Burlington Northern loses its mountaintop in Mount St. Helens blast on May 18, 1980.

  • By Gregg Herrington
  • Posted 8/23/2008
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 8741
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At 8:32 a.m. Sunday morning, May 18, 1980, Mount St. Helens in Southwest Washington ends months of geologic suspense and erupts, blasting tons of Burlington Northern Railroad property into the air and ultimately across much of Eastern Washington, Northern Idaho, and Western Montana.

Lincoln's Land Grant

When President Abraham Lincoln signed the Northern Pacific Land Grant Act 116 years earlier, on July 2, 1864, the federal government traded some 47 million acres of public land to the new railroad in return for its promise to build a railroad across the nation’s northern tier, linking the Great Lakes with Puget Sound.

The Northern Pacific was granted square-mile sections in an alternating, “checkerboard” pattern across the West and was to sell off the land in order to finance construction while also promoting settlement of the West. Much of the land, however, ended up going to timber companies and spawning environmental controversies that continue to reverberate. The Weyerhaeuser Timber Co. owned a substantial tract of former Northern Pacific land on the western flanks of Mount St. Helens. But the very summit was still in the hands of Burlington Northern, the Northern Pacific's successor railroad following the merger of 1970.  

Burlington Northern's Mountaintop

“The Burlington Northern Railroad ... owned a square mile of the mountain, including the missing several thousand feet of the top that was blasted into the atmosphere,” Gerald W. Williams of the U.S. Forest Service wrote. After the eruption, “the Forest Service set into motion a land trade with the [railroad] company for [its] land on the mountain in exchange [for] national forest land elsewhere. With these activities in motion, it was not surprising that  ... Congress passed the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument act that was signed into law by President Reagan on August 26, 1982.”


Derrick Jensen and George Draffan with John Osborn, Railroads and Clearcuts (Sandpoint, Idaho: Keokee Co Pub Inc., 1995), 1-10; Gerald W. Williams, “National Monuments and the Forest Service,” U.S. Forest Service, November 18, 2003, National Park Service website accessed August 23, 2008 (http://www.nps.gov/history/history/online_books/fs/monuments.htm); Gregg Herrington interview with Vicky Wessling, real-estate specialist, Gifford Pinchot National Forest headquarters, Vancouver, Washington, May 5, 2008.

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