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News / Clark County News

Engineer helped design Spirit Lake highway after 1980 eruption. Now a landslide has brought him back

“In my 33 years working with the state, this had to be one of the most exciting projects that I had ever worked on.”

By William Seekamp, Columbian staff writer
Published: June 7, 2023, 6:07am
7 Photos
A Washington State Department of Transportation engineering geologist studies the head of the landslide that buried Highway 504 some 2,000 feet below.
A Washington State Department of Transportation engineering geologist studies the head of the landslide that buried Highway 504 some 2,000 feet below. (Washington State Department of Transportation A haunting visual captured the day after a May 14 debris slide cascaded from a slope 2,000 feet above state Highway 504, burying the roadway beneath with a mix of rock, mud, ice, and water, leaving behind catastrophic damage to the Spirit Lake Outlet Bridge.) Photo Gallery

The mid-May landslide that stranded a dozen people and a dog when it buried a section of the Spirit Lake Memorial Highway near Mount St. Helens held special significance for Paul Harrison.

As a young engineer in the early 1990s, Harrison helped design the last 7 miles of the highway, near where tons of mud, rocks and water swept down 2,000 feet on May 14, burying the highway and sweeping away an 85-foot-long bridge.

Today, looking back after 33 years with the Washington State Department of Transportation, Harrison said his work on the roadway, officially state Highway 504, is among the highlights of his career.

“In my 33 years working with the state, this had to be one of the most exciting projects that I had ever worked on,” Harrison said.

Construction

Large parts of the original Spirit Lake Highway were destroyed when Mount St. Helens erupted in 1980. The roadway, built in 1903 by Skamania County, was rough, narrow and unpaved until the 1930s.

Less than a decade after the catastrophic May 18, 1980, eruption, construction of a new highway began; this time with more bridges and at a higher elevation. The terrain was still devastated.

“Going up there in 1990 … nothing had started growing back,” Harrison said. “You could really see the devastation. It was like a moonscape.”

As a designer, Harrison spent most of his time in the Vancouver office, only traveling the mountain once a week. When he did go, conditions on the mountain were sometimes sketchy. He often took old logging roads — sometimes dirt, sometimes gravel, and filled with potholes and mud puddles. Some abruptly turned into dead ends when bridges he planned to cross were washed out.

The experience was a crash course in working in remote locations, adverse weather conditions and with different government organizations.

“I didn’t know if it was overwhelming or not because it was my first project,” he said with a chuckle.

Harrison said the project provided him with an uncommon opportunity. Typically, he said, modern engineers work with existing structures — altering an exchange on an established freeway, moving a road a few feet one way or another or adding a turn lane.

“We don’t really get a chance to build brand new highways through nowhere land,” Harrison said.

First drive

Harrison waited over a decade to drive the highway after it opened in the mid-1990s. He navigated the winding road between the rust-colored guard rails to the Johnston Ridge Observatory.

“I guess I took it for granted,” he said. “Once it was done, I was on to the next project and left that one behind.”

Harrison wasn’t surprised when he learned of the slide. They’re not uncommon, he said.

The highway after Milepost 43 near the Science and Learning Center and areas like Coldwater Lake, the Hummocks Trail and Johnston Ridge Observatory remain closed. There is no expected time for its reopening.

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This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.

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Columbian staff writer