In 1980, as Mount St. Helens threatened to erupt, local officials evacuated the area. But they had one problem: lodge owner Harry R. Truman refused to go.
“That mountain and that lake is a part of Truman and I’m a part of it,” Truman said in a TV news interview. “You couldn’t drag me out with a 10-mule team.”
Truman said that the mountain and Spirit Lake – the lake his lodge sat on – were like his arms and legs, and if he left, he would die. But if he continued to refuse to evacuate, that’s exactly what would happen.
In this episode: man vs. mountain. We’ll explore the complicated tale of Harry R. Truman and the behavioral science behind why some people refuse to leave their homes in the face of a natural disaster.
Truman’s story is told by his niece, Shirley Rosen, who used to work at his lodge during the summer when she was a teenager. During that fateful spring, Rosen and many other family members, friends, government officials and strangers – including the many schoolchildren who would send letters urging him to evacuate – tried in vain to get Truman to leave.
Truman’s niece, Shirley Rosen.
Truman was a bit of a character, which – in addition to his refusal to evacuate – made him something of a real-life folk hero. He was profiled by numerous national news outlets. Kids at a school in Salem, Oregon sent him banners that read “Harry – We Love You.”
With his 16 cats by his side and his stash of whiskey that he said he kept in an abandoned mine shaft he’d fashioned into a shelter, Truman planned to wait it out. And on the morning of May 18, 1980, Mount St. Helens finally erupted.
At his memorial, a long-time friend said this of Truman: “The mountain and the lake were his life. If he’d left it and then saw what the mountain did to his lake, it would have killed him anyway. He always said he wanted to die at Spirit Lake. He went the way he wanted to go.”
We’ll also hear from Jennifer Horney, a professor and core faculty member at the Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware. Horney explains why some people decide to stay in their homes even when they’re in danger.
Thomas Hinckley, a professor emeritus of environmental sciences at the University of Washington who climbed Mount St. Helens both before and after the 1980 eruption, gives us the lay of the land and explains what makes the mountain such a sacred place.
Thomas Hinckley as a graduate student and researcher in 1980. He was one of the first to inspect the ecological impacts of the volcanic ash covering trees and the surrounding environment after the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens.
A photo of Mount St. Helens from Hinckley showing the crater formed by the 1980 eruption.
Learn more about the host of Home. Made., award winning journalist Stephanie Foo on our host page.
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Stephanie Foo: On May 17, 1980, Harry R. Truman awoke to banging on the door of his lodge on Spirit Lake.
Truman was 83 years old, but still spry. He quickly made his way downstairs, peered through the window, and grit his teeth. Ugh, not again.
It was the county sheriff, William Costner. Sitting behind him on the lawn was a police helicopter.
Truman opened the door a crack, just as the sheriff pointed up at Mount St. Helens looming over the two of them and said, “This is your last chance. That volcano is gonna blow.”
Truman looked up at the mountain, then back at the sheriff. And said:
Harry Truman (archive): That mountain and that lake is a part of Truman and I’m a part of it … you couldn’t drag me out with a 10-mule team.
Stephanie Foo: Then he shut the door, turned around and walked back into the house.
Stephanie Foo: This is Home. Made., an original podcast by Rocket Mortgage® about the meaning of homes and what we can learn about ourselves in them. And I’m Stephanie Foo.
Today, man versus mountain, the legend of Harry R. Truman. And why some people refuse to evacuate their homes in the face of a natural disaster.
Stephanie Foo: Spirit Lake sits at the foot of Mount St. Helens in Washington State. Shirley Rosen has fond memories of visiting her uncle Truman and aunt Eddie at their lodge on Spirit Lake when she was a child. As a teenager she worked summers there, tending the boats and serving meals to the visiting hunters, fishermen and mountain climbers.
Shirley Rosen: I'd just get bubbles in my tummy. I would get so excited about going up to the lodge, because Spirit Lake was so pristine. It was just beautiful, and the mountain just reflected right on the lake. It was just … a very special place for me.
