On May 18, 1980 Mount St. Helens erupted, closing 1,100 miles of state highways, destroying 27 miles of SR 504, 10 miles of county roads, 25 bridges and many miles of logging roads. This is the story of some of our employees who are part of history in the response, recovery and restoration work. Forty years ago, they rescued stranded motorists, cleared ash from the highways, designed a new highway and oversaw construction of a new SR 504 Spirit Lake Memorial Highway.
Winter operations in the spring
By late afternoon on May 18, spring ash reverted our maintenance crews back to winter operations and plows were remounted on trucks.
In Colfax, Maintenance Operator Phil Riedner had been on the job for a couple years. He was home when he started getting calls that ash clouds were moving into the area.
|Phil Riedner spent days working with his crew getting ash off the highways in eastern Washington.|
“When the eruption happened, you’d watch it roll in and think it’ll pass over fast, but it was blacker than black, he said.
Knowing road maintenance would play a big role in the situation, Phil began helping design a plan. They tried a power broom truck but all that did was kick up dust and put the truck and driver in the middle of the ash cloud, leaving a big mess.
“Oddly enough, we went through masks back then similar to everything happening in the world now,” he said.
The work of our maintenance crews drew the praise of V.W. Korf, the Deputy Secretary of Transportation. In a speech to the American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials maintenance subcommittee in November 1980, he said the anxiety and frustration our maintenance crews experienced was devastating.
|On May 19, 1980, Tom Welch led a convoy of more than 100 drivers through the ash on SR 195.|
While tedious, wetting the ash and plowing it off the highway proved the most effective. Not all of our areas had water trucks so employees made makeshift water wagons by hay-wiring a five-gallon oil can that was slotted around the bottom of borrowed fertilizer tanks.
Plowing priorities were established to facilitate rescuing stranded motorists and to evacuate small, isolated communities.
|Harvey Herman was one of our maintenance techs shown here working on|
an ash-covered highway. He’s now 96 and lives near Colfax!
(photo courtesy Lewiston Tribune)
“I set the pace at about 20 miles per hour in a crew cab with flashing lights and the cars were spaced,” he said. “You had to drive with your headlights on and the cops had all the intersections shut down.”
The Seattle Times reported that people stranded along I-90 at Moses Lake, Sprague and George were able to travel after US 2 and connecting highways were reopened from Spokane to Seattle. Travel was restricted to reduced speeds, and vehicles were metered at intervals so dust from the vehicle ahead had a chance to settle. There were approximately 5,663 stranded travelers throughout the state, most in eastern Washington.
|A look at the mudflow covering SR 504.|
When Tom returned from the convoy he relieved a Washington State Patrol trooper at the SR 270 closure into Pullman as travel out of the city was restricted. Tom worked all night, then headed back to Colfax and thought it was eerie because he was the only one on the road.
A week or two later, Tom recalls doing a maintenance process called ‘pulling shoulders.’ Crews would dig dirt out of highway shoulders and mix it with ash to make the light powder heavier and not blow everywhere.
“We did miles of SR 195 like that, trying to bury it bit by bit,” he said.
Meanwhile, in central Washington
In central Washington, Matt Hanshew was in for a surprise on May 19. He was just barely starting his second year in our East Selah maintenance shop. At 22, he was one of the youngest people on the crew. He arrived at 6 a.m. and headed out along US 12 near Naches.
|The destruction of SR 504 in the wake of the Mount St. Helens eruption.|
Air filters on our plows were checked every 40 or 50 miles. Oil was changed every 200 to 300 miles.
“I remember driving into Othello a few days later and the ash-covered sign read ‘Welcome to hell,’” Matt said.
An article in the Tacoma News Tribune reported poor visibility in the Yakima/Ellensburg region and said the State DOT warned motorists to stay away from eastern Washington. Those who had to travel across the state were advised to use SR 20/North Cascades or SR 14 along the Columbia River.
|The eruption of Mount St. Helens (photo courtesy of Washington State Archives)|
Remarkably, by noon on May 20, just 50 hours after the blast, more than half of the closed highways reopened. SR 410/Chinook Pass reopened a few days ahead of the typical Memorial Day weekend schedule to alleviate cross state travel. I-90, which traveled through the heart of the fallout zone, reopened one week after the eruption.
Emergency repair work completed the section of SR 504 from the Toutle community to Maple Flat by November 1980.
