Top 10 Bizarre Events in Pacific Northwest History

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There were only two criteria used to make this list: one, the event must have happened in the Pacific Northwest and two, that it was verifiable. Sorry, no Bigfoot stories here, but if anyone ever proves his existence, he’ll certainly make this list.

For this list’s purposes, the Pacific Northwest is defined as the area composed of the states of Oregon and Washington. Those in Alaska will complain about that definition so one event from Alaskan history has been included just to keep the residents of the Frozen North happy. Having established the parameters, here’s a look at some of the strangest events in Pacific Northwest history.


10. Mount St. Helens Blows Its Top

Mount St. Helens erupts

The eruption of Mount St. Helens disrupted the entire Pacific Northwest.

On May 18, 1980, the deadliest and most destructive volcanic eruption in United States history occurred at Mount St. Helens in southwest Washington. Fifty-seven people were killed, wildlife was destroyed, and forests were leveled for miles around in an explosion 1,600 times larger than the Hiroshima atomic bomb. Now, for the really scary part: Several other dormant volcanoes in the Pacific Northwest, including Mount Rainier, have the potential to erupt with similar destructive force.


9. The Pig War

The United States and Great Britain clashed in 1859 in the Pig War, one of the most obscure wars in United States history.

On June 15, 1859, an American settler on what today is San Juan Island shot and killed a pig that was eating his potatoes. Unfortunately, the pig belonged to Great Britain’s Hudson’s Bay Co., and an international incident began. Since the United States and Great Britain were already in heated discussions about poorly defined U.S.-Canadian boundary lines through the San Juan Islands, tensions quickly escalated. By August, 461 American forces faced off against 2,140 British forces in a standoff. In the end, tempers cooled and a permanent boundary between Canada and the United States was established in 1871. The only casualty of the Pig War was the pig. Today, the incident is commemorated at San Juan Island National Historic Park.


8. U.S. Navy Rescues Tacoma

The aircraft carrier USS Lexington supplied power for the city of Tacoma, Washington, in 1929 and 1930.

In late 1929, a severe drought dropped water reservoirs in the Pacific Northwest to dangerously low levels, curtailing their hydroelectric capabilities. The situation reached the crisis stage in November, when city leaders in Tacoma, Washington, telegraphed Washington, D.C., with a desperate message. “We cannot hold out another week without shutting off inductors which will give great loss to employment and consequent suffering to entire community.” The federal government quickly sent the USS Lexington, an aircraft carrier, to the rescue. The ship docked at Tacoma and power cables from the Lexington’s steam plant were hooked to the city’s power grid for a month, averting the crisis.


7. Japanese, U.S. Fight For Alaska

U.S. planes fly past Mt. McKinley in Alaska during World War II.

In an attempt to draw the U.S. Navy fleet away from the battle at Midway Island, Japanese troops landed on the islands of Kiska and Attu in the western Aleutian Islands on June 6 and 7, 1942. Over the next year, several naval and land battles were fought. By the end of August 1943, Japan had been driven out of Alaska and that strategic military area was safely under American control. However, the Aleutian Islands Campaign resulted in nearly 4,000 casualties.


6. Town Makes History, Gets Terrible Legacy

Cleanup of hazardous materials at the Hanford Nuclear site in Washington could last until 2050.

The sleepy farming town of Hanford in south-central Washington seemed an unlikely spot for the federal government to build a key component for the Manhattan Project during World War II. But the 586-acre Hanford site produced the plutonium used in the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan in 1945. At the peak of its production in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Hanford had nine nuclear reactors and supplied plutonium for most of the U.S. nuclear arsenal at the time.

Not surprisingly, all that plutonium production left a terrible legacy. Waste leaks in tanks were first reported in 1956. Some 130 million cubic yards of contaminated debris and dirt were left behind and billions of gallons of contaminated water made it into groundwater and the Columbia River. Cleanup at the Hanford site could continue until almost 2050.


5. Tsunami Hammers Coast

The Pacific Northwest has had several deadly tsunamis through the years.

The Pacific Northwest has had several deadly tsunamis through the years.

