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Volcanoes and History
Cascade Range Volcanoes - "Volcanoes and History"

Professor Fred G. Plummer

Paper on "Recent Volcanic Activity" Read Before the Academy of Science, printed in the Tacoma Ledger, February 28, 1893.

Excerpt from:
Coombs, H.A., Milne, W.G., Nuttli, O.W., and Slemmons, D.B., 1976, "Report of the Review Panel on the December 14, 1872 earthquake", Appendix D: Selected Supporting Information, December 1976.

Excerpt courtesy the University of Washington, Pacific Northwest Seismograph Network Website, June 2007.

Bold red emphasis on volcano name or bold red annontations were added by the U.S. Geological Survey's Cascades Volcano Observatory, June 2007, and are not in the original, nor on the University of Washington's page.

Chances That Western Washington May See Disastrous Eruptions.
Mountain Peaks of the American Andes and Their Interesting History.
Professor Plummer's Paper on "Recent Volcanic Activity" Read Before the Academy of Science.
Tacoma Ledger, February 28, 1893.

The announcement that Mr. Plummer would read a paper on "Recent Volcanic Activity in Washington," drew to the Annie Wright seminary a full attendance of the Academy of Science last night. Some brief routine business was quickly transacted, including the appointment of a committee to arrange with the Alpine club to form the fifth department of the academy, and another committee to consuls with the Commercial club and chamber of commerce regarding an extra edition of the pamphlet containing Judge Wickersham's recent paper on "Mount Tacoma." Messers. Taylor, Bingham and General Kautz are the first, and M.S. Hill, Judge Wickersham and G.W. Thompson composed the second committee. In this connection letters were received from Dr. Abbott of the museum of archaeology and palaeontology of the University of Philadelphia, and the Oneida Historical Society of Utica, NY, expressing approbation and encouragement for the academy's efforts to secure general recognition of the rightful name of the mountain.

Professor Fred G. Plummer's paper was listened to with close attention, it follows in full:

During the preparation of this paper the writer has become convinced that he runs some risk of being call an alarmist, and indeed he must confess, after a careful study of the subject, there is cause for some apprehension. To say the very least, it will not be an overexercise of caution for engineers and architects to give this subject more than a passing thought.

What may occur in the future is entirely a matter of speculation-accurate prediction is impossible. But we may study the history of this locality and from it form our opinions as to what may possibly, if not probably, happen at any moment and without warning.

The Puget Sound valley lies nearly north and south. The sun, moon and planets rise in the Cascades and set behind the Olympics. In this lowland nearly eighty miles in width are already many flourishing cities, surrounded by fertile lands, unlimited forests of timber, a wealth of minerals and with every facility for commerce. It is the very nearness of our mountain ranges- with their inexhaustible resources of coal and minerals and water power that will in time give us supremacy in the commerce of the world; but we will do well to remember that we are living in a part of the world just made, and that we view on every side the most recent of the volcanoes of this vast range-- the American Andes.

Bordering the Sound country there are at least twenty prominent peaks from which eruptions may take place, or which may be centers of earth tremors or shocks, and several of these have within recent years given ample proof of life.

The following is a table of the more prominent peaks together with their directions and distances from Tacoma according to the best available data:

Name Direction Distance From
Tacoma - Miles
Elevation - Ft
Mount Ellner N66 W 42  
The Brothers N53 W 40  
Mount Olympus N52 W 66 8,150
Mount Constance N42 W 46 7,777
Mount Moriarity N35 W 160 5,185
Mount Whymper N34 W 141 5,120
Four Brothers N14 E 130  
Mount Baker N16 E 110 11,190
Mount Sheeksan N22 E 118  
Mount Sauk N26 E 96  
Mount Hozomeen N34 E 128  
Mount Bonaparte N51 E 182 6,300
Mount Howard N65 E 75  
Mount Stuart N74 E 65  
Mount Aix S59 E 66  
Mount Tacoma
(Mount Rainier)
S56 E 41 11,450
Mount Miles S50 E 82  
Mount Adams S34 E 85 9,570
Mount Abernathy S23 E 91  
Mount Hood S18 E 130  
Mount St. Helens S15 E 60 9,759
Saddle Peak S6 E 100  
Saddle Mountain S32W 108  

To the southward of the above group stretches a long line of cones ending only at Cape Horn. Among the prominent peaks are Jefferson, Three Sisters, Diamond, Scott, Pitt, Shasta, St. Johns, Lassens, Whitney, Orizaba, Ixtaccihuatl, Potocateptl, Mombaco, Ometepe, Orosi, Cotopaxi, Chimbrazo and Acongagua.

