Mount st. Helens: a tourist hot spot jessica reingold

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History 485: Historical Research

Dr. Sellers

December 1, 2014


This paper studies the history of Mount St. Helens, its role within United States history, and the various human interactions with the volcano. Moreover, this paper analyzes the various perceptions of the volcano throughout its history.  This study argues that although the volcano has shown it can be the cause of a natural disaster, the basis of the relationship between the American public and Mount St. Helens is tourism albeit different forms of tourism. Ultimately, while perceptions of the volcano have changed and the reasons why tourists visit the mountain have changed from before the 1980 eruption of the volcano, Mount St. Helens remains a beloved tourist destination.

Volcanoes have always been a source of major geological phenomena on Earth. Volcanic eruptions are one of the many forces of nature that are uncontrollable and as such, they have caused mass extinctions, destroyed entire forests and villages, and have resulted in many human casualties. One famous volcano is Mount St. Helens. The mountain is one of the many volcanoes in the Cascade Mountain Range, which is a section of the Ring of Fire. The Ring of Fire is a horseshoe shape belt of volcanoes that encompasses the Pacific Ocean. The belt extends North from the bottom of the western coast of South America to the western coast of North America, past the Arctic Circle, then continues south, passing the eastern coast of Asia, and the coast of Australia. In the United States, these fiery mountains in the Cascade Mountain Range, many of which are still active today, have been a part of legends and exploration journals, and have been popular tourist destinations throughout American history. Mount St. Helens, the youngest volcano of the Cascades, was not only a part of Native American legends, and used as a popular vacation destination by the American public, but was also the source of a major natural disaster in twentieth century America.  

Mount St. Helens left its mark in American history on May 18, 1980 when it erupted and not only caused fifty-seven human deaths but also caused the largest debris avalanche on Earth in recorded history. The eruption was the first major volcanic event in the continental U.S. since the 1915 eruption of Lassen Peak in California. Mount St. Helens’s eruption caused great destruction, which captivated the American public. Nevertheless, after much monitoring, and after a smaller eruption in 2004, the volcano has been deemed safe to visit. So now people from all across the country, and the world, go to Washington State to see the peak-less mountain. Although Mount St. Helens has been and continues to be a popular tourist destination, that aspect of its history has not been covered extensively by scholars within the field of the history of Mount St. Helens.

The field of Mount St. Helens’ history is vast and has many different components to it. From the inhabitants in Washington State that have interacted with Mount St. Helens, to the incredible 1980 eruption, and to natural disaster history, Mount St. Helens appears in a wide range of historical and scientific scholarly works. Nonetheless, aside from works that are centered on the 1980 eruption, Mount St. Helens is rarely the sole feature in scholars’ pieces. Moreover the relationship between the American public and the volcano is hardly touched on in spite of the fact that Mount St. Helens is located in a National Forest, is a National Volcanic Monument, and is a tourist destination. Furthermore, the volcano’s full story from a historical viewpoint has not been completely tied together. There is more to the volcano than the destruction it has caused and its place in myths and legends. Mount St. Helens and Spirit Lake, which is the lake located Northeast of the volcano, are also significant to the greater American public as a tourist destination. Furthermore, the tourism history associated with Mount St. Helens from before and after the 1980 eruption has not been united.

Analyzing the interaction with Mount St. Helens by Americans before, during, and after the 1980 eruption shows that despite the volcano’s potential for danger and displays of destruction, tourism remains the basis of the relationship between the American public and volcano. However, the perception of the mountain and the kind of tourism that the American public engaged in when visiting Mount St. Helens differed before and after the 1980 eruption. One possible reason for the change in the type of tourism is the rebranding of Mount St. Helens from a resort and recreational area before the 1980 eruption to a National Volcanic Monument after the 1980 eruption. Yet, one possible common factor between the types of tourism that have made Mount St. Helens a tourist destination for over a century is morbid curiosity within the American public. The danger that is often associated with volcanoes excites and attracts visitors even if they do not understand the geology behind the volcano’s formation or volcanic eruptions because volcanoes are one of the several forces of nature that humans cannot control. As potential tourists of volcanoes, it is important to understand why Mount St. Helens is still an active volcano and why it erupts more violently than other types of volcanoes.

