Mount St. Helens, located in southwestern Washington about 50 miles northeast of Portland, Oregon, is one of several lofty volcanic peaks that dominate the Cascade Range of the Pacific Northwest; the range extends from Mount Garibaldi in British Columbia, Canada, to Lassen Peak in northern California. Geologists call Mount St. Helens a composite volcano (or stratovolcano), a term for steepsided, often symmetrical cones constructed of alternating layers of lava flows, ash, and other volcanic debris. Composite volcanoes tend to erupt explosively and pose considerable danger to nearby life and property. In contrast, the gently sloping shield volcanoes, such as those in Hawaii, typically erupt nonexplosively, producing fluid lavas that can flow great distances from the active vents. Although Hawaiian-type eruptions may destroy property, they rarely cause death or injury. Before 1980, snow-capped, gracefully symmetrical Mount St. Helens was known as the "Fujiyama of America." Mount St. Helens, other active Cascade volcanoes, and those of Alaska form the North American segment of the circum-Pacific "Ring of Fire," a notorious zone that produces frequent, often destructive, earthquake and volcanic activity.
Some Indians of the Pacific Northwest variously called Mount St. Helens "Louwala-Clough," or "smoking mountain." The modern name, Mount St. Helens, was given to the volcanic peak in 1792 by Captain George Vancouver of the British Royal Navy, a seafarer and explorer. He named it in honor of a fellow countryman, Alleyne Fitzherbert, who held the title Baron St. Helens and who was at the time the British Ambassador to Spain. Vancouver also named three other volcanoes in the Cascades--Mounts Baker, Hood, and Rainier--for British naval officers.
Indians on the Cowlitz River watching an eruption of Mount St. Helens, as painted by Canadian artist Paul Kane following a visit to the volcano in 1847 (Photograph courtesy of the Royal Ontario Museum).
The local Indians and early settlers in the then sparsely populated region witnessed the occasional violent outbursts of Mount St. Helens. The volcano was particularly restless in the mid-19th century, when it was intermittently active for at least a 26-year span from 1831 to 1857. Some scientists suspect that Mount St. Helens also was active sporadically during the three decades before 1831, including a major explosive eruption in 1800. Although minor steam explosions may have occurred in 1898, 1903, and 1921, the mountain gave little or no evidence of being a volcanic hazard for more than a century after 1857. Consequently, the majority of 20th-century residents and visitors thought of Mount St. Helens not as a menace, but as a serene, beautiful mountain playground teeming with wildlife and available for leisure activities throughout the year. At the base of the volcano's northern flank, Spirit Lake, with its clear, refreshing water and wooded shores, was especially popular as a recreational area for hiking, camping, fishing, swimming and boating.
The tranquility of the Mount St. Helens region was shattered in the spring
of 1980, however, when the volcano stirred from its long repose, shook,
swelled, and exploded back to life. The local people rediscovered that they
had an active volcano in their midst, and millions of people in North America
were reminded that the active--and potentially dangerous--volcanoes of the
United States are not restricted to Alaska and Hawaii.
Previous Eruptive History
Contact: John Watson
Last updated: 06.25.97