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News / Life / Clark County Life

Clark County History: St. Helens legend Harry Truman

By Martin Middlewood, for The Columbian
Published: May 14, 2023, 6:00am
2 Photos
Harry Truman (The Columbian files)
Harry Truman (The Columbian files) Photo Gallery

His castle was a lodge on the side of a volcano, and Harry Truman refused to leave the hot zone where he had lived since the 1930s. His refusal boosted him to national prominence.

When Mount St. Helens blew in May 1980, it buried the the cat-loving, whiskey-drinking curmudgeon, along with much of Spirit Lake, his rental boats and his castle, closing it for eternity.

Cheap land brought 11-year-old Harry Truman and his West Virginia family to Lewis County, where he grew up on their 160-acre farm. When World War I broke out, he drove to Centralia to enlist in the Army.

The Army trained Truman in airplane mechanics and assigned him to France’s 100th Aero Squadron 7th Squad. A German U-boat torpedoed his troop ship, Tuscania. Although 166 men died, Truman was among the nearly 2,300 rescued. In a letter home, Truman wrote that five of his friends died, but his “smashed-up” lifeboat made it to a sub-destroyer.

Reportedly, he never saw combat. In a 1918 letter datelined “Somewhere in France,” he boasted, “Our boys are whipping them in every way of fighting.” Upon his January 1919 return, his friends noted that he’d changed. The war made him more of a loner. Now home, he applied his Army-earned mechanical skill at St. John’s Motors in Chehalis. However, the daily grind of a mechanic’s life bored him. Seeking riches quicker, he started prospecting, which brought him more hard work than wealth.

Harry enjoyed drinking. He’d gone to war. Now, Prohibition forced abstinence on him. So the lover of fast cars, thrills and booze turned outlaw. Though illegal and risky, bootlegging was easy work. Gaining a fast car, Truman picked up liquor in San Francisco and drove it north to Southwest Washington, now and again stopping at brothels. When organized gangs crowded the business, he purchased a Thompson submachine gun for protection.

He leased his Mount St. Helens land near Spirit Lake from the Northern Pacific Railroad. In the 1930s, he built a grocery and gas station there. Everyone knew of his antics. He’d get the forest ranger drunk and burn refuse while the ranger slept it off. Touting a fake game badge, he’d fish on Native American lands. When William O. Douglas wanted a room at the lodge, Truman ignored him, dismissing the “old coot.” When someone explained he was a U.S. Supreme Court justice, Harry ran after Douglas, apologized and rented the room.

At night, Truman enjoyed partying, and his cursing was legendary. Vancouver native Gene Ritter recalls an aunt who was tolerant of barroom swearing but admitted Harry Truman raised the bar on profanity. He married three times. When his last wife, Edie, died, he closed his lodge.

While Truman posed bravely for the world watching him, he admitted in one journalist interview, “Sure, I’m scared.” Some days, he said he’d count 15 or 20 quakes an hour. Did Truman feel the one that sent the mountain tumbling on top of him? Or did the volcano blow too fast for him to notice?

Martin Middlewood is editor of the Clark County Historical Society Annual. Reach him at ClarkCoHist@gmail.com.