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The Blue Dot Report’s Dave Schlom: Lassen Celebrates 100-year Anniversary of its Great Eruption, and We’re Invited

Dave Schlom, The Blue Dot Report host, is also passionate about all things related to Lassen Peak.

Q: Welcome, Dave Schlom. Today, in your capacity as a Lassen National Park volunteer you’re talking with us about the upcoming anniversary of Lassen Peak’s eruption. Even so, many readers may know your name from the The Blue Dot Report on KCHO/KFPR, and may remember your weekly sign-off sentence, which never ceases to make me stop and consider your words: ” I’m Dave Schlom, reminding you that when viewed from deep space, we all live on a pale blue dot.”
True enough, and one of the most amazing things on our pale blue dot is Lassen Peak. What makes Lassen Peak so worthy of attention, especially during this 100-year anniversary?

When we spoke earlier, you mentioned your passion for Lassen Peak, a place to which you were first introduced in the mid ’70s. Your interest has grown over the years. What is the most notable thing you know now about Lassen Peak and its eruption that you didn’t know then?

I would have to say it’s my detailed understanding of the events of 100 years ago this May. Mid May is when lava began forming a dome at the summit of Lassen. That was the first time that actual lava was being extruded from the mountain. Late at night on May 19, a steam explosion shattered the dome and sent hot rock down the slopes – it interacted with the snow to form a lahar or debris flow that uprooted trees and threatened lives miles down the Hat Creek drainage.

The state of volcanology in 1915 wasn’t all that sophisticated and they didn’t really understand what generated the mudflow. We now have a very detailed accounting for what happened on that fateful night as well as the Great Eruption that happened on May 22, 1915.

Q: Well, I have to say that when it comes to misinformation about Lassen Peak’s eruption, you set me straight on one of the most common myths with relation to the lava rock. Care to share it with everyone else? 

As a kid growing up I remember my relatives telling me that the rocks you see going up the Skyway to Paradise were “blasted out of Lassen.” You hear the same thing about the rocks along Highway 36 out of Red Bluff and Highway 44 out of Redding. Those rocks are much older than Lassen. The area we now call the Lassen Volcanic Center (essentially the region around and including the park) has been very active for the past three million years.

Great volcanic mountains like ancient Mt. Maidu towered over the region and erupted massive amounts of lava that mixed with glacial ice to create tremendous debris flows that carried the rock down to the eastern margin of the valley. Those rocks were carried by the debris flows and over time, the mortar like rock surrounding them eroded away leaving the scattered boulders. Those debris flows and lava flows built up the layer cake topography of the Canyonlands east of the valley. It’s called the Tuscan formation.

Q: As long as you’re myth-busting, anything else?

Well, probably the most common one is that ancient Mt. Tehama or the Brokeoff Volcano that forms the amphitheater of peaks that opens to the south in the park was not as big as Mt. Shasta. It was about 11,000 feet high and an impressive mountain but Shasta is one of the mightiest of the world’s volcanic edifices – it is much larger in height and volume that Tehama ever was. Also, it’s not true that the old volcano exploded and collapsed like Mt. Mazama (the mountain that formed Crater Lake). It’s demise was a slow process.

When the Brokeoff volcano exhausted its cone building activity about 400,000 years ago, it was mantled in great ice age glaciers. Water seeping down into the interior mixed with the sulfur compounds, creating sulfuric acid. All this hot, acidic water ate away at the hard lava and softened it into clay. The glaciers slowly scoured the mountain’s guts out and so today – when you drive up the park road from the Kohn Yah Mah nee Visitor Center, you are literally driving inside the old cone.

The process of hydrothermal alteration of the rock continues today – and you can see the colorful opals and clays, especially around the active geothermal areas. Sulphur Works is an ever-changing place – slowly eating away at the park road as its fumaroles migrate under it. We think that location is the conduit site for the old volcano.

Q: I noticed as we spoke about Lassen Peak, the name Loomis kept popping up. It’s as if this story and Benjamin Franklin Loomis are linked. Can you explain the connection between Lassen Peak and Loomis?

I don’t think it is an understatement to say that if it weren’t for Frank Loomis, there might not be a Lassen Volcanic National Park. His documentation of the historic eruptions through his glass plate view camera has given USGS scientists invaluable evidence that has helped inform our understanding of the historic eruptions.

Eyewitness accounts back then were notoriously unreliable and the state of volcanic science was pretty primitive. The Loomis images and his book Pictorial History of the Lassen Volcano published in 1926 are second only to the volcanic deposits themselves as the best evidence for what happened. It is also amazing to consider that B.F. Loomis had a portable darkroom in a tent. He prepared his own 8-x-10-inch glass plates by coating them with silver nitrate in the field. That is the ultimate in DIY!