To the northward are Calder, Edgecombe, La Perouse, Crillon, Lituya, Fairweather, Tebenkof, Hendrickson, Seattle, Hubbard, Vancouver, Cook, Logan, St. Elias and ending with a long line ofactive cones extending out and forming the Alaska Peninsula.

It may well be believed that this enormous chain of upheavals, extending a length of nearly 9000 miles makes the greatest catastrophe in the geological history of our planet.

It seems proper to preface this paper with some old Indian traditions, not because of their having any real scientific value, but rather that they may be compared with the accounts which follow and with the conditions now known to exist.

Hamichous legend, as recorded by Winthrop, tells of a wise old Squally-amish hunter who lived near Nisqually, whose evil spirit, Tamanous, directed him to ascend Tacoma in search of the precious hiaqua--money. Upon the summit the old hunter found the treasure in the crater of the mountain, near a black lake, to the east of which were three stones resembling a salmon's head, a torch and an elk's head. The time may come when some siwash Ignatius Donnelly will affirm that an Indian had reached the summit and that he was describing a large crater between the three peaks which judging from the present shape of the mountain, probably existed at some early time.

Another Indian legend recites that ages ago all the Indians around Mount Tacoma became bad, and Soch-u-le-tyee (God) concluded to dispose of them. Wishing, however, to save some few good Indians, together with representatives of the animal creation he directed a noted temanimus (medicine) man to undertake their delivery. This the temanimus accomplished by shooting an arrow up into a cloud. it stuck in the cloud. Then he shot another arrow which stuck into the first. In this way he fastened together a long line of arrows extending from the cloud to the earth. The good Indians and animals climbed this rod and so were safely lodged in the cloud. Then the floods came and fire spouted out of the mountain and all those bad Indian's were swept from the face of the earth. -- After many days the temanimus man, thinking that the volcanic furor might have abated enough to make it safe for them to come down, sent several animals out to explore. The fish finding a nice brook concluded not to go back at all. The duck also deserted, but the beaver came back with a lump of mud on his tail, assuming then that the volcano had ceased to spout and that they might safely venture out. For this reason the beaver has ever since been held in high esteem while the fish was then and there sentenced to remain all his life in the water, and the duck was condemned to a wabbling gait forever. The good Indians and the animals accordingly descended, the snake coming last, When the temanimus man saw him crawling out to the rod he broke it off. Hence the snake did not come down at all, and to that is due the fact that there are no snakes around Mount Tacoma.

A familiar tradition is one which recites that the Columbia River formerly flowed under a natural bridge where it crosses the axis of the Cascades range and that during a convulsion of nature this bridge fell, and the debris choking the canyon formed the cascades of the Columbia.

According to the story of John Hiaton (now living) it was about the year 1820 that he witnessed an eruption of Mount Tacoma, accompanied by fire, noise and earthquake. He had heard from older members of his tribe that this had happened many times. He had also seen fires from Mount Baker, and a tradition of his race is to the effect that this mountain was formerly much higher and that a tremendous explosion threw down the entire south side. The present shape and condition of the mountain confirms this story. Hiaton also refers to a tidal wave which washed up the Puyallup valley. This was probably the effect of submarine volcanic action, It is possible that this was at the same time and had the same cause as the tidal wave which swept over Santa Barbara in 1812.

The earliest reliable records of eruptions related to Mounts Hood and St. Helens, both of which were visible from the early settlements on the Columbia river. An old historian, Rev. Samuel Parker, tells that "the Indians say that they have often seen fires in the chasms of Mount Hood. Tilki, the first chief of the La Dalles Indians, who is a man of more than ordinary talents, said that he had often seen fires in the fissures of the rocks in the mountains." A few years ago Captain Symonds, in his report on the Columbia river, notes-that "persons who have visited Mount Hood say that near its summit there are places where hot sulphurous gases still escape, and there are many who claim to have seen smoke in large quantities issuing from the mountain."

