Mount St. Helens: Before and After

Mount St. Helens is a volcano in the Cascade Mountains of Washington state and for decades had been a favorite destination for local outdoor enthusiast without receiving much attention from outside the state. the serenity of the surrounding forests, was shattered the morning of May 18, 1980 at 8:31 a.m. with a cataclysmic eruption that had a devastating effect on nearby communities as well as forests, lakes and rivers.

Mount St. Helens, May 1982

Long before settlers arrived from the east, Mt. St. Helens was a sacred place to the local Indian tribes. They had been witnesses to its long history of eruptive behavior and ancient legends caused them to give the mountain a wide berth. Some of the names given to the mountain were Lawelatla (“One From Whom Smoke Comes”), Louwala-Clough (“Smoking Mountain”), Tah-one-lat-clah (“Fire Mountain”) and the most commonly used name today Loo-wit (“Keeper of the Fire”).

The local tribes would not fish in Spirit Lake, believing the fish, with heads like bears, held the souls of the evilest people who had ever lived. They also believed the lake shores were populated by a band of rogue demons. Only young warriors out to prove their bravery dared climb to the timberline and spend the night.

Mount St. Helens one day before the 1980 eruption.
Mount St. Helens one day before the 1980 eruption.

When Mount St. Helens erupted on May 18, 1980, the top 400 meters (1,300 feet) of the volcano disappeared within minutes. The blast area covered more than 390 square kilometers (150 square miles) and sent thousands of tons of ash into the upper atmosphere. Nature may be covering the scars of the 1980 eruption, but many people will never forget what happened that spring day.

Books and Documentaries about Mount St. Helens

Today, the mountain receives a steady stream of visitors throughout the year. The mountain, as well as thousands of acres of adjacent slopes, streams, lakes and forests, have been given the status of a National Monument.

Produced by Stephen M. Wessells. USGS scientists recount their experiences before, during and after the May 18, 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens. Loss of their colleague David A. Johnston and 56 others in the eruption cast a pall over one of the most dramatic geologic moments in American history.

Volcano Eruption Mount St. Helens May 18, 1980 USGS