TODAY in HISTORY: The Death of the Other Harry Truman

Above, Harry Randall Truman, the owner of Mount St. Helens Lodge in Washington. He died Killed by volcano eruption Pyroclastic flow. 

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by William “Doc” Halliday

I never knew Harry Truman who was born in 1896.  He was a veteran of World War One, and at the time of his death he was a celebrity.  No, I am not speaking of Harry S. Truman, the thirty-third President of the United States.  I am speaking of Harry Randall Truman, the owner of Mount St. Helens Lodge at Spirit Lake in Washington state.

Harry R. Truman was born in West Virginia.  His family moved to Chehalis, Washington several years later.  In August of 1917, Harry joined the United States Army and was assigned to the 100th Aero Squadron which was formed at Kelly Field in Texas.  After just two months of indoctrination training, orders were given to the Squadron to move to Mineola Field, in Long Island, New York in anticipation of overseas assignment.  At Mineola Field, the men received instruction in the maintenance of the Curtis JN-4 aircraft that was known as the Jenny.

In January of 1918, orders were issued for the squadron to proceed to Liverpool, England by transport on the SS Tuscania.  That ship had been launched in September of 1914 as a luxury liner of the Cunard Line.  When World War One began she was pressed into service as a troop transport.  The ship departed Hoboken, New Jersey with 384 crew members and 2,013 United States Army personnel.  At about 6:40 p.m. local time, the German submarine UB-77 fired two torpedoes at the Tuscania.  The second torpedo hit the ship.  Within four hours the Tuscania sank in about 330 feet of water in the Irish Sea.  Two hundred and ten men lost their lives in the attack and sinking.  Harry Truman was not one of them.

After the sinking, the 100th Aero Squadron was re-formed at Winchester, England.  Training continued at various locations.  The Armistice with Germany on November 11, 1918, was agreed to before the squadron was assigned to any combat missions.  All of the men including Harry Truman were returned to the United States.  The squadron was demobilized in June of 1919, and the men were discharged.  Harry Truman returned to Washington State and lived in the town of Riffe.  That town no longer exists as it was inundated by reservoir waters with the construction of Mossylake Dam in 1968.

In 1926 Harry Truman became a caretaker and handyman at Mount St. Helens Lodge on the shores of Spirit Lake.  Two years later he was able to purchase a half interest in that lodge. Within months he was able to purchase the remaining interest in the lodge and was the sole owner of that enterprise until his death.  During the next couple of decades, Harry married three women.  He had one child, a daughter named Betty from his first wife Helen Hughes.  Betty predeceased Harry in 1961.

For the love of a mountain …Harry R. Truman’s name is engraved on a plaque with other victims of the final eruption at Mount St. Helens.

Few people would know of Harry Randall Truman if it wasn’t for a cryptodome.  The cryptodomes are formed when viscous lava is forced upward causing the surface to bulge.  Yes, I am referring to a volcano.  I am specifically referring to the eruption of Mount St. Helens in Washington State.  Spirit Lake was on the North side of Mount St. Helens at about 3,200 feet altitude.  Spirit Lake was formed by pyroclastic flows about 4,000 years ago.

On March 20, 1980, Mount St. Helens was shook by a Magnitude 4.2 earthquake.  A week later steam venting started.  By the end of April, 1980, the north side of the mountain had started to bulge.  When people were ordered out of the area, Harry refused to leave his beloved lodge, lake and mountain.  Thirty-seven years ago, on May 18, 1980, Mount St. Helens experienced a second earthquake.  The second earthquake had a magnitude of 5.1, and triggered a massive collapse of the north face of the mountain.

During the weeks leading up to the disaster Harry Truman had become a folk hero to some and a celebrity of sorts.  Some people thought he was a crazy old man for refusing to evacuate his home.  Harry is presumed to have died when the eruption caused 150 feet of volcanic landslide debris to cover the site of his lodge and 230 square miles of the area.

Historian & Political Writer William “Doc” Halliday can be contacted at


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