In the story of his explorations Mr. Parker relates that "there was in August, 1831, an uncommonly dark day, which was thought to have been caused bv an eruption of a volcano. The whole day was nearly as dark as night, except a slight red, lurid appearance, which was perceptible until near night. Lighted candles were necessary during the day. The atmosphere was filled with ashes, which were very light, like the white ashes of wood, all having the appearance of being produced by great fires, and yet none were known to have been in that whole region around. The day was perfectly calm, without any wind. For a few days after the fires out of doors were noticed to burn with a bluish flame as though mixed with sulphur. There were no earthquakes. By observations which were made after the atmosphere became clear, it was thought the pure, white, perpetual snow upon Mount St. Helens was discolored, presenting a brown appearance, and therefore it was concluded that there had been upon it a slight eruption."

In a foot-note this author says: "I have been creditably informed that lava was ejected at that time from Mount St. Helens." The Klickitat name of Mount St. Helens is Tak-one-lat-clah, and means "fire mountain."

The historian, Thornton, in his "Oregon and California" writing of Mount Hood says: "The Indians affirm they have often seen fires in the chasms of this mountain. Independent of this, there are many facts that leave no doubt that this is a volcano. Mount St. Helens is an active volcano, and was in a state of eruption in the year 1831. With the exception of a slight red, lurid appearance the day was dark and so completely was the light of the sun shut out by the smoke and falling ashes that candles were necessary. The weather was perfectly calm and without wind, and during several days after the eruption the fires out of doors burned with a bluish flame as though the atmosphere was filled with sulphur. Credible persons in Oregon have informed me that they have on several occasions since seen the fire and smoke of this volcano. The Rev. Josiah L. Parrish, who is connected with a Methodist mission in Oregon, informed me that on one occasion he witnessed one of the most remarkable eruptions of this mountain. I regret, however, not having noted his relation in my journal. The date of the eruption and the facts connected with it have been obliterated from my memory. I only remember that the earthquake was felt, no noise was heard and that he saw vast columns of lurid smoke and fire shoot up, which, after attaining a certain elevation, spread out in a parallel to the plain of the horizon and presented the appearance of a vast table supported by immense pillars of convolving flame and smoke."

At 1:40 p.m. Of June 29, 1833, two earthquake shocks Of slight intensity were felt at Fort Nisqually- A messenger who afterward arrived from Fort Vancouver, 100 miles to the southward, reported that no shock was felt at that point.

The Rev. Gustavus Hines, an early missionary to the Columbia river country, writes that "in the month of October 1842, St. Helens was discovered all at once to be covered with a dense cloud of smoke, which continued to enlarge and move off in dense masses to the eastward, and filling the heavens in that direction, presented an appearance like that occasioned by a tremendous conflagration viewed at a vast distance. When the first volume of smoke had cleared away it could be distinctly seen from different parts of the country that an eruption had taken place on the north side of St. Helens, a little below the summit, and from the smoke that continued to rise from the chasm or crater it was pronounced to be a volcano in active operation. When the explosion took place the wind was northwest, and on the same day and extending from thirty to fifty miles to the southeast there fell showers of ashes or dust, which covered the ground in some places so as to admit of its being gathered in quantities. This last phenomena has been of frequent occurrence and has led many to suppose that volcanic eruptions are not uncommon in this country."

The explorer, Fremont, says that on the 13th day of November, 1843, two of the great snow cones (Mounts Tacoma and St. Helens) were in action. "On the 23rd of November St. Helens scattered its ashes like a light fall of snow over the dalles of the Columbia fifty miles away," and it was still burning on February 16,1844, when another witness described it thus- "The mountain burned most magnificently. Dense masses of smoke rose up in immense columns and wreathed the whole crest of the peak in sombre and massive clouds, and in the evening its fires lit up the flaky mountain side with a flood of soft, yet brilliant radiance."