Stephanie Foo: Shirley’s uncle Truman was a character.
Shirley Rosen: When you were around Truman, you listened. He never quit talking, and he was smart. He was a fast talker and he had so many stories to tell, it's hard to describe. If you know anybody of his vintage, he was very independent.
Stephanie Foo: Big and ornery, he didn’t suffer fools, even if they were also big and ornery. Shirley once looked down from her room to see Truman in a confrontation.
Shirley Rosen: I heard Truman cussing and I looked out the window and he was cussing at this big black bear that had come to tumble the garbage. He was in his undershorts and he had a rake and he was chasing this black bear. Well, then the big black bear turned around and started chasing him and it reminded me of one of these old-fashioned cartoons.
Stephanie Foo: But Shirley’s uncle also had a soft spot.
Shirley Rosen: He was constantly teaching. He would talk about the height of the mountain and how much more beautiful it was than Mount Rainier. He would talk about the trees and what kind of trees they were. It was more of a teaching experience than it was a boss experience. It was more like a relative teaching you something that you didn't know.
Stephanie Foo: And he had a playful sense of humor.
Shirley Rosen: Truman would buy cow brains when he was down in town and so Auntie Eddie would cook them for him for breakfast. And so she would fry the cow brains in butter and he was so excited. He was like a little boy getting a new chocolate or something. He would kind of dance a little two-step and come up behind her and kind of pat her on the backside because he was very excited that she was cooking his favorite breakfast.
Stephanie Foo: Truman built the lodge with his own hands in 1929. Twenty years and two wives later, Aunt Eddie joined him and they ran it as a popular tourist spot. They were a happy couple. They worked hard at the lodge and shared a love of the local foothills and flowers. But then in 1978, Aunt Eddie passed away from a heart attack.
Shirley Rosen: It was the saddest thing I've ever seen. He was just absolutely a broken man. Just totally, totally, totally devastated. You would never expect to see Truman cry, but he couldn't quit crying when Aunt Eddie died.
Stephanie Foo: Truman stopped renting out rooms as he grieved her. And then, shortly after, on March 20, 1980, Mount St. Helens experienced the first in a series of small earthquakes.
A week later, St. Helens belched out sulfurous gas and ash, an explosion heard throughout Southwest Washington. And then, a few days after that, seismologists noticed red-hot lava moving inside the mountain. Washington Governor Dixy Lee Ray closed the mountain to visitors, and nearby residents were told to leave. Anyone caught trespassing would get 6 months jail time. And this is what Shirley remembers her uncle Truman saying to that.
Shirley Rosen: He said he wouldn't leave because that was his home. The mountain and lake are like my arms and legs. And if he lost his arms and his legs he would die.
Stephanie Foo: But the authorities were saying that if he didn’t leave, he might actually die. So why not just leave and come back? Even in the face of grave danger, why would someone stay?
Stephanie Foo: It turns out lots of people refuse to evacuate their homes during natural disasters: on the West Coast as wildfires rage; before hurricanes in Texas, Louisiana or North Carolina; or when flooding hits the Midwest.
Jennifer Horney: So, we consider it a success, actually. When, if we could get half the people who were under an order to evacuate, we'd consider that a success.
Stephanie Foo: Jennifer Horney leads the Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware. While she thinks people should evacuate, she says it’s a normal human reaction for them to want to stay. And there are many reasons for that.
Sometimes they just don’t have anywhere else to go. They don’t have the money. In other cases, simple things like not living close to a main road can be a deterrent. And then there’s the head shrinking aspect of why people don’t leave. It’s tempting to diagnose and pathologize this phenomenon, so scientists say that the desire to stay is a symptom of what they call cognitive bias.
Jennifer Horney: Humans are very bad at risk assessment. So, we tend to make decisions to do things that we feel are risky or fear things that we feel are risky, which actually have a very low potential of occurring. So we see people being afraid of flying, but happy to drive, when actually the risk of death may be higher from a car accident than from a plane crash.