His story is amazing. He came to California in a covered wagon with his family from Mantega, Illinois. His family settled in Tehama County and then Loomis moved to the Bailey Creek drainage where he started a successful shingle and shake-making business. He named the settlement Viola, after his mother.

B.F. Loomis met his future wife Estella while serving on a jury in Redding. One of the other jurors was Leander Vaness Loomis. The two shared a last name and had mutual interests in phrenology (the study of bumps on the head) and astronomy. While staying at the L.V. Loomis home, Frank met Estella and they married later that year.

The two had a lifelong partnership. She helped run the Viola Store and Post Office and they owned a hotel, which they moved there from Shingletown. In 1898, Estella’s brother Arthur gave Frank a fateful gift – the glass plate camera that would make him the historic chronicler of Lassen’s eruptions.

Q: It sounds as if you two have a lot in common – a century apart. Like what?

Well, we both love Lassen for sure. But his interest in astronomy as well as photography definitely strikes a chord with me. I wanted to be a professional nature photographer when I was a kid and I’ve always been pretty talented with a camera, but my real calling came with my interest in astronomy education which led to my career as a high school science teacher. My daughter Tyanna also worked as an intern in the Loomis Museum, and that helped lead her to pursue a degree in geology and now she is the hydrologist for the Lassen National Forest Eagle Lake District.

The museum is named for Frank and Estella’s daughter Mae, who died tragically of an undisclosed illness (influenza perhaps) at the age of 20. I would often think about that when visiting my daughter there. I think Frank and Estella would have been proud of my kid. I know I am!

Q: Back to Lassen Peak, and the anniversary of its eruption, can you walk us through the eruption timeline? For one thing, it wasn’t like a cartoon image, where there’s an eruption, and it’s all over. There’s a lot of before, during and after involvement, right? 

Goodness yes. It all began, most likely, on May 29 1914 when Anna Scharsch, a young woman living on her family ranch (Scharsch Meadows) saw “smoke” coming from the top of the mountain. The next day, Bert Mackenzie saw the first official sighting of a steam and ash eruption from his vantage point in Chester. The volcano became increasingly active and a large crater started opening near the summit. Local residents were constantly visiting the top of the mountain during this eruptive activity, taking dogs and even horses to the top of the active volcano!

Loomis was hoping to capture an eruption with his camera and took up a daily vigil at the Manzanita Chute and was rewarded with a spectacular eruption on June 14, 1914. He described it as, “Fearfully grand.” The series of photos are on display in the Loomis Museum today and are a real treasure.

At the same time that Loomis was making his exposures (which you have to realize was a painstaking process with glass plates needing to be slid into and out of the camera rapidly to catch the eruptive process), a party of local mill workers was on top of the mountain and caught in the maelstrom.

They were enveloped in total darkness as the ash cloud and rocks pelted them. One member of the party slid down the mountain, but one man, Lance Graham, was struck violently by a projectile thrown out of the crater. He was unconscious and left for dead. Later, when they went to retrieve his body, he startled them by coming to. He had a broken collarbone from the impact but was otherwise alright.

The mountain erupted all summer long and through the next winter. The winter of 1914-15 was a very wet one and the mountain was often obscured by clouds.

Q: Pretty dramatic stuff! You know, when I think of the stereotypical idea of an erupting volcano, I picture molten red lava pouring like hot melted wax down the sides of the mountain, destroying everything in its wake. But in the case of the Lassen eruption, there was another dangerous component that had the potential for just as much devastation, right?

Well, for one thing, the type of volcano that Lassen is determines the type of eruptions it has. It is composed of a very thick, pasty lava called dacite. In fact Lassen formed in place in a very short period of time as the huge dome formed in a period of just a couple of years. Imagine skyscrapers of rock rising out of the ground, accompanied by steam and ash explosions – it would have been an awesome sight! That was 27,000 years ago and since then the volcano was scoured by glaciers, creating the pyramidal shape we see today.

The lava that erupted in 1915 was this same pasty stuff – it comes out of the ground in blocks, not rivers of flowing red like you see in Hawaii. That winter was the first recorded El Nino year and the mountain was buried in 33 feet of snow (rather different from now!) which led to a dangerous combination.

On the night of May 19-20, the hot rock was shattered by an explosion, melting the snow and generating a wall of mud, water and rock that shot down the steep northeast face of Lassen Peak. It roared down slope, uprooted trees and reached a height of 30 feet – a fearful thing rumbling down the drainages of Lost and Hat Creeks.