Father De Smet testifies that "in the year 1846 Mounts St. Helens and Baker became volcanoes, the latter immediately preceding the time of writing had undergone considerable changes on the side where the crater was formed," This corresponds in some degree to the story of John Hiaton, although the dates are not the same. It is also reported that Mount Tacoma showed signs of activity at this time.

Settlers of Whatcom County have often seen Mount Baker in a state of eruption, giving out fire and smoke. One old resident says he has at night upon the water, several times seen the fires of Mount Baker, the smoke from which draws down the Skagit valley. Parties who reached the summit in the year 1866, report that the chasms on the northwest side are of frightful depth. The top of the mountain is of solid ice and snow, The crater lies to the southward and far below the summit. From the top smoke was plainly seen coming from the crater and a sulphurous smell was plainly perceptable.

In January 1853, persons living down Sound could distinctly see a long. black streak on the southwest slope of Mount Baker which was variously estimated at from 1000 to 2000 feet in width. It was several months before this mass of lava (as it undoubtedly was) had cooled so as to receive the falling snow. Persons who reached the summit in 1881, report that just south of the peak is an enormous chasm bearing nearly east and west and at least 1000 feet below the summit. At the bottom of this chasm is the crater, and it was from its western mouth this river of lava flowed.

In 1861 people at Port Ludlow saw Mount Oympus in a state of eruption.

Mrs. Victor, while describing Oregon scenery, says (in 1869) that a late slight eruption of Mount Hood, lasting for several hours, must have been distinctly visible at Dalles City.

On Sunday,June 27, 1869, at about 8:30 p.m. quite a severe earthquake shock was felt at Seattle. Very little damage was done although dishes were thrown from pantry shelves and many. people were startled by the sharpness of the shock.

The most violent earthquake of recent times occurred in September of the year 1870. All evidence goes to prove that the shocks came from the direction of Mount Olympus in the Olympic range. On the Cowlitz prairies stock was stampeded, chimneys were destroyed, fences were leveled and in the houses the chairs rocked and clocks were thrown from the mantels. At Yelm there were observed two very strong shocks, followed by several slight ones. Clocks were stopped and many thrown down. Chickens were thrown off the roosts and chimneys and buildings were cracked. In many places earth fissures were formed, and on the Columbia river trail it was necessary to make repairs in many places to prevent accidents to horses. Numerous cracks were found, some as far east as Okanogan and Yakima. In many parts a dull rumbling noise was heard. At Olympia houses rocked violently, throwing down chairs, and destroying crockery, and a child was thrown from its bed. The maple trees swayed to and fro like inverted pendulums, and people who stood in the streets to avoid falling chimneys, were thrown to the ground. In Lewis County many chimneys were broken off close to the roofs. The side-wheel steamer Alida was lying at her dock at Port Gamble with her stern pointing north and the dock to the westward. Her officers and her men were startled by a strong blow against the guards on the port side, and rushed out upon the dock thinking the steamer had been run into. A strong swell immediately began to roll the boat, and from the excited people who had rushed into the streets, they learned that an earthquake had occurred. Gamblers deserted their tables, leaving their gold in the scramble to get out from under buildings. It may be presumed that Port Gamble was well and truly named. With this earthquake is connected the fall of a large portion of Mount Tacoma, for upon the first clear day following the shocks it could be clearly seen that the Liberty Cap Cor (north peak) had lost about eighty acres from its southern end, which had been detached from the main part of the peak and was distributed down the western slope. The Liberty Cap now shows a nearly perpendicular face on the southern side which is plainly visible from points south of Yelm. Were the evidence as to the direction of the earthquake less clear, it might be argued that the falling of this immense mass produced the shocks, but the reverse is probably true. The Puyallup Indians have a tradition that at one time Tacobet (Mount Tacoma) broke near the summit. A point fell off and drifted over to the Olympics, and after this phenomena there was snow on the Olympics-- but never before.