The Cascade Mountains start in California and continue North into British Columbia. The mountain range is split geographically and geologically. Geographically, the Cascades are split between the northern Cascades in British Columbia and Washington and the southern Cascades, or western Cascades, in southern Washington, Oregon, and California. The distinction between the northern Cascades and western Cascades is also due to the difference in age between the two sections of the mountain range. The northern Cascades date back to over a billion years ago whereas the western Cascades date back to about forty million years ago but really began to form only about ten million years ago.1 Mount St. Helens lies within the western Cascades since it is in southern Washington. Mount St. Helens and Mount Baker are the youngest in the Cascades and are only about thirty thousand to forty thousand years old.2 Mount St. Helens began as a very small mountain, with its various domes reaching about four thousand feet.3 However, over time, the volcano’s domes grew.

Even at its tallest, Mount St. Helens was the shortest of all the Cascades. Its peak before the 1980 eruption reached about 9,677 feet and after the eruption the peak only reached about 8,357 feet.4 In comparison, Mount St. Helens’ neighbor, Mount Adams, is the third highest at peak at about 12,286 feet.5 Like the other Cascade Mountains, Mount St. Helens is a stratovolcano. Stratovolcanoes tend to be steeper and pointed since they are built by “alternating layers of lava and volcanic debris.”6 As a result of their structure, stratovolcanoes explode when they erupt and therefore, tend to cause more damage than other types of volcanoes such as shield volcanoes like the ones that make up the Hawaiian Islands.7 Contrastingly, shield volcanoes do not explode but instead ooze when they erupt, since their slopes are gentler and wider.

Mount St. Helens’ pre-1980 eruptive history is “strongly episodic.” There have been four major stages: Ape Canyon, Cougar, Swift Creek, and Spirit Lake. The volcano’s first lava domes formed during the Ape Canyon Stage. The activity of the volcano became more violent in the Cougar Stage and it was during that stage that the volcano produced the largest amount of lava flow in its history. Unstable lava domes were common throughout the Swift Creek Stage and produced widespread ash layers, and extensive amounts of volcanic debris. The majority of the pre-1980 eruption Mount St. Helens was formed during the Spirit Lake Stage as a result of numerous smaller eruptions leaving new layers that built up the volcano.8

The Spirit Lake stage is also broken up further into smaller eruptive periods. It lasted from three thousand nine hundred years ago to today, and included the Smith Creek Eruptive Period, Pine Creek Eruptive Period, Castle Creek Eruptive Period, Sugar Bowl Eruptive Period, Kalama Eruptive Period, and the Goat Rocks Eruptive period. The most significant event of the Kalama Eruptive Period was the growth of a large dome at the summit. Geologists refer to this particular summit as Summit Dome. The Summit Dome grew for about one hundred years, from 1620 to 1720, and gave Mount St. Helens its symmetrical pre-1980 eruption form. Finally, the Goat Rocks Eruptive Period lasted from about 1800– 1857, and it was what some Americans witnessed throughout the first half of the nineteenth century.9 Most of the volcanoes in the western Cascades have only erupted a handful of times within the last four thousand years, but Mount St. Helens has been the most active. In fact, Mount St. Helens has been the most active volcano in the United States within the past two thousand years, and as such, many groups of people have witnessed it erupting.10

Some of the first people who documented Mount St. Helens erupting were various Native American tribes. Several Salish tribes, Chinookan tribes, and tribes within the Yakima Nation inhabited the areas around Mount St. Helens and Spirit Lake. The tribes interacted with Mount St. Helens and developed oral traditions about the mountain to explain why natural phenomena, like volcanic eruptions occur. For example, the Klickitats have a legend called “The Bridge of the Gods” that explains how Mount St. Helens, or Loo-Wit to the Klickitat people, was formed and why it erupts.