Tsunamis are so rare in the Pacific Northwest that generations can pass without ever seeing one of these destructive forces, but on the evening of March 29, 1964, a magnitude 9.2 earthquake struck Southeastern Alaska, triggering a killer tsunami. Waves up to 15 feet tall struck Oregon and Washington, killing four in those two states and causing millions of dollars in damage to coastal towns. Some scientists believe the area could be at risk for an earthquake that could spark a tsunami similar to the 2004 event in the Indian Ocean.


4. Seattle Covers Up Its Past

After a devastating 1889 fire, Seattle leaders opted to rebuild their city above the ruins of the old city. Credit: Postdlf

After a devastating 1889 fire, Seattle leaders opted to rebuild their city above the ruins of the old city. Credit: Postdlf

In the aftermath of the Great Seattle Fire of 1889, which destroyed 25 city blocks, city officials made two daring decisions. First, they decided to rebuild Seattle of stone and brick to protect against a repeat of the deadly fire and second, they ambitiously chose to raise the street level one to two levels higher to guard against flooding and backed-up flush toilets. As a result, today’s Seattle stands 12 to 30 feet above the old city. The Underground Tour is a popular tourist attraction in Seattle.


3. Ice Age Flood Transforms Pacific Northwest

A flood from Lake Missoula in Montana carved out some of the key geographic features in the Pacific Northwest.

A flood from Lake Missoula in Montana carved out some of the key geographic features in the Pacific Northwest.

Approximately 12,000 years ago, Glacial Lake Missoula in what is now western Montana broke through its ice dam and unleashed a series of floods of Biblical proportions. Imagine a wall of water 60 feet high traveling at 60 miles per hour with the force of 60 Amazon Rivers. When the floods finally subsided the scablands of eastern Washington were created, the Columbia River Gorge was carved and the Willamette Valley in Oregon was formed. Remnants of the largest waterfall in the world, Dry Falls, can still be seen. Dry Falls has 3.5 miles of cliffs and drops 400 feet, making it 10 times as large as Niagara Falls.


2. Japanese Attack Oregon

As many as 1,000 Japanese fire balloons may have reached the United States.

In June 1942 the Japanese long-range submarine I-25 took position off the Oregon coast near Ft. Stevens and opened fire on the fort, leaving craters on the beach and marshland near the fort. Three months later, on Sept. 9, 1942, the same Japanese submarine arrived near the coast of southern Oregon. A seaplane was launched and incendiary bombs were dropped near the town of Brookings, Oregon, the first aerial bombing of the United States mainland by a foreign nation.

Yet an even more bizarre and tragic episode in the war happened in 1945. In an attempt to wreak havoc on the U.S. mainland, the Japanese military released thousands of fire balloons, inflatables designed to carry incendiary devices. More than 300 such balloons were estimated to have reached the U.S., and traveled as far east as Detroit. One such balloon landed in eastern Oregon, where it was found by five teenagers and their Sunday school teacher on an outing. The bomb exploded, killing all six. Those were the only known combat-related deaths on the U.S. mainland during World War II.


1. D.B. Cooper Skyjacks Plane, Vanishes

D.B. Cooper seemed to have pulled the perfect crime when he disappeared into thin air in 1971.

On Nov. 24, 1971 a man claiming to be Dan Cooper purchased a ticket for Northwest Airlines Flight 305, from Portland, Oregon, to Seattle.  As the plane began its takeoff he handed a note to the stewardess claiming to have a bomb and demanding $200,000. Upon landing in Seattle the ransom was paid and all passengers and some of the crew were allowed to leave the plane. The skyjacker then demanded the plane be flown to Mexico. At 10,000 feet, with a frigid rain falling, and with the plane flying around 200 mph, the man known as Dan Cooper parachuted out of the plane and into folklore a few miles north of Portland. Despite an exhaustive search of the area by local police, FBI and even Army personnel, no trace of Cooper could be found in the days, weeks and months to come. In a strange twist, a mixup in communication with the media led the hijacker to be christened D.B. Cooper.

In 1980, an 8-year-old boy found $5,800 from the ransom payment along the banks of the Columbia River. It was the only ransom money ever recovered. After 40 years he remains a mystery, whereabouts and true identity unknown.

Written by

Bill Holland has two decades of classroom teaching experience in history, geography, political science and science. He's also owned and operated three businesses and is a freelance writer when he isn't hiking, snowshoeing or kayaking in Washington State.