On Saturday, the 14th of December, 1872, at 9:40 p.m., a very strong shock was felt over the whole Puget Sound country and as far south as Skookumchuck, where trees swayed and created a panic among stock. In Seattle it was stated by a paper that "With the exception of the earthquake of 1865 at San Francisco it is doubtful if so violent and long continued a shock has been felt for years on the entire coast. No damage was done, but the frame buildings swayed to and fro like small craft at sea. At Olympia roofs were cracked and the maples swayed violently. People rushed from hotels and houses in terror and general panic prevailed until the cessation of the shocks. At Duwamish head a flagpole thirty feet high waved a distance of four feet. At Seattle several lumber piles were thrown down." There were three series of shocks, which witnesses generally agree came from the northeast or from Mount Baker. In this connection I quote from Mrs. Victor, who wrote in 1872 that " St. Helens has been frequently known since the settlement of the country to throw out steam and ashes, scattering the latter over the country for 100 miles and obscuring the daylight (on one occasion) so that it was necessary to burn candles. Mount Baker, more active as a volcano than the other peaks, has since 1867, suffered loss of height and change of form consequent on the falling in of the walls of its crater." Whether the earthquake caused the falling in or the failing caused the earthquake is a question for debate.

On the 9th of January 1873, several sharp shocks were felt at Tacoma, and with less force at Seattle. No damage was done. On November 20th of the same year shocks were felt at Tacoma, and the following December three shocks were felt at Olympia.

In the year 1874, persons living on the prairies south of Tacoma distinctly felt several slight shocks.

On Monday, the 7th of December, 1880, at 5:45 p.m., strong shocks were felt throughout the Sound country. The testimony is conflicting as to its direction, but it was either from Mount Tacoma or from Mount Baker. The Weekly Intelligencer published at Seattle said in its issue of the following day that "It consisted of three vibrations in rapid sucession. People rushed into the streets from stores, restaurants and saloons. No damage resulted there from so far as could be learned. The vibrations were from east to west and felt in all parts of the city and also along the water front. Captain Ballard of the Zephyr states that he was in his office writing when the steamer was off Milton point and he felt the shocks very distinctly. The steamer rocked as though in a rough sea, and he supposed the commotion was caused by the wave of a passing steamer and did not learn the real cause until he arrived in port fifteen minutes afterward. The Chinese portion of the population were the most frightened and it was an hour or two after the shock before they subsided and stopped their jabbering.

On the following Sunday, the 12th of December, at about 9 o'clock in the evening the entire region of 200 miles around Mount Tacoma experienced a series of sharp earthquakes which were accompanied by deep rumblings. The ground seemed to wiggle and twist and cause many panics in churches, hotels and houses.

Dishes were shaken from pantry shelves, clocks were stopped and several lamps were overturned, but no very serious damage resulted. At Tacoma the engineer of a switch locomotive, who was doing some work under his engine, was startled by the loud ringing of the bell and called lustily to the fireman not to start the locomotive. The ringing of a church bell caused an alarm of fire to be spread. In the Puyallup and Stuck valleys the motion was described as waving and like the swell from the sea. Witnesses near Sumner state that they could distinctly hear the approach and passage of the shocks and were conscious of their direction and that they came from Mount Tacoma. The chimneys of hop-kilns suffered by the shocks and some buildings were strained.

In the latter part of the same month a Whatcom County paper said a "high meteor was observed to descend upon the Chuckanut Mountains, near Samish, a few days ago which illuminated the heavens and made the earth plainly resound to its striking. It was probably a rocket from the fireworks of Mount Baker, which was said to be in a state of eruption at the time."

A clipping from a Seattle paper dated December 21, 1880, states that considerable excitement was caused yesterday afternoon by the announcement that smoke was issuing from one of the prominent peaks of the coast range of mountains. Hundreds of people lined the streets to witness the strange phenomena, A volume of white smoke could plainly be seen rising from the peaks much as smoke does from the smokestack of a steamer, and after ascending a short distance would be scattered as if by the wind. Many brought glasses to bear on the object under discussion, and the prevailing opinion seemed to be that a new volcano in a state of eruption had been discovered, while others throught it might be mist or fog rising from the gulches in the mountains and looking much like smoke."

