Harry Truman's Redoubt

Mount St. Helens' horrifying eruption buried the mountain man and his beloved Spirit Lake lodge beneath 200 feet of mud and ash and left a captivated nation wondering: why did he refuse to leave?

By Ron Russell

 

Toutle, Washington -- The scuttlebutt at Stan Lee's Kid Valley store just up the road from here is that Harry Truman died trying to be the hero he never wanted to be. I don't think he'd have stayed if it hadn't been for the pressure building up," said Lee, 68. "All the TV and newspaper stuff hurt him. Harry was never the type to eat his words."

 

Harry Truman's words were, "I'm gonna stay 'til hell freezes over."

 

And he did.

Truman, of course, was the 84-year-0ld mountaineer who said no when friends and authortiies tried to coax him into leaving his Spirit Lake lodge at the foot of Mt. St. Helens before its terrible eruption May 18, 1980.

 

He has become something of a legend in the Pacific Northwest, and especially in this community 30 miles west of the volcano, where he often came to buy groceries and supplies.

 

Chalk it up to commercialism, curiosity or the need of people to create heroes, but Harry Truman has captured the imagination of the entire region.

T-shirts, post cards and posters bearing his likeness are hot items in department stores in Seattle and Portland, as is the Harry Truman photo album.

 

In Cascade mountain towns such as this one, it seems that almost everyone has a theory to offer concerning Truman, rangng from why he stayed to wild speculation that he managed to escape and may still be alive. His body was never recovered. Neither is that likely, since the once-serene lake, and lodge, are buried beneath 200 feet of rock and ash.

 

The area closest to the mountain is still off limits to the public, except for helicopter and airplane flyovers that can be purchased for as little as $25. The spot where Spirit Lake used to be resembles a barren moonscape.

 

 

 

"He was in here for a few things a few weeks before [the mountain] blew and I thought he was just kidding about not leaving if they said it looked like it was gonna go," said Lee, who knew Truman for 27 years.

 

"I met old Harry right after I came up here from Oregon in '53. He was a hard guy to figure out. Either you liked him or you didn't. Wasn't any being neutral. Some of it was because he cussed and went on a lot. I never thought he was serious about not leaving. I expected him to blow off steam. But I never thought he'd follow through on it."

 

Truman began to tell people he would never evacuate on March 27, when the mountain first began to stir from its 123-year dormancy.

 

"It was like a game to him, I think," said Charles Caughlan, a supervisor at the Cascade Volcano Center in Vancouver, Washington, who knew Truman from fishing trips to Spirit Lake.

 

"He became a one-man media event; the darling of the network [TV] crews. There was this daily ritual to check on old Harry and see if he'd changed his mind about leaving. I don't think he was crazy. I just think he'd said it so often that he painted himself into a corner."

"I don't think he was crazy. I just think he'd said it so often that he painted himself into a corner."

The National Forest Service intends to permit tourists into parts of the devastated area nearest the volcano sometime next year, "and when it happens you can be sure the first thing people are going to want to see is where Harry Truman's lodge is buried," he said.

Said Blair Barner, whose vacation home on the North Fork of the Toutle River east of town was buried in the mudslide that followed the eruption: "He was an eccentric guy. I only met him a couple of times. But I was surprised that anyone would have stayed voluntarily that close to the mountain.

 

"Nothing you can see a picture of or read about could adequately describe the way it was.

 

"I mean a week after the big blast I was standing next to the bridge down at Kelso (40 miles from the mountain) watching a logging truck roll downstream like a child's toy. The water temperature was still 98 degrees. That's a week later.

 

"The only person who'd have stayed either didn't believe the mountain would explode or had one heckuva death wish."

Above: Mount St. Helens erupts, 8:32 a.m., July 18, 1980, after two months of earthquakes and venting steam.

 

Top: Harry Truman at Clear Lake Elementary School in nearby Keizer, Washington, a few days before he died after refusing to evacuate his Spirit Lake lodge.

| Statesman-Journal (Salem, Oregon)

First published:

Scripps-Howard News Service | 1981