Q: It surprised me when you said no deaths were attributed to the eruptions. Is it true the saved lives were credited to some barking dogs and phone lines?

Fortunately for the settlers downstream, the lahar (mudflow) was about 12 feet high when it reached them and the first homesteader, Elmer Sorahan, was alerted by the barking of his dog. At first he thought it must be a mountain lion or bear and went to go out side and check when he saw the wall of rock, mud and logs coming in the dim night. He ran a mile and a half down stream to warn his neighbors – the Halls.

Wid Hall and his wife Eileen had a cabin and a barn there. Sorahan pounded on the door and warned the family. Amazingly, the Halls had a telephone and Mrs. Hall called downstream to warn her neighbors. It amazes me to think that they had phones up there in 1915 but Ranger Steve Zachary has told me that if you walk around the woods up there you run into the old lines all the time.

With the help of Sorahan, the family escaped in the nick of time (along with a friend who was sleeping in the barn) to high ground. The youngest of their daughters, Marian, stubbed her toenail off, which must have been painful, but that was the extent of their injuries. They hunkered down under a tree and it started to rain. With two stubs of matches, Hall kindled a fire (that’s a true outdoorsman!) and they waited out the flood.

In the morning they found their home had been shoved more than 50 feet away into a tree and they found one of the logs lodged in their home. Young Marian described the muddy water in the barn as being, “warm like milk,” which gives a dramatic hint to the volcanic origin of the flood.

Another dog, downstream at the Wilcox homestead, saved his master Harvey by alerting him. Lahars make a distinctive rumbling noise that must have been sensed by the two dogs before the humans could sense it coming. Harvey barely got out with his clothes on, and not shoes. He scrambled and crawled all night until he reached the Hall homestead the next morning. His feet and hands were lacerated, but again, no lives were lost thanks to the faithful dogs!

Q: You have provided photos taken by Loomis to share today. Can you tell us how Loomis got those shots? How far away was he as he photographed the eruption, and was he ever in harm’s way?

My favorite shot is the one I sent you showing “Hot Rock” from the Devastated Area. Loomis and a group of six friends traveled up the Lost Creek drainage from Manzanita Lake to see if they could find out what had happened to cause the flooding at the Hat Creek homesteads. When they got there they were amazed to find huge conifers uprooted, the formerly verdant meadows covered in gray sludge and a general scene of devastation. That was the late morning of May 22, 1915.

In the photograph, if you look carefully, you can see a dark lobe of rock – the lava erupted a few days before. Loomis photographed the area until he ran out of glass plates. The party departed to return to Viola early in the afternoon. At 4:30, all hell broke loose on top of the mountain.

If Frank Loomis and his friends had still been there they would have seen an awesome sight just before dying.

The mountain erupted vertically and a thunderous roar accompanied it. Minutes later, the cloud of dense rock, gas and ash collapsed and shot down the mountain preceded by a shock wave that snapped huge conifers like match sticks. Then the pyroclastic cloud, traveling more than 100 miles an hour, would have instantly killed them – they are the most fearsome of volcanic phenomena – the kind of thing that wiped out Pompeii in 79 A.D. At the edges of the cloud, you’d be badly burned. Interestingly a few feet away from the cloud’s edge, you’d have felt no more than a warm wind!

By the time of the Great Eruption, Loomis had reached his vantage point at Manzanita Chute – where he had captured the eruption sequence the year before. He could only watch helplessly as the greatest of all the eruptions took place in front of him. He had no more glass plates for his camera. But of course had he still had them, he likely would have lingered and perished in the Devastated Area. I think he’d take life over photography but it’s a tough call…

Q: His camera was also pretty interesting, too.

Yes it is, and I did quite a bit of research on it back about 10 years ago. It’s called a Telephoto Cycle Poco. Back in the 1890s there were two activities that were taking the country by storm – photography and bicycling. The Poco Company decided they could market their new, reasonable small (for that time) camera to “Wheelmen that want to document their adventures.” Loomis never used his camera with a bike as far as I know, but it was a quality instrument that produced fine images based on the technology of the time.

The Poco camera shop later combined with two others in Rochester, New York, and the company became Eastman Kodak. So that camera has a cool lineage. You can see it at the Loomis Museum. It’s quite beautiful.

Q: If you could go back in time, and ask Loomis anything, what would it be?

I really don’t know, there are so many things. I’d just love to talk to him and share with him the legacy of his work and his generous donations of land, the buildings and his photographs to the National Park Service. I also would love to share with him our modern understanding of why there is a volcanic center here in Northern California. The idea of Continental Drift had just been introduced by Alfred Wegner back then and it was rejected out of hand.

