Off Beat: Railroad put stop to TV's all-access pass at St. Helens

By Tom Vogt, Columbian science, military & history reporter

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In Sunday's look back at the 1980 Mount St. Helens eruption, we told how Daphne Kivinen's family lived inside the restricted area, barely a dozen miles from the volcano.

Kivinen was issued a special pass to get through the roadblocks that barred the general public from the Red Zone.

But a look through our 34-year-old file of St. Helens stories turned up a couple of items about access quirks involving the peak.

As we noted here four years ago during the 30th anniversary of the eruption, two Seattle TV stations sent helicopters to land their camera crews on the summit of the volcano on April 13, 1980.

It was a showy stunt — and apparently in direct violation of a U.S. Forest Service closure of St. Helens above the tree line.

But it turns out the Forest Service didn't have jurisdiction over the summit. The one-square-mile patch that included the peak's snow-capped summit was railroad property.

In the 19th century, the federal government distributed land to railroads as a way to open up the American West and the 9,677-foot peak was granted to the Northern Pacific. It was inherited in a merger by Burlington Northern, which now is BNSF Railway.

Peak traffic

In a "Mt. St. Helens Log" that ran on Thursday, April 17, 1980, The Columbian reported:

"The one 'free' spot on the otherwise closed mountain was shut down Wednesday when the owner of the very top, Burlington Northern Railroad, asked the Forest Service to administer the crater as closed. Television crews had made several landings on top and, until the official closure by the railroad, were immune from prosecution."

After the eruption, the Forest Service and the railroad engineered a land swap, helping create the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument.

Off Beat lets members of The Columbian news team step back from our newspaper beats to write the story behind the story, fill in the story or just tell a story.