I’m sure that we’re all satiated by the state’s newspaper and television coverage of the eruption of Mount St. Helens on May 18, 1980, but it’s the old timers among us who remember what happened just seven days later. Here, then, is the story of the second eruption of Mount St. Helens, exactly one week after the main event.
First, a clarification for you younger readers. In 1980, Centralia was still governed by three commissioners, rather than the larger city council of today. Jack Gelder was finance commissioner, overseeing all monetary action and also in charge of the upkeep of City Hall. I was mayor and also commissioner of both the police and the fire departments. Bill Rickard was commissioner of public works, meaning, anything and everything else. He had already served one complete term, and Jack and I were just starting.
It was approximately 3:30 a.m. on May 25 when I was awakened by the phone ringing beside our bed. The call was from the Centralia police radio dispatcher telling me Mount St. Helens had erupted for the second time and the ash cloud was heading straight for the Twin Cities.
The first thing that entered my mind was that our water system was open to contamination because our water was stored in two open reservoirs on Seminary Hill. Back in 1980, most of our water was still being obtained from the North Fork of the Newaukum River and transferred by a forty-mile wooden pipeline to those open reservoirs. After I hung up I immediately phoned Art Lehman, the head of the city’s water department, and suggested that he immediately close down the open reservoirs and switch to the two or three wells that the city also operated. We couldn’t do much else until daylight and I fell back asleep.
But the phone rang again, Bill Rickard, who asked me, “Well, Mayor, what’s our next step?” (As a side note, he never called me “Bill,” it was always “Mayor.”)
I looked out the window to see it was still dark and answered that I thought we should wait until daylight before making plans and his reply was, “Mayor, it’s 10:30 in the morning!” That’s how well that cloud of ash blocked out the sun!
The biggest problem we faced in dealing with the situation was that we had already sent all of the city’s spare heavy equipment to Eastern Washington to help them deal with the first eruption. So we’d have to make do as best we could with what we had. As mentioned, our first priority was keeping the city’s water supply active. Bill said he had already given the notice to restart an old well in Riverside Park. One problem — people would soon start trying to wash the ash off their property and into the street, and from there into the storm drains which inevitably did become plugged with all that ash. The amount of ash we received has been estimated as being one inch in Centralia but I believe the actual amount was around half that — but even a half inch of crushed and shredded rock covering every square inch of both Centralia and Chehalis adds up.
Neighbors started helping neighbors. We had a community work party in our block on F street, with the younger folks (I still was one back then — or thought I was) helping those of advanced years. The city used every available truck that could be fitted with a scoop to clean as much ash as possible from the streets and keep it from adding to the blockage of our storm drains.
Incidentally, why did we call it “ash” back then, and why do we still do it? It wasn’t ash, it was heavy sand! A good deal of that sand, and maybe most of it, wound up being dumped in the east side of Riverside Park to bolster the river banks in an area just after the river makes a sharp bend before going under the bridge on Harrison Street.
If that second eruption of Mount St. Helens proved anything, it pointed out that Centralia’s water system was only barely meeting our needs and that future growth would put a larger strain on it. We were already receiving complaints that the water tank at the top of Ham Hill Road was inadequate for the increasing number of homes being built along the road. We built a larger tank. We obtained enough grant money to build a large tank on top of Davis Hill. A few years later, after I was no longer mayor, the city purchased the private water system which covered the Cooks Hill area. Later, the collapse of one of the open reservoirs on Seminary Hill was enough to qualify us for a grant to build a covered tank as a replacement.
And all of the foregoing is an example of how an unfortunate situation can put a series of activities into action to guarantee a sufficient source of water for well into the future (no pun intended). Oh, and there was one more benefit — that “ash” turned out to be a marvelous source of material for glass blowers.
Bill Moeller is a former entertainer, mayor, bookstore owner, city council member, paratrooper and pilot living in Centralia. He can be reached at email@example.com.