Stephanie Foo: This poor risk assessment allows people to insist that no matter what happens, they will be safe. People in coastal areas might think, oh, the last hurricane missed me, so this one probably will too. Another bias causes people to forget how bad the last disaster really was. And to complicate things, there's another bias that ignores risk altogether. It’s called the Ostrich Paradox.
Jennifer Horney: The idea is that an ostrich would rather bury its head in the sand than understand the true risks that it's facing. And so I think that we do that all the time, in that we continue building homes and infrastructure in the floodplain, as if we just ignore the fact that disasters are more frequent and severe that will not continue in the future.
Stephanie Foo: While some of these factors were at play at Spirit Lake, the case for not evacuating might’ve been more than just willful ignorance, or wishful thinking. Mountains work in mysterious ways.
Stephanie Foo: For starters, when Mount St. Helens reawakened, it was the first time that had happened in over 120 years.
Back in 1980, modern volcanology was new. Seismologists in the area had just started using computers, so they were still unable to properly assess the situation. At the same time, there was a lot of pressure to let people go about their daily lives. And some of those people didn’t like being told what to do by public health officials. So the state government flip flopped on what to tell residents. Eventually they decided to lock down the mountain, but that decision backfired. The trembling volcano seemed to make Mount St. Helens even more compelling.
It didn’t help that Truman, a successful local businessman who had lived on Spirit Lake for over 50 years, was refusing to leave. So media and tourists flocked there. Even with the National Guard deployed, it was impossible to cut off traffic. It was like people were drawn to the mountain.
Thomas Hinckley: Where he was was an extraordinarily beautiful place. And Spirit Lake was one of the gems of the Cascades and the forests surrounding it were magnificent. And then you have this backdrop of this beautiful peak, this symmetrical volcano with snow and ice on it.
Stephanie Foo: Thomas Hinckley used to teach environmental sciences at the University of Washington. He climbed Mount St. Helens before and after the eruption. He recognized it as an exceptional place, almost holy in its pristine beauty. And he understands people’s desire to connect on a spiritual level with a natural landscape.
Thomas Hinckley: The powerful feeling they have when they see, for example, a mountain that to them is sacred and its connection gives them a sense of calm and being.
Stephanie Foo: Hinckley says that Truman had a relationship with his home where he wasn’t a separate entity from the land. He was a part of the land.
Truman first laid eyes on Mount St. Helens in 1907 at the age of 11. He and his family were loggers lured there from West Virginia by the promise of cheap land and a burgeoning timber industry. A few decades later, they were joined by others from back east. Many of the people in this area were independent. They didn’t socialize much with anyone beyond their families or small communities. They lived off the land and had small farms. Truman’s family was the same.
The only time he really left the region was for a few years, to serve in World War I as an airplane mechanic. But when he came back, he snowshoed into Spirit Lake. He built cabins where he could fish, hunt and explore. He bootlegged liquor during Prohibition. Then, in 1939, he built a large lodge on the lake. And over time, Truman became the respected senior member of this remote community. People looked up to him and sought his advice.
Thomas Hinckley: Something we're increasingly recognizing is what's called traditional ecological knowledge, that is the knowledge that people who spent a long time in a place gain from that place and know that place differently, but in some ways perhaps with more depth than somebody who might use scientific knowledge to examine a place.
Stephanie Foo: To indigenous populations — arguably the people with the most ecological knowledge — there are many stories and legends about the mountain erupting. These stories normalize volcanic activity. To them, the mountains aren’t scary. They’re part of the community, even when they get angry.
Jennifer Horney: So I think the idea that Truman felt he was part of the mountain is really critical in this sort of positioning of us versus them.
Stephanie Foo: But Jennifer Horney, the disaster researcher, is cautious about romanticizing some of Truman’s more individualistic attitudes.
Jennifer Horney: There's an idea that rural people know how to help themselves and help one another because they can't rely on outsiders when there's an emergency.