SR 504 Spirit Lake Memorial Highway
Prior to the eruption, SR 504 was originally constructed on the level valley floor along the north fork of the Toutle River which was the fastest route to Mount St. Helens. After the eruption, there was concern about future eruptions, flooding, and public safety. By the mid-‘80s, a decision was made to relocate the new Spirit Lake Memorial Highway at a much higher elevation to avoid the reach of future volcanic mudflows and minimize impacts to the environment.
Design on the project started in 1985, which is when Rick Keniston started his career as a designer in our Vancouver office. That office was tasked with designing 23 miles of a brand new SR 504 through forest to the future Johnston Ridge Observatory. “All we had were paper contour maps and we drew lines on them for a new highway alignment,” he said. “A survey crew would go up and stake those lines on the ground.”
|A plow truck removes ash off of I-90 in eastern Washington.|
Carla Chute was on the survey crew out of the Kelso office following along with the designs Rick and the team drew. Every day she was up to her knees in ash, climbing ridges and over logs to set up points. The ash was so rough that she went through numerous work boots and once had to duct tape the sole just to hike off the mountain.
“I remember thinking, ‘How are they going to put a road here?’” she said.
Rick recalls designing along rough terrain. He said there were many stream valleys that he either had to design around or design over with bridges. Driving up to job sites on logging roads was no easy task, and he said at one point there was a threat of Legionnaires’ disease near Coldwater Lake so the crew wore masks and drove across the bridge as fast as they safely could.
“One time, we pulled over for a huge dump truck and our suburban sunk off to the side of the dirt road,” he said. “The dump truck got a chain and pulled us out.
|The St. Helens bridge on SR 504 was carried more than a quarter-mile downstream and partially buried.|
Construction gets going
Constructing the new SR 504 started in 1988 and involved the help of the US Forest Service, US Army Corps of Engineers, Weyerhaeuser Corp. and the Federal Highway Administration. In particular, Rick said the US Forest Service was key as they had extensive environmental knowledge. For this project, we built some of the first wetland mitigation sites for the southwest part of our state.
“The volcanic blowdown areas looked substantially different between the time when we designed it to when the highway was opened to the public,” he said “The alder trees grew really fast and there are lots of elk up there. It’s fun to show my kids and family the new highway. I’m real proud of that.”
Mary Hummel has worked her entire career in the construction office in Kelso and started in 1988 with inspection on the first bridge of the SR 504 project, the Toutle River Bridge.
“It was so beautiful up there – no traffic, just elk were the only thing you had to drive around,” she said. “It was a once in a lifetime opportunity.”
|A look at the Toutle River Bridge on SR 504 in the aftermath of the eruption.|
Like Rick, Mary said they had to drive a lot of the logging roads that didn’t follow the new alignment to the project area. She clocked about four hours of drive time every work day.
“These areas would wash away, especially in the winter,” she said. “We just rebuilt them or found a new way up.”
Her career started with bridge inspection, then transferred to the survey crew and inspection. Contract by contract, she followed the project all the way up the new Spirit Lake Memorial Highway to completion at the Johnston Ridge Observatory. She said the engineering of the project was phenomenal. She remembers watching the Hoffstadt Creek Bridge being built simultaneously from each side of the valley and joined in the middle.
“I just loved being a part of the building of several of these bridges and being an inspector - telling the contractor to move their forms just a little bit to the left so the girder would rest perfectly on the pier cap,” she said.
Safety requirements have certainly changed over the years. Mary said they weren’t required to wear full harnesses on bridges. They wore belts and would be lifted in boxes 200 feet up and clipped onto exposed rebar of the structure.
“Once a crane lost its brakes that had earlier placed my supervisor and I up on the pier cap,” she said. “The driver luckily jumped out of the crane cab in time, but we had to sit up there for several hours until another crane was available. No one was hurt – not at that time. We were actually pretty fortunate.”
Mary lives off Spirit Lake Highway to this day and goes up there often, which always brings back memories.
“I remember being so much in awe of nature,” she said. “Not much was growing out there, there was solitude. It was eerie and peaceful in the same breath.”
Currently, SR 504 near Coldwater Lake is closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the Governor’s Stay Home, Stay Healthy order. Until the highway reopens, people interested in exploring the mountain and its history can do so virtually by visiting the Mount St. Helens Institute. And if you do, take a moment to remember all of those workers who banded together to help the state recover from the eruption. It was an incredible task and we’re so grateful to everyone who worked so hard during and in the years after the event.