Harry's Secret Cave

By Scott Kemery.

In 1980, soon after the mountain awoke, Harry Truman made it known to the world that he had a “secret cave” he could use should the mountain erupt in such a way he would need to escape. Technically Harry had a number of escape plans from driving out in his white pickup to waiting for one of the helicopters whose pilots he had made deals with to pick him up to arrive.

The story of Harry’s cave goes back to the late 1920s, when Harry moved himself, his wife, and his daughter to the Spirit Lake area to live year-round. Such a thing was rough going. Often in order to survive the long winters, Harry would hunt out of season. In his favorite area to hunt, Truman came across an abandoned mine. He would use this mine to hang the carcasses of his illegal game to clean and dress them then take the meat out to his cabin to feed his family.

While the Forest Service and USGS were well aware of the abandoned mine in the area, only one man, a game warden, stumbled across the mine and found evidence (such as meat hooks) that Harry was using it, as he called it, “Truman’s Meat Cellar”. Though he was aware of Truman’s activities and tried to catch him in the act, he never did. At some point, Harry had set up moonshine stills in the area to make extra money from, one of which he had set up in his cave. As far as we know Harry never told a soul exactly where his cave was.

The press had misunderstood Harry’s mention of his cave and had stated repeatedly that he had already stocked it with food and liquor, something Harry denies saying. I have come to believe in my research that Harry probably hadn’t visited the abandoned mine in decades, possibly since the 40s, as he was eventually making good money legally and had no need for it. 

But still, Harry had mentioned he had a secret cave at one time, and we still had a strong desire to find out where! In the years following the eruption, it appears as early as the mid-90s the area had experienced erosion and possibly opened up the entrance of the mining claim (it turns out the mine had two means of entry) though, from images it’s still hard to say if it’s just a trick of the light. Either way, something does seem to be in the exact area where the mine was, and we would like to get close enough to find out what it is.

In 2019, I tried to do an internet search on Harry Truman’s Secret Cave, sure that by now it’s location would have been made public. To my initial dismay, there was nothing, however, I am grateful that we did not find what we were looking for because the journey to find it has led us here. The people my wife Marissa and I have met along the way we now call friends, and the history of the MSH/Spirit Lake area has been nothing short of fascinating. 

Having solved the location of the old mine Harry called his “secret cave”, we decided to continue researching the history of the area from the early mining days that started in the 1800s, to the eruption in 1980 that changed the landscape so dramatically. This summer, we made a goal to set out to locate artifacts from right before the eruption that possibly survived the lateral surge, and hopefully answer some unanswered questions in regard to those who were never seen again.

Our first excursion this summer took us to private property on the north side of Coldwater Lake (with permission of course!) guided in by Ian Reed and Nick Olson with the Forest Service. A 1990 video showing filmmaker Otto Seiber returning to the scene of his treacherous hike into the area shortly after the eruption showed Otto mid-interview finding pieces of debris he thought belonged to Gerry Martin, the amateur CBer who died nearby the morning of the eruption. A deputy was flown in a week later to look at the debris and thought it belonged to David Johnston. We suspected it belonged to neither but could possibly belong to other victims who were never found after that fateful day. Our conclusion after a day of metal detecting and digging is that the area is right off of a logging road and campers who used the area back in the Weyerhaeuser days threw a lot of what they didn’t want off the cliff and into that area.

Our second excursion was on the south side of Coldwater Lake. Our goal: To locate the engine from Gerry Martin’s R.V. and a Weyerhaeuser D8 Cat Tractor that was possibly left after the eruption and forgotten about. Gerry Martin narrated the eruption from the first earthquake at 8:32:33 until it took his life roughly three minutes later. No trace of him was ever found after. In talking to Eric Cole, an expert on logging equipment and former Weyerhauser employee, I found out he had ventured in an area years ago and came across a diesel engine unaware he was very near the spot Martin was last known to be that morning.

On our way there we journeyed up an abandoned washed-out logging road, where large pieces of metal were found jutting out of the hillside. Being an expert in large logging machinery (and having driven that same truck at some point) Eric recognized it as a Kenworth truck used by Weyco and scrambled down the hill to get a VIN number off of it. When comparing photos from our trip to those shortly after the eruption, the erosion is evident. We don’t see the truck in the early photos, making us curious about what other relics from before the eruption have yet to be uncovered.  Interesting fact: The Kenworth we located is identical to the Kenworth found off of the trail of the Coldwater 2 trail, but unlike that model, everything was stripped off of the frame, tires included.

Atop the hill, we eventually located the lone diesel engine believed to be from Gerry Martin’s RV. Sitting on its side, it was mostly buried and did not appear to be connected to a frame, at least that’s what our metal detecting seemed to point to. This Detroit Diesel 6-71 was the same type of engine found in the 1971 Superior motorhome such as the one Martin had parked in this area the morning of the eruption. Eric contacted Kenworth’s record department with the VIN recovered to make sure the engine we found didn’t belong to the truck embedded in the hill below it. Presently we are not sure who the engine belonged to or what type of vehicle it came from.

Below all of this, Eric Cole ventured into a swampy wooded area thick with alder to try and locate the D8 tractor left in the area by Weyerhaeuser, and was able to find it!  This 80,000lb piece of equipment came to rest almost a quarter mile from where it started. Its engine and frame were too battered to salvage, it was left where it still remains today. All in all, it was a very productive weekend.

Our final trip attempting to reach the location of Harry Truman’s “secret cave” was not a success. It was a 90° day, five hours in and we still had almost a mile to go before we decided it was wise to turn back. We remain hopeful and still plan to return someday soon, probably with a different route on a cooler day. 

All of these adventures were documented by the crew of “Oregon Field Guide” and will be aired next summer on OPB!