Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

October 3, 2023

Before there was a California Volcano Observatory or even a Long Valley Observatory, a tiny cabin in northern California housed the first full-time volcano observatory outside of Hawaii: the Lassen Volcano Observatory!

In a black-and-white photo, a small wooden cabin with a peaked roof and single door and window sits in a snowy forest clearing. Snow is piled to chest height around the building and blobs of snow cling to the peak of the roof.
The original Lassen Volcano Observatory building, provided by the US Forest Service, about 1926. The observatory consisted of a small office over a 10x10 ft concrete cellar which housed two custom-built seismographs. A small cottage nearby housed Ruy H. Finch, the head of and sole scientist at the Observatory for much of its existence. (Photo by R.H. Finch from Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America, v. 18, 1928)

The spectacular eruptions of Lassen Peak from 1914-1917 not only established California as a volcanically active state, they also emphasized the need for scientists to study and monitor the most recently active volcano in the West. Thomas Jagger, then head of the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, justified a volcano observatory at Lassen by referring to the "Lassen Myth" - the complacent belief that the California peak was the only active volcano on the mainland of the United States. “Nothing could be more erroneous,” he insisted, and directed Ruy Herbert Finch (1890-1957), an associate volcanologist, to establish an observatory in the nearby town of Mineral in 1926. 

The entire observatory consisted of a small office building over a cellar that housed two seismographs (one each for N-S and E-W motion), along with a cottage donated by the Forest Service for Finch to live in year-round. By 1927 Finch had hand-built two seismographs in the style used by HVO, and later installed another two seismographic stations near Manzanita Lake and on Mount Harkness. During the first year of the observatory the seismographs recorded 305 earthquakes, of which all but 6 apparently originated in the Lassen edifice. Over the years, Finch and his assistants (including Austin E. Jones, C.A. Anderson, and C.A. Huff ) faithfully recorded not only the numbers and locations of earthquakes at Lassen, but also other geophysical data such as tilt measurements. He compiled a record of seasonal temperature changes in several hot springs, monitored the slip on a collapsing slope at Supan Sulphur Springs, and even conducted a study that used dendrochronology to date recent volcanic events at Cinder Cone.

A black-and-white photo of a man in a black suit jacket, pinstriped pants, and a dapper fedora. He is standing on a Hawaiian pahoehoe lava flow and peering into a deep ground crack.
The founder of the Lassen Volcano Observatory (1926-1935) and second Director of the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (1940-1951), Ruy Herbert Finch conducted research in both Hawaii and throughout the Western United States.

Being stationed at Lassen was not without its challenges. Wintertime brought strong storms and sometimes tens of feet of snow, and the town of Mineral was (and remains) a small outpost near the entrance of modern Lassen Volcanic National Park. Finch himself wrote in 1927, "Winter conditions here are quite primitive. I am all by myself with the nearest neighbor about a mile away. All water has to be carried. Fortunately there is a brook about 500 feet away." Eventually his family joined him in 1927, presumably alleviating the loneliness of the remote outpost.

Despite the valuable data collected by the Observatory in its decade of existence, it fell victim to the Great Depression. As recorded in HVO's Volcano Letter of May 1932, "Among the reductions of governmental one changing the allotment to volcanology in the U.S. Geological Survey from $35,000 to $15,000. ...There will be no suspension of the work done, though the official staffs of the California, Hawaiian, and Alaskan stations will be reduced and some workers eliminated." Three years later on June 30, 1935, the Lassen Volcano Observatory was discontinued "as an economy measure" (Science, July 1935). The Observatory building was taken over by the National Park Service and R. H. Finch, his job eliminated, moved to Watsonville, CA to become an apple "orchardist" (Volcano Letter #512, April-June 1951). This was by no means the end of his career with the USGS, however - he returned to the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory in 1940 as its director, a position he held until his retirement in 1951.

To read more about the Long Valley Observatory and R.H. Finch, check out these resources:

HVO Volcano Watch: Ruy Finch, HVO's second Director, went to the core of volcanology and apple-growing

An Observatory For the Study of Lassen Peak (R.H. Finch, 1928, Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America)

Lassen Volcanic National Park Historic Resources Study (NPS)


Get Our News

These items are in the RSS feed format (Really Simple Syndication) based on categories such as topics, locations, and more. You can install and RSS reader browser extension, software, or use a third-party service to receive immediate news updates depending on the feed that you have added. If you click the feed links below, they may look strange because they are simply XML code. An RSS reader can easily read this code and push out a notification to you when something new is posted to our site.