Now we know that the collision of oceanic crust with continental crust leads to the thin, dense ocean plate being shoved under the continent in a process called subduction. The subducted plate melts and creates a plume of magma that causes an arc of volcanic mountains. Lassen and Shasta are part of the Cascade Arc. I think he’d also love to know how scientists studying Mars use Lassen as a laboratory for studying extremophiles – bacteria living in the hot acidic environments of Lassen’s geothermal areas. But mostly I’d like to show him what I can do with the camera on my smartphone. That would be magic!

Q: There’s a schedule of events for the public to enjoy this week. (Click here for more information.) You have some especially knowledgeable guests who’ll be sharing, correct?

Yes, we have the world’s leading experts on Lassen’s volcanic past, present and future coming to share with us. Mike Clynne and Patrick Muffler from the USGS have spent their careers studying the park. Mike is the guy who understands the complexities of the magmas and has thoroughly mapped the geology of the park. Patrick is the go to guy when it comes to geothermal systems and Lassen has the most extensive ones in the United States outside of Yellowstone.

So we are really lucky to have them and Margaret Mangan from the California Volcano Observatory – they monitor all of the potentially dangerous volcanic areas of California. Lassen is considered a “high threat” volcano. I am also going to be there to introduce them and generally get in the way.

Q: I’ve heard stories about Native American legends about Mt. Shasta, and the sleeping princess and her lost lover. Are there any recurring legends about Lassen Peak and its surrounding peaks?

Hmmm… that’s not something I am terribly familiar with. I am sure the indigenous peoples of our area all had their lore. But I do know one interesting story. Ishi, the last of the Yahi (and the last Native American living in the wild), was living with anthropologists at UC in San Francisco. The professors there convinced him to revisit his homeland in the canyons of Deer and Mill Creek and so they packed up and went into the back country in the spring of 1914. This must have been a difficult time for Ishi (which isn’t really his name – it just means “man” in his language – the Yahi had a taboo about letting anyone outside their family know their real names) because the empty canyons held the painful memories and haunting spirits of his departed family members – many of whom were killed violently by the white settlers of that time.

At end of their visit, they visited the mountain Ishi called Waganupa – the center of the Yahi world – Lassen Peak. After visiting the mountain, Ishi and the UC professors returned to the Bay Area. Almost to the day after his departure, the mountain reawakened. Ishi passed away in 1916 while the mountain was still active.

Q: Living here in the north state, where Mt.Shasta and Lassen Peak are so prominent on our horizon, how worried should people feel about the likelihood of activity from these volcanic peaks?

Not worried at all really. But awareness is good. These mountains are intensely monitored, should they become active there would be precursors – earthquakes, gas emissions, crustal deformation. Shasta could be a threat should it erupt in midwinter with a heavy snowpack – the lahars generated could inundate Shasta Lake and cause flooding. The biggest threat would be to the communities that lie at the base of the mountain – Mt. Shasta, the town, is literally built atop pyroclastic deposits similar to the ones that buried Pompeii.

The likelihood of activity in the Lassen Volcanic Center is about 1 in 7150. Loosely translated, that means that there is a high likelihood of an eruption once every 7150 years. Volcanoes live on the fast side of geologic time but the time scales, like those for major earthquakes, are still long in terms of a given human life span. The benefits of living near these beautiful sleeping giants far outweighs the risks. If things get intense, you can always leave! Lassen is far enough from my home in Red Bluff that it poses virtually no threat at all. But what an awesome spectacle that would be! I will definitely be imagining it at 4:30 pm Friday May 22, 2015.

Lassen Peak’s eruption seen from Red Bluff in 1915. Photo courtesy of Lassen Volcanic National Park.

Q: What else would you like us to know?

That Lassen Volcanic National Park contains every type of volcanic mountain found on Earth. And Lassen Peak is the world’s largest Dome Volcano. It’s a wonderland of beautiful forests, lakes, streams and volcanic features that you can explore for the rest of your life, and yet there is always more to discover. It also has a beautiful dark night sky that is a tremendous place to star-gaze.

Q: Thank you, Dave, for taking the time to educate us on this important north state feature, and for letting us know about the events surrounding this important anniversary.

It’s been a pleasure!

(Click here for more information about this week’s activities at Lassen Volcanic National Park to celebrate the 100-year anniversary of Lassen Peak’s eruption.)


Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded what’s now known as anewscafe.com in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke of the Czech Republic. Prior to 2007 Chamberlain was an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She lives in Redding, CA.