption (photo); Mt. St. Helens damage estimates top $1 billion (photo); Ray calls out guard to clean up ash
May 25 (Sun) VOLCANO: A rage that filled the sky; Special Report on Mount St. Helens, Section B; Eruptions send ash to Portland (photo); Survivor search lacked coordination, says official
May 26 (Mon) State’s southwest mired in ash (photo); Kelso area residents learn messy truth about ash

Related WA-List: Fatalities: Mt St Helens, 1980.

SOURCE: I dug through about 90 days of newspaper archives from the Seattle Times.

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2 Responses to “When St Helens Made Headlines”

  1. Joan Says:

    So long ago but so fresh in memory.

  2. Kari Says:

    This is a really neat look at the event! It’s fun to see what made the press take notice.

    Everyone I know who lived here at the time say it seems like yesterday that the mountain blew. (Last summer I visited Mt. St. Helens for the first time. The scars are still there but they’re beginning to heal. I wish I’d visited 15 years ago when I first moved to the area.)