In the summer of 1883 Tacoma received a shock which has not been reported from other localities, Buildings were strained, and one ordinarily steady-going building is said to have danced on its foundations- The direction of this shock was from Mount Tacoma, as shown by the swinging of kerosene chandeliers which were hung on hooks. The stroke of this shock is variously estimated at from three to six inches.

On June 16, 1884, at about 7 p.m., jets of steam were seen shooting upward from the summit of Mount Tacoma to a considerable height. This phenomena was repeated at short intervals until darkness cut off the view. There was no fire, and no earth tremors were reported.

In the fall of 1889 several slight tremors were felt in the Puyallup valley and in the regions immediately surrounding Mount Tacoma, and in September, 1891, there were several small shocks felt at Tacoma, but these were so slight that to my knowledge no record has been kept of the dates or directions.

On November 20, 1891, at 3:15 p.m., two very perceptible shocks were felt at Tacoma a few seconds apart.

Climbers in the Cascades in 1891 have seen fires coming from Mount Hozomeen, which is eastward from Mount Baker, Sheep herders east of the mountains have frequently seen eruptions of this mountain in recent years, and if one report is true this volcano is the "Old Faithful" of the Cascades.

On April 17, 1892, at 2:55 p.m., two slight shocks were- felt at Tacoma.

For the purpose of convenient reference the foregoing data is arranged in tables as follows;

Year Shocks Force
1820 Several Violent
1833 Two Slight
1869 One Sharp
1870 Two Severe
1872 Three Sharp
1873 Several Sharp
1874 Several Slight
1880 Three Strong
1880 Several Sharp
1883 One Strong
1889 Several Slight
1891 Several Slight
1891 Two Slight
1892 Two Slight

Name Year Duration
Mount Tacoma 1820? --------
Mount Tacoma 1843 --------
Mount Tacoma 1846 --------
Mount Tacoma 1884 2 Hours
Mount St. Helens 1831 12 Hours
Mount St. Helens 1842 Short
Mount St. Helens 1843 Short
Mount St. Helens 1843-4 85 Days
Mount St. Helens 1846 Short
Mount Baker 1820? --------
Mount Baker 1846 --------
Mount Baker 1853 --------
Mount Baker 1880 --------
Mount Hood 1831? --------
Mount Hood 1869 3?Hours
Mount Hozomeen 1891 --------
Mount Olympus 1861  
Mount Olympus(?) 1880 3?Hours

An eminent seismographer, Professor Alexis Perry, by a long series of observations and carefully prepared tables, has sought to prove that there is a relation between the occurrence of earthquakes and the motions of the moon. While it may be acknowledged that in the history of the earth more earthquakes have occurred near the times of new and full moons than at the quarters, it is still an open question if the moon actually exerts an influence. That our complaisant satellite may attract the subterranean fluids as well as those upon the earth's surface needs no proof, but that there are such fluids is yet to be demonstrated. Eminent scientists of both hemispheres believe that volcanic eruptions are chemical rather than mechanical in their nature, and it is now a favorite theory that volcanic outbursts are the results of the sudden entrance of sea water into subterranean caverns. It may, indeed, be argued that the presence of volcanoes is indicative of comparative safety from violent earthquakes, inasmuch as they are really great safety valves which to relieve internal pressures. If this be true Tacoma has nothing to fear from earthquakes, for we have volcanoes to spare,

The intensity of an earthquake shock depends upon the distance and depth of the center of activity, as well as the initial violence of the shock. The intensity is inversely as the square of the distance, and it follows that a shock which might throw a man off his feet at Mount Tacoma might be barely perceptible in this city. It is not rpcorded that any of the earthquakes experienced in the Puget Sound valley have been fatal to man or beast, but it is to be remembered that the last shock of any consequence was in 1880, and at that time there were no tall buildings of brick or stone to be destroyed. Buildings of wood are more elastic than those of masonry, and will stand a shock of greater amplitude without destruction. A comparatively light series of vibrations might be cumulative in effect and shatter the strongest and highest of our buildings, while lower and weaker structures might show no strains. It is only fair to admit that a shock like that of 1872 might be very disastrous to the Sound cities as they are now built, and such shocks are quite likely to occur at any moment if we are to judge by the past.


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