In the “Bridge of the Gods,” there was peace within the land until two brothers began to quarrel over land. The brothers’ fight upset The Great Spirit, who as a result divided the land between them with a river, now known as the Columbia River. Yet, The Great Spirit did not want the two lands and the two tribes to be completely disconnected, so he united them with a bridge that allowed people from both tribes to cross. Unfortunately, the two tribes began quarreling and so The Great Spirit took away the sunlight, ensuring everyone would freeze during the winter since only the old woman named Loo-wit had fire. Once the winter months came, people from both tribes began to beg The Great Spirit for fire to keep them warm. Some of the desperate people even tried to steal Loo-wit’s fire. Consequently, Loo-wit fled and asked The Great Spirit to give the tribes fire. Since Loo-Wit had not partaken in the fighting between the two tribes, The Great Spirit felt guilty and asked her what she wanted most in this world, and she replied, “youth and beauty.”11

The next morning, The Great Spirit gave the tribes fire and Loo-Wit became young and beautiful again. The tribes’ chiefs also found Loo-wit beautiful. Chief Wyeast from the south side of the river and Chief Klickitat from the north side of the river became jealous when Loo-wit could not pick between the two of them. The Great Spirit became angry when he discovered that the two chiefs were fighting, and he broke down the Bridge of the Gods, which was the bridge connecting the two tribes. In addition, The Great Spirit turned Chief Wyeast (Mount Hood) and Chief Klickitat (Mount Adams as well as Loo-wit (Mount St. Helens) into mountain peaks. Thus, the Great Spirit kept his promise to Loo-wit and made sure she maintained her beauty even as a mountain, since up until 1980, Mount St. Helens’ cone was very symmetrical.12 By turning the chiefs and Loo-wit into mountains, the Klickitats explained how some mountains are volcanoes, and how others are not. The volcanoes are the mountains that used to be people or spirits that were upset or angry, hence why they explode. Mount Hood and Mount Adams are also volcanoes, like Mount St. Helens. When the volcanoes are dormant, that presumably means the chiefs and Loo-wit are not fighting or upset with each other. Although there are variations of the legend “The Bridge of the Gods,” all the variations still tell how the three mountains formed and why they erupt. The idea of the mountains as people in their past lives humanizes the volcanoes, which allowed for the Klickitats and other tribes to cope with the dangers they occasionally encountered while living near the volcanoes. Additionally, because the volcanoes were once members of either their own tribe or other neighboring tribes, the mountains are a part of the tribal kinship that the tribe members share with each other.

Similarly, the Cowlitz also viewed the mountains as people in a past life, and they had their own oral tradition explaining why Mount St. Helens erupts. The Cowlitz people believed that Lawelatla (Mount St. Helens) was the wife of Takhoma (Mount Rainer), and that when they were erupting it was because they were having a “husband and wife argument.”13 In addition to myths that explained natural phenomena, various Native American tribes also included Mount St. Helens in legends that were not centered on the volcano. The inclusion of the volcano further shows that the volcano was a culturally significant to many other tribes. One instance of Mount St. Helens included in a myth that was not focused on the volcano is in the Tillamook Epic “South Wind’s Journey.” In “South Wind’s Journey,” Mount St. Helens is the place where South Wind, a transformer, or in other words, a trickster who can change form at will to intentionally confuse people, leaves the child he bore.14 One reason for why South Wind leaves his child specifically on Mount St. Helens is because the Tillamook people could see Mount St. Helens from where they were situated on the Columbia River.15 Although Tillamook do not include Mount St. Helens erupting the epic, they acknowledge the presence of the volcano and the importance of the volcano to other tribes in that area.

