Mount Saint Helens’ last major eruption was in 1980, while Mount Rainier could erupt at any time (no big deal). You may not know these stories about our local volcanoes but after you read them, you just might look at our mountains a little differently.
Mount Saint Helens has erupted more frequently than any other volcano in the Cascade Range during the past 4,000 years. Over the last 500 years alone, there have been at least four major explosive eruptions and many minor eruptions. So the infamous eruption in May of 1980 was just one of many.
And speaking of that fateful Mount Saint Helens eruption on May 18, 1980…It was the most economically destructive volcanic event in U.S. history. The resulting volcanic ash cloud drifted east across the United States in three days and encircled the Earth in 15 days. Volcanic mudflows called lahars filled rivers with rocks, sand and mud, damaging over 200 homes and 27 bridges. The effects of that eruption continue today, but the landscape devastated by the eruption has evolved into a rich and diverse habitat for animals and plants.
57 people lost their lives when Mount Saint Helens erupted on that fateful day in 1980. But there are also some stories of near misses, people who could have died but managed to escape. Trixie Anders and her husband narrowly escaped death on the morning of the eruption, all because her husband insisted on stopping for breakfast. Their mutual friend skipped breakfast to get close to the erupting volcano to get better pictures, and unfortunately he was killed in the blast. She told her story to The News Tribune in 2010, explaining that she and her husband had to fly down the road in a Jeep to avoid harm’s way.
In 1833, a Native American guide named Sluiskin led a party of European settlers to the base of what is now Mount Rainier. When he heard the settlers planned to climb the mountain, he tried to talk them out of it. The summit housed a lake of fire, he said, in which an evil spirit lived. The natives all knew this, which is why they never climbed above the snowline. The climbers didn’t listen to his pleas and decided to climb the mountain. Sluiskin was certain he’d never see them again. Two days later, he did see the (tired but victorious) settlers… but he was completely convinced that they were ghosts.
Mount Rainier was once called Tacoma by Native Americans. It has also been referred to as Talol, Tahoma, Tacobeh and Pooskaus by various tribes. It was George Vancouver that gave the volcano the name Mount Rainier to honor his friend, Rear Admiral Peter Rainier.
So what would happen if Mount Rainier erupted? That’s a good question, and the answer is a little scary. Mount Rainier has been called a time bomb, and it just might be the most dangerous mountain in the country. While there are no guarantees that it will erupt, if it did, it would have the potential to cause tens of thousands of Americans to be buried alive in superheated mud. It’s a little unsettling, especially since Mount Rainier National Park sees thousands of visitors every year.
Mount Baker has the second most thermally active crater in the Cascade Range (Mount Saint Helens has the first). The crater is called Sherman Crater, and it was formed in 1843 from a large hydrovolcanic explosion. It also has the potential to be very destructive if it erupts, and there has been enough activity there over the last 30-40 years that USGS scientists are keeping an eye on it.
Mount Adams, the second highest peak in Washington, has quite a legend behind it. The Yakamas named it Pahto, and their story explains Mount Adams’ appearance. Long ago, the Sun was a man with five wives who were mountains: Plash-Plash (the Goat Rocks), Wahkshum (the Simcoe Mountains), Pahto (Adams), Rainier, and Mount St. Helens. Pahto became jealous because she was third in line to be greeted by the Sun in the morning. She broke down with Plash-Plash and Wahkshum. But it wasn’t enough for Pahto to be greeted first—she wanted more.
She crossed the Columbia and took plants and animals from the mountains there. Pahto became mean-spirited and sent thunderstorms, heavy rain and snow to the valley below. Finally, the Great Spirit came to Pahto and gave her a piece of his mind. He reminded her that she was his daughter, at which point Pahto repented and became nice again. We certainly hope she stays that way.