Pre-eruption Mount St. Helens film found, developed

VANCOUVER, Wash. – They’re brand new images of a Northwest icon that disappeared more than 33 years ago: the conical summit of Mount St. Helens.

Reid Blackburn took the photographs in April 1980 during a flight over the simmering volcano.

When he got back to the Columbian studio, Blackburn set that roll of film aside. It was never developed.

On May 18, 1980 – about five weeks later – Blackburn died in a volcanic blast that obliterated the mountain peak.

Those unprocessed black-and-white images spent the next three decades coiled inside the film canister. Columbian photo assistant Linda Lutes recently discovered the roll in a studio storage box, and it was finally developed.

When Fay Blackburn had a chance to see new samples of her husband’s work, she recalled how he was feeling left out during all that volcano excitement.

“He did express his frustration. He was on a night rotation,” said Blackburn, the Columbian’s editorial page assistant. While other staffers were booking flights to photograph Mount St. Helens, “He was shooting high school sports.”

When his shift rotated around, “He was excited to get into the air,” Fay Blackburn said.

Columbian microfilm shows Reid Blackburn was credited with aerial photos of Mount St. Helens that ran on April 7 and April 10.

He would have shot that undeveloped roll on one of those assignments. Maybe he didn’t feel the images were up to his standards. Maybe he didn’t trust the camera; it was the only roll he shot with that camera on the flight.

But he would have had more than one camera, said former Columbian photographer Jerry Coughlan, who worked with Blackburn.

“We all had two or three cameras” set up for a variety of possibilities, Coughlan said. Riding in a small plane, “You didn’t want to be fumbling for lenses.”

Former Columbian reporter Bill Dietrich teamed up with Blackburn during one of those early April flights over the volcano.

“Reid was a remarkable gentleman, with the emphasis on gentle,” Dietrich said. “He was an interested human being, with a great eye. He saw stuff.

“As a reporter, that’s a great thing about working with photographers. They see things,” Dietrich said.

“The newsroom was so electrified when the volcano first awoke. It was an international story in the backyard of a regional newspaper,” said Dietrich, who now writes historical fiction and Northwest environmental nonfiction. “We were all pumped up and fascinated.”

The May 18, 1980, eruption still is a historical landmark, as well as a huge scientific event: That’s why the roll of film was discovered a few weeks ago.

A photo editor working on a geology book contacted Lutes. She’d come across a Columbian photo of a logjam on the Cowlitz River, taken on the day of the eruption, on a website and wanted the image.

Lutes sorted through a couple of boxes labeled “Mount St. Helens” and tried – unsuccessfully – to find that film.

She did find a ripped paper bag with Blackburn’s negatives spilling out.

“I thought I’d better put it in a nice envelope so it wouldn’t be ruined,” Lutes said. “Then I found that roll. I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if we found what was on it?’ ”

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