Wild-eyed Rifleman fleeing Devils of Peak,
Launches Legend of Mt. St. Helen's Apes

A durable legend about the mysterious hairy apes of Mt. St. Helens keeps cropping up, as was the case when loggers in the area of "Ape Canyon" waggishly posted hairy-ape road signs. Here, a Columbian reporter interviews a man who was there when the legend began.
By Ted Van Arsdol, Columbian Staff Reporter

Chelatchie, Washington - The July morning in 1924 at the Spirit Lake Ranger Station was beautiful - "like a morning is in the high country," Bill Welch, 68, of Chelatchie, recalled. What made this morning so different was the man coming from the direction of the ranger station, with a rifle in his hand. Welch could see that the visitor was "pretty wild-eyed" and he recognized him as a man who had a cabin with several others about five or six miles from the station, at the head of what was called Muddy Creek.

"Well, I got him," the man said as he slowed down in front of Forest Guard Welch.
"Got who or what?"
"The mountain devil."
"You mean a cougar?"
"No, the mountain devil."
"You mean a wolverine?"
"No, the mountain devil."

Welch, standing outside the barn eyeing the newcomer warily, recalled him as a man who had been at the station two or three weeks earlier. Permits were needed to build a fire outside of the campgrounds at Spirit Lake, and this man, in his 50's, had stopped in and asked permission to build a fire in his cabin. Permits were not needed for this.

In the course of the earlier conversation the man told Welch that he and several others had a mine near the cabin. He also volunteered the information that "mountain devils" had been trailing and bothering the men in the last several years. He hadn't seen these "devils," but had viewed some of their tracks.

Welch had thought this was "a little far-fetched"-he didn't think there were any wolves or wolverines in the area. "It's the first I've heard of it," he had said. "If you run into any of those mountain devils let me know." "I will," the mountain miner said. Now, standing facing the gun-carrying mountain man, Welch began wondering if he could get close enough to grab the rifle, and started worrying about his wife at the ranger station. Had this definitely-disturbed newcomer murdered her?

As the talk continued, Welch was relieved to see his wife come out the door at the ranger station.
The visitor was insisting that he had shot the mountain devil and that it had slid over a bluff at the cabin. He also said that his partners were in a car near the ranger station, after coming down from the cabin with him.

Welch still thought the man had "blown his top" and when he went over to the touring car, which carried three men in front and two in back, he found the others "were just as wild as he was, sitting there clutching their guns."

The man who had walked over to see Welch vowed that they were going back home and would "never come back here again." The five left shortly afterward, headed for Kelso.

Welch didn't know at the time that he was getting involved in a key incident of the legend of the Mount Saint Helens "hairy apes." The ape label quickly took predominance over the "mountain devils," and the alleged existence of the creatures has been a subject of recurrent speculation over the years.

Welch talked to his wife, who had been the first person to encounter the departing miners after they left the cabin, and she told him about the man coming to the door, with a rifle across his shoulder, an incident she still remembers vividly today. The miner's eyes were "glazed" from some evidently shocking experience as he informed Mrs. Welch: "We got him! We got him!" "Well - what?" "The mountain devil." There was a pause and the miner explained:

"Well, you know your husband told us to let him know if we ever saw any. So I stopped to tell him we saw one and killed it. But we're going out and never coming back." Mrs. Welch "hardly knew" what he was talking about, but told the gun-toter that her husband was out at the barn, and he walked toward the barn to meet Welch.

After the carload of men had left, Welch called Jim Huffman, the district ranger at Amboy, and told him what had happened. He still wondered if the miners might have encountered a wolverine. This is a vicious little animal that can wreck cabins, and destroys what it doesn't eat, Welch said. There were rumors of wolverines on Mount Saint Helens about this time, but no one so far as the forest guard knew had seen one.

More details were soon forthcoming from the miners, who were interviewed by a reporter after they had reached Kelso on July 12, 1924. "Fight with Big Apes Reported by Miners," was one headline on the reporter's account, which he termed "the strangest story to come from the Cascade Mountains."

The returning miners, Marion Smith, his son Roy Smith, Fred Beck, Gabe Lefever and John Peterson, had encountered "the fabled 'mountain devils' or mountain gorillas" of Mount Saint Helens, according to the reporter, who also stated:
"The men had been prospecting a claim on the Muddy, a branch of the Lewis River about eight miles from Spirit Lake...

"They saw four of the huge animals, which are about seven feet tall, weigh about 400 pounds and walk erect. Smith and his companions have seen the tracks of the animals several times in the last six years and Indians have told of the 'mountain devils' for 60 years, but none of the animals ever has been seen before.

"Smith met up with one of the animals and fired at it with a revolver. Thursday Fred Beck shot one, the body falling over a precipice.

"That night the animals bombarded the cabin where the men were stopping with large showers of rocks, many of them large ones, knocking chunks out of the log cabin. Many of the rocks fell through a hole in the roof, and two of the rocks struck Beck, one of them rendering him unconscious for nearly two hours.

"The animals have the appearance of huge gorillas. They are covered with long, black hair. Their ears are about four inches long and stick straight up. They have four toes, short and stubby. The tracks are 13 to 14 inches long.

"These tracks have been seen by forest rangers and prospectors for years. "The prospectors built a new cabin this year and it is believed it is close to a cave occupied by the animals. Mr., Smith believes he knows the location of the cave."

On the evening that the news was sent by wire from Kelso, Welch recalled, Frank (Slim) Lynch, a Seattle newspaper man, and Butt Hammerstrom, a free-lance writer and brother-in-taw of Clarence Darrow, arrived by car at the Spirit Lake Ranger Station.

They had quite a trip in reaching the place, as nine hours were required for a drive from Castle Rock to Spirit Lake in 1924, Welch remembered. He said the road was "not too good," and in some places a driver had to try three or four roads before finding the right one-a side road might meander off into nothing.

Welch later recalled that date as July 14 when the news had been received in Seattle and when he reached the ranger station he and his friend were ready with a lot of questions about the apes who reportedly had rained rocks "as large as a man's head" on the miners' cabin, and as Welch told the story, "had tried to pry the cabin into the Smith Creek abyss."

Huffman, the district ranger, also had arrived at the ranger station and the group planned a trip of inspection to the now-famous cabin.

© Longview Times

Credit Source: René Dahinden, 1999

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