Letter details 1842 Mount St. Helens eruption

North county woman finds 1885 writing about event in grandmother's hope chest

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

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AMBOY — Growing up in north Clark County, Cindy Sutton's grandfather always told her that Mount St. Helens had erupted, long ago.

This was before 1980, when the mountain's unrest and massive May 18 eruption removed all doubt of its status as a still-active volcano. Before that, Mount St. Helens slumbered quietly for decades.

Now Sutton has uncovered a new window into the volcano's explosive history. Going through a collection of family items last winter, Sutton found a handwritten letter that appears to offer a first-hand account of a past eruption — in 1842.

"I was shocked when I started reading it," Sutton said.

Written in neat cursive on faded, brown ruled paper, the section begins: "St. Helens erupted Nov. 22 — 1842. Was seen 8 miles north of Salem."

"There was scarce a breath of wind, and what there was came from the south," it continues. "The day was clear and beautiful, and the vision was perfect in its appearance. The clouds of steam were rolling up in great masses, wreathing as smoke from a pipe does, but on an enormous scale. They saw no fire there, but ashes fell all over the country from the Dalles to the Pacific Ocean. ½ in. deep at Dalles, ashes also went North."

Written at the top of one of the document's three pages is "Vancouver, October, 1885" — the date it was likely written, according to Sutton. She's not sure exactly who the author is, but "Eaton" at the top of another page suggests it may have been Joe Eaton, Sutton's great-great-grandfather, she said.

Sutton's family roots run deep in Clark County. Her ancestors settled here in the 1800s. Wilson & Sutton Logging Co. later became one of the larger outfits in the area, and the family remains in logging today.

In a purse, in a hope chest

Sutton was cleaning out a basement area at her father's house last winter when she came across her grandmother's old hope chest, unopened for decades. The chest held clothing and other items, even a telegram from 1917.

It was there, folded inside of an old black purse, that she found the letter.

"I think it's in remarkably good shape for how old it is," Sutton said.

After reading it with her husband Tom, Sutton called the U.S. Geological Survey to report what she had found. Carolyn Driedger of Vancouver's Cascades Volcano Observatory visited Sutton's Amboy-area home earlier this year to look it over and scan a copy. Direct witness accounts of Mount St. Helens' 19th-century eruptions are extremely rare, Driedger said.

"There are (accounts) from that general era, but not a lot," she said. "This is significant."

The description matches what the USGS knows about Mount St. Helens' past activity, Driedger said. The mountain saw a series of eruptions from 1831 to 1857, which built the Goat Rocks dome on its north side, according to the USGS. That formation was obliterated in the 1980 blast.

Other documents confirm the Nov. 22, 1842, eruption described in Sutton's letter, Driedger said.

The letter touches on more than just Mount St. Helens. It also details the Eaton settlement and the geography of what was then known as "Clarke County, Washington Territory." (Washington wasn't admitted to the Union as a state until 1889.)

Not surprisingly, the description of the 1842 eruption has drawn the most interest. The aftermath of that event evokes echoes of the 1980 disaster that darkened a Sunday morning 34 years ago.

"The next day the wonderful vision had disappeared," the author wrote of the 1842 eruption. "The day before St. Helens stood a perfect pyramid of white. The day after it was a jet black pyramid."