Stephanie Foo: This distrust of outsiders might have further prevented Truman and others from believing the scientists once they came to better understand the severity of the eruption. On April 30, 1980, geologists discovered a massive bulge, like a giant bubble, on the north side of Mount St. Helens. A sign that pressure was building inside the volcano. Directly above Spirit Lake. But Truman was unfazed. Here he is several days before the eruption, explaining to a reporter why he felt safe.
Reporter (archive): What do you think is going to happen?
Harry Truman (archive): On our side, the north side, it’s left me alone entirely. I’m on the Northeast side. There’s no rock, no ash or nothing on my side … if anything it’s coming down it’s coming on the south side or the east side, but so far it’s done no damage and I, uh … it don’t look bad to me.
Stephanie Foo: Truman had spent 54 years on that mountain. He thought, how could some geologists know it better than me? And because of his status, other residents trusted him over the scientists, over Governor Dixy Lee Ray, over the government. They trusted him even more when, after the bulge appeared, the mountain went quiet. The belching stopped. But the scientists knew that the bulge was continuing to grow.
In those last few weeks, 1,800 residents of the communities around Mount St. Helens were successfully evacuated. And even Truman was getting a little nervous. Here’s his niece Shirley again.
Shirley Rosen: He thought the mountain was going to erupt. I don't think there was any question about that. He did tell people that the earthquakes really frightened him.
Stephanie Foo: The earthquakes started up again. Truman’s home started to rock and shake regularly. He sat in his lodge, looking out onto Spirit Lake, surrounded by his 16 cats and menagerie of birds, while more and more people left the area. Even the forest service. But sheriffs and deputies from all of the neighboring counties kept coming to try and get Truman off the mountain. Others tried, too.
Shirley Rosen: I know he got a lot of letters from children and I think the children's letters really touched him. They tried to get him to leave.
Stephanie Foo: But evacuating would leave his property susceptible to more than just the mountain. Thieves were using the local forestry service roads to access abandoned cabins. Truman kept a vigilant eye on his 100 boats and many hunting guns.
During his standoff, Truman also received more than a few marriage proposals and became a media celebrity. He was featured on the front page of The New York Times, was profiled by Time and Newsweek and appeared on the “Today Show.” His story made him a folk hero.
And then, he finally got what he wanted. After 2 months standing firm at Spirit Lake, Governor Dixy Lee Ray sent him a letter granting him permission to stay put. Here is Shirley reading part of the letter:
Shirley Rosen: “Your independence and straightforwardness is a fine example for all of us, particularly for senior citizens. When everyone else involved in the Mount St. Helens eruption appeared to be overcome by all the excitement, you stuck to what you knew and what common experience and sense told you.”
Stephanie Foo: Shirley really wanted to visit Truman, but in early May, the state finally signed an emergency order to create a red zone around the mountain.
Shirley Rosen: We were really worried. I wanted to go so bad. So I wrote him a letter telling him how much I appreciated what he did for me as a child. And all of these memories of different things that he taught me. I was kind of an introvert when I was in school. I was a middle child and our father had deserted us and so Truman took on that role in my life and I could just hear him talking to me, saying, "You can do it, kid. You can do it, kid."
Stephanie Foo: Shirley’s sister Elaine decided to take her chances. She convinced the authorities to let her through the roadblock so she could visit Truman. She brought him a pot roast and a bottle of Schenley whiskey – his favorites.
Shirley Rosen: He took the Schenley and put it under the cupboard, because he said, "These damned earthquakes,” he says, "I can't tell what's going on half the time, and I want to make sure I have my faculties." He totally quit drinking during the time of the eruption.
Elaine tried to spend the night, hoping she might convince Truman to leave with her in the morning. But Truman wouldn’t budge. Shirley remembers what he told her sister.
Shirley Rosen: “Jesus Christ, the State knows I'm here, the government knows I'm here, everybody knows I'm here. Why, if anything happened and any emergency came, there would be the god damnedest line of helicopters sitting out there. They'd jerk me off here in 3 minutes, you know that.”
