In March of 1980, the first signs of an eruption from Mount Saint Helens were evident. After 100 years of remaining idle, the mountain awoke with a 4.1 magnitude earthquake. This would trigger ash and steam, small slides and bulging from the volcano. Soon, the impact of a major eruption of Mount Saint Helens would have a significant effect on Yakima.
The Fateful Day in May
On May 18, at 8:32 a.m. in 1980, a 5.1 magnitude earthquake caused the already active volcano to finally explode, creating a giant landslide that would be known as one the largest in recorded history. Magma erupted from Mount Saint Helens, shooting ash into the air that would be carried across a large portion of the continental United States, decimating nearby forests and tragically ending the lives of 57 people. This would be known as one of the most significant eruptions in recent history and the most destructive volcanic eruption in the United States of America.
Less than a four-hour drive from the mountain that blew its top sits Yakima. The bustling city was shaken out of the typical routines when the usual sunny spring skies had gone entirely dark before even lunchtime.
Ash from the volcano had covered the sky, making it appear as if it were nighttime. Yakima was right in the direct path of the volcano’s ash. Aside from the initial first day of the eruption, the ash from Mount Saint Helens would continue to rain down on Yakima for the next eight days, sending the city’s everyday life to a complete stop.
Yakima Locals Recall the Eruption of Mount Saint Helens
Many locals still remember the eventful day exceptionally clearly. One local stated, “I was only five when it happened. I was in Zillah, playing with my brother outside, when our dad came and grabbed us, saying we were going to my aunt’s house. I remember getting in the car, seeing the clock, and thinking it was midnight because it was so dark out. It was only noon, really, but the ash had covered the sun, and the sky was black.”
The city of Yakima had requested help from other nearby cities, including Seattle, Portland, and smaller towns, to aid in the cleanup of the ash, which had impacted Yakima greater than most areas near the eruption site.
At the time, Yakima’s Mayor, Betty Edmonson, requested additional help from not only nearby towns and cities but the federal government as well. In a statement, the Mayor wrote, “The magnitude of coping with the ash fall-out far exceeds present manpower and equipment resources on hand.”
Despite this request, the United State’s Federal Government, and the State of Washington’s Government, provided no aid to the city, leaving it up to the citizens of Yakima to clean up the ash.
An article written by Yakima’s Yakima Valley Sun on May 29, 1980, highlighted the unity of the community and Yakima’s government, pushing through the ash and cleaning up the city together. “Private citizens and government employees alike donned jeans and a wide variety of dust muffles, then pitched in to clean up. People who spend their usual work days doing advanced planning for the city were pushing brooms at the airport and in municipal parking lots.”
Another article by the Yakima Herald on the same date, May 29, stated that nearly 150 local neighborhoods had banded together and cleaned up their roads, houses, and more, all within only four days after the ash had finally finished falling.
Another local, who lived in Oregon then, stated, “I remember going to the back porch of my mother’s house, and looking outside, seeing the volcano erupting. My dad lived back in Yakima.” She had returned to her father’s home and remembered having to help sweep ash off the roof of her father’s house.
Chesterly Park, now home to the YMCA Aquatic Center, was the dumping ground for all the ash cleared from the city. When The YMCA Aquatic Center was beginning its construction, digging into the surface of the park revealed the memories of the community that worked together to clear the town from Mount Saint Helens’ unprecedented impact — now forever a memory embedded into the ground, and the minds of all who lived through the fateful event.