The different Native American tribes were fascinated with the volcanic eruptions of Mount St. Helens, but over time, they were not the only people who would form a relationship with the volcano. Around 1800, the Spokane prophets predicted “the coming of white peoples” when the Mount St. Helens Ash Storm hit.16 The Ash Storm was a major eruption that produced a layer of ash that defined the Goat Rocks period in the mountain’s history.17 The prophets of the tribes saw the eruption as a sign that the world as they knew it would change forever. Little did some of the Native American tribes of the Northwest know, Captain George Vancouver of the British Royal Navy had already found and renamed the mountains from their oral traditions in the 1790s. Mounts Baker, Hood, and Rainier were all named for British naval officers, while Mount St. Helens was named in honor of the British Ambassador to Spain, Alleyne Fitzherbert, who also held the title of Baron St. Helens.18 By giving the mountains European names, Captain Vancouver was not only claiming the area for Great Britain, but also initiating a new relationship with the mountains, one that Americans would develop over the subsequent centuries. Following Captain Vancouver’s discovery, Europeans and the Americans could not stay away from the Pacific Northwest. Lewis and Clark, the famous American explorers documented sightings of Mount St. Helens in 1805 and in 1806, along with other explorers, traders, and missionaries who were traveling to the area.19 By the 1830s and 1840s there were American settlements, forts, and missions set up around the Pacific Northwest, despite the fact Mount St. Helens erupted several times between 1831 and 1857.20

However, not all of the Americans traveled to the Pacific Northwest to become permanent residents. Some Americans were merely travellers who wanted to go an adventure out in wilderness. Essentially, travellers such as Theodore Winthrop were some of the first American tourists to Mount St. Helens and the surrounding area. Winthrop wrote the book The Canoe and the Saddle:  Adventures Among the Northwestern Rivers and Forests, and Isthmiana, published in 1862. The Canoe and The Saddle is about the time that Winthrop toured the Pacific Northwest in the early 1850s. Although his interactions with Native Americans were sometimes hostile, he spoke highly of the picturesque scenery of Oregon and Washington territories. Winthrop especially adored Mount St. Helens:

Dearest charmer of all is St. Helen’s, queen of the Cascades, queen of Northern America, a fair and graceful volcanic cone.  Exquisite mantling snows sweep along her shoulders toward the bristling pines.  Sometimes she showers her realms with a boon of light ashes, to notify them that her peace is repose, not stupor, and sometimes lifts a beacon of tremulous flame by night from her summit.21 

Much like the various Native American tribes, Winthrop anthropomorphizes and genders the mountain to be a female. Despite the difference in societal standards, both Winthrop and the Native Americans associated Mount St. Helens’ polished and unscathed peak with femininity. Interestingly, Winthrop did witness small eruptions and was unfazed by the threat the volcano posed. Instead, he was amazed by Mount St. Helens’ eruptions and by the beauty of the volcano and wanted to rest of the American public to experience the Pacific Northwest as he did. He explains that Americans “know little of these treasures of theirs.”22 His reasoning for the little interaction between the American public the Cascades is because humans have been afraid of mountains and have viewed them as “high, cold, dreary,” and “as resorts for demons.”23 Winthrop was young though and was under the influence of Romantic ideals. The Romantic Era in the United States spanned from about 1820 to 1860. He was only twenty-four when he embarked on his tour of the Northwest and explains he was seeking “adventure, with a lurking hope that [he] might prove new sensations of danger.”24 Whether Winthrop identified as a romanticist or not, he was aware that other Americans recognized that “America's vast mountains” “embodied the sublime,” a key element of the Romantic Era.25 Winthrop mentions the impact of romanticism on Americans’ view of nature:

It is only lately, in the development of men’s comprehension of nature, that mountains have been recognized as our noblest friends, our most exalting and inspiring comrades, our grandest emblems of divine power and divine peace.26

Romantics traveled in order to escape the “cultures and environments” they had already experienced and in hopes to encounter the sublime.27 Volcanoes like Mount St. Helens provided them with the opportunity to experience nature as both serene and dangerous. Eventually, the American public would understand what Winthrop wrote about in his book, and also travel to see the Mount St. Helens in both dormant and active states. The ideologies held by the academics, intellectuals, and artists from the Romantic Era just needed to dilute down to the rest of the population in order to motivate them to pursue their own adventures in the Cascade Mountain Range.