Stephanie Foo: So Elaine left. And then, on May 17, Sheriff Costner made one last visit, but flew away on his chopper without Truman.
Sheriff (archive): “We had a major eruption occurring at 8:32 approximately this morning on Mount St. Helens. Emergency procedures have been put into effect. At 10:15 this morning the Cowlitz County reported that a 12-foot wall of water was coming down the Toutle river and this was verified by the Washington state patrol …”
Stephanie Foo: The explosion was 500 times stronger than the Hiroshima atomic bomb and three times more powerful than the worst-case scenario predicted by scientists.
Thomas Hinckley: It was on a scale and to an extent that you just could not imagine. Pulverized trees, further out it knocked all the trees over, further out it knocked all the branches off standing trees.
Stephanie Foo: This is Thomas Hinckley again, the environmental sciences professor.
Thomas Hinckley: It was now this gray landscape, no green, no colors other than brown and all sorts of shades of gray merging almost with white.
Stephanie Foo: The north flank of the mountain completely collapsed. Mudslides quickly started forming, because the volcanic blast wasn’t just a vertical eruption. Scientists had not predicted that it would also be horizontal. That’s what the bulge was trying to tell them. So it destroyed everything around it and traveled thousands of miles in all directions.
Thomas Hinckley: Then let's see, the next thing would be a series of pyroclastic eruptions. This is hot, volcanic material that flowed out of this new crater and it flowed down and hit Spirit Lake.
Stephanie Foo: When search and rescue finally got to Spirit Lake, they found that it was emptied out by the eruption. Like a bathtub that had spilled out over its edges. They located the abandoned mine shaft Truman had fashioned into a shelter, but it was vacant. Everything else was gone. The lodge was gone. The trees. The boats. The cats.
Shirley Rosen: When we heard that Mount St. Helens had erupted and my first thought was, I knew exactly what he was doing. Every morning he would get up and sweep that porch. Every morning, I would be up in the crow's nest and the first thing I would hear was the nickelodeon. And he would play “Bubbles in the Wine” by Lawrence Welk.
Stephanie Foo: And Truman himself was nowhere to be found. Vanished. It was like he had been swallowed up by the mountain.
In the end, I wonder if Truman really didn’t believe the scientists. If he really thought he was going to be safe. Or if he knew of the risks.
Thomas Hinckley: I might not myself want to abandon a place like that, because of the hold it would have on me. And maybe the idea that if you abandon it and it was destroyed, then what would you do?
Stephanie Foo: Maybe Truman knew that Spirit Lake might be vaporized. Maybe he knew the trees might be flattened. But maybe he wanted what we all want – a good death, at home, surrounded by the ones we love and the ones who love us. For him, that might have been the white pines and Douglas firs and falcons and loons. So rather than give up his independence and move to a suburb somewhere for the rest of his life, he chose to go down with the ship.
Shirley Rosen: I think that's very true. I really think if he had lived to see the devastation now … he would have been so lost. He'd lost my aunt up there and then he lost the mountain and the lake. And I think he would have died from that loss.
Stephanie Foo: For a long while after the eruption, the mountain was barren and desolate. But 40 years have healed it. Spirit Lake is different than what it once was. It’s shallower, for one thing. But because it’s shallower, it’s also much warmer. It has bigger insects and more fish than it did before. Rainbow trout thrive there. In fact, most species have returned to the mountain. Once again, it has welcomed its inhabitants back home.
And Harry R. Truman is still very much part of the landscape, much like the volcanic lava that sits underfoot. Decades later, there’s a trail along the lake called the Truman Trail. And his story has become a folk tale. There are even folk songs about him. The odd movie too.
The man and the mountain are often mentioned in the same breath. That’s what he would’ve wanted.
You’ve been listening to Home. Made. by Rocket Mortgage®. You can reach us at rocketmortgage.com/homemade. My name is Stephanie Foo. Thanks for listening.
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