The volcanoes of Washington provide a backdrop for our lives. They are sources of beauty, recreation and natural resources.
They also destroy on an epic scale.
The Washington State History Museum in Tacoma has just opened an exhibit on Mount St. Helens, Mount Rainier, Mount Adams, Mount Baker and Glacier Peak. “Living in the Shadows: Volcanoes of Washington” looks at both the geological and human history of those five Cascades volcanoes.
Mount St. Helens begins the show with a bang and takes up the majority of the exhibit. The graceful conical mountain became just a shell of itself on the morning of May 18, 1980, when it erupted with a force that made headlines around the world.
A collection of those headlines — local, national and international newspapers — fill a case. That’s immediately followed by a re-creation of a 1980s living room complete with period furniture and a TV displaying news footage of the eruption.
If you’re in your 40s or older, you likely have memories of the event that claimed 57 lives and gouged, entombed or seared 230 square miles of forest and other natural lands. And you might have a jar or two of ash from the eruption stashed away in a garage or closet.
A collection of those keepsakes sits in a display case in “Living in the Shadows.” The ash, obtained by curators Gwen Whiting and Joan Martin, came from citizens from around the state. Each bottle or jar has a slightly different grain size. The majority of the ash blew east with the wind, plunging parts of Eastern Washington into darkness.
“Some people collected it as a souvenir. Some people collected it because they thought they were going to get rich,” Whiting said.
The show attempts to bridge the gap between people and the giant volcanoes by placing the mountains in various contexts: science, history, culture and preparedness.
Martin grew up in Washington and spent many days recreating among the volcanoes in the show. “I didn’t necessarily think of them as volcanoes. I didn’t necessarily think of them being dangerous or scientific or at all relevant to my life,” she said.
It wasn’t until Martin was asked to work on educational materials with a volcano theme for the museum that she became aware of their true nature. “It got me to thinking what it’s like to live in a state with volcanoes. The beauty and the danger,” she said.
Whiting feels that May 18, 1980, is an iconic day in state history. Everybody who visits the museum, even children born long after, have something to say or an interest in it. Whiting was just 2 years old when the mountain blew.
“I remember there was a bunch of snow everywhere and I wasn’t allowed to make a snowman,” Whiting said.
The exhibit is artifact heavy, but there’s plenty of informative text in the gallery space. A few hands-on displays allow visitors to get up close with volcanic rocks.
The volcanoes, so close to human populations and periodically on the rumble, are the subjects of constant monitoring and study.
On loan to the museum is a U.S. Geological Survey “Spider.” The ungainly looking device, not unlike a NASA Mars probe, collects real-time data of volcanic and seismic activity. But the Spider, designed at the Cascades Volcano Observatory, might not last for the whole show.
“If there’s any (geological) activity, (the USGS is) going to take it back,” Whiting said. Mount Rainier has erupted 11 times in the past 3,000 years she noted.
Near the Spider is a re-creation of the observatory in Vancouver, Washington. Scientists donated and loaned everything from equipment to clothing to create a realistic feel.
While much of what drives the forces of volcanoes remains a mystery, Mount St. Helens has never stopped flowing with valuable information for volcanologists. Research and safety protocols developed on St. Helens and in Vancouver are used all over the world, Whiting said.
Human interactions with Cascade volcanoes go back further than scientific ones. Native Americans passed stories through generations that told of past eruptions and lahars.
One display shows the boots that Fay Fuller, a young schoolteacher, used to summit Mount Rainier in 1890. “She couldn’t find climbing equipment made for a woman, so she ended up with a young boy’s boots with nails on the bottoms instead of crampons,” Martin said.
To protect against the scorching sun, Fuller painted her face black. “That was the high-tech sunscreen of the day.” Fuller didn’t use a backpack; she just rolled her equipment and provisions in blankets and tied them around her.
“It was totally scandalous that she went up with men, unaccompanied by other women,” Martin said.
A testament to the power of nature is summed up by a crumpled Weyerhaeuser logging truck door, a remnant from the 1980 St. Helens eruption. It was moved down the mountain in a debris flow in 1980 and discovered in 1984.
A more human-scaled artifact is the singed nylon jacket of a helicopter pilot. The aviator flew a group of scientists into St. Helens’ crater long after the initial eruption. While the scientists were taking measurements on the crater floor, a rock fall sent them scrambling. They temporarily left equipment and some clothing behind. Rock inside the crater has the additional hazard of being superheated and one of those partially melted the pilot’s jacket. No one was injured in the mishap.
The final part of the show deals with the construction of homes and communities in the paths of potential debris flows from Mount Rainier. But there also is a sizable section that offers resources on emergency preparedness.
A grab-and-go backpack shows what’s needed to survive a brief evacuation and possible isolation during a natural disaster of any kind.
Martin and Whiting don’t want visitors to leave the show terrified.
“Don’t be scared, be prepared. Here’s a chance to get ready for whatever natural disaster: tsunamis, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions,” Martin said.
“Living in the Shadows” will run through May 17, the day before the 35th anniversary of the St. Helens eruption.
On Feb. 24 at noon, U.S. Geological Survey specialist Carolyn Driedger will provide an eye-opening presentation titled “Washington’s volcano hazards — New chapters to an old story.”