In addition to the romantics, the Cascades also began to attract people interested in recreational activities such as hiking and climbing. The first documented ascent of Mount St. Helens was in 1853 by Thomas Dryer and his party.28 By the late 1890s and early 1900s, mountaineering clubs had formed and were climbing many of the Cascade Mountains. One prominent mountaineering club was the Mazamas, which formed in 1894 on the summit of Mount Hood.29 In 1898, the club tackled Mount St. Helens. Although the mountain appeared to be more active than the other Cascades, it was also the shortest and therefore the “least dangerous,” so the club determined it would be an easy ascent.30 At this point in time, Mount St. Helens was fairly dormant so the Mazamas were not accessing the dangers of the volcano in terms of activity. Instead, the club based the intensity of their climbs off of the height and how even the slopes of the mountains were. The club successfully climbed the south side of the mountain, and then went to climb it again in 1908.31 For the 1908 journey up the mountain, the now famous Sierra Club joined the Mazamas. Both clubs headed up the north side of the mountain, which proved to be more difficult than the Mazamas climb from the south side, but in the end, the climb was successful.32 Nonetheless, the Sierra Club and the Mazamas’ accomplishment was not the only news regarding Mount St. Helens in 1908.

Previously in 1897, the U.S. Department of the Interior made the area around Mount St. Helens a forest reserve. When the forest reserve was transferred under the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1905, Mount St. Helens was included in the forest reserve. It was not until 1908 that the whole forest reserve, including Mount St. Helens, became the Columbia National Forest. 33 With the federally recognized status, Mount St. Helens, Spirit Lake, and the surrounding areas began attracting the attention of people other than climbers. National forests are not cut down for development, so they become a place where the people can be confident they will find the famous American wilderness. In comparison to other places developed places in the early twentieth century, such as Europe, the United States still had nature that “existed independent of human beings.”34 In Europe, conservationists had already enacted policies limiting people of their use of certain areas nature. One group within the American population that was interested in taking an excursion into the American wilderness, out to Spirit Lake, was the Portland YMCA. It is not a coincidence that the Portland YMCA began their annual pilgrimage to Spirit Lake in 1908, since that was also the year the forest, including Spirit Lake, and Mount St. Helens, became the a National Forest.35 The following year, more organized children's groups were hiking to Spirit Lake to camp for the summer, and by the time 1913 came, the summer campers were in the dozens.36 Mount St. Helens was on a dormant streak and so the thought of setting up camp next to a potentially deadly volcano did not cross their minds. The campers were there simply to enjoy nature.

In order to accommodate the growing number of campers and visitors to Spirit Lake and Mount St. Helens, lodges began to open in the 1920s. In 1926, the infamous Harry Truman and his wife, along with Jack Nelson, set up the Mount St. Helens Lodge on Spirit Lake. In the summer months, Truman rented out his various cabins associated with the lodge to tourists.37 Two years later, due to disagreements over how to rent boats to visitors, Jack Nelson left the Mount St. Helens Lodge and opened his own lodge, the Harmony Falls Lodge. Like the Mount St. Helens Lodge, the Harmony Falls Lodge was successful and “attracted a faithful following of Portland families each year.”38 Truman and Nelson became enemies but provided gossip for the Spirit Lake Community.39 Nevertheless, the two Spirit Lake veterans were not the only famous lodge proprietors on Spirit Lake.

Robert and Minnie Lange were at Spirit Lake long before the various lodges were established. Minnie had always lived in the Pacific Northwest and Robert had gone to the Spirit Lake with “gold fever” to try his luck with mining for gold and ore in the late 1800s.40 Although Lange succeeded at making some profit from a mine he set up, by 1911 his mining operations “tapered off” and he turned to lumbering in order to receive a homestead claim from the U.S. Forest Service (USFS). The following year, the sawmill Lange set up for lumbering was used to provide lumber for the Portland YMCA camp that had been visiting every summer. Two years following that, in 1914, Woodrow Wilson “personally signed” Lange’s Homestead claim, which helped the Langes maintain their prime location on Spirit Lake, but the sawmill could not completely support the couple. 41 Before they knew it, the Langes also began to find a place within the tourism market that was developing at Spirit Lake and Mount St. Helens. In the 1920s, they opened a restaurant featuring the Minnie Lange’s very popular huckleberry pie to cater to the growing number of visitors to Spirit Lake. The existing lodges began to expand to accommodate more guests, and the number of summer campers grew into the hundreds.42

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