Beneath Riffe Lake: Several Formerly Thriving Communities Are Now Submerged Memories
For the better part of the 20th century, until construction of the new direct highway between Mossyrock and Randle in the 1960s, the town of Riffe was the crossroad between Mossyrock, Morton and the Big Bottom country of the upper Cowlitz.
The long-gone community of Riffe — and, in a roundabout way, today’s lake — take their shared name from a pioneer named Floyd Riffe. He arrived in the area in 1893 from West Virginia and established the post office in Riffe in 1898.
His family owned nine houses and a service station in the middle of town, fed via an elaborate system of underground pipes from a hillside spring.
In 1960 or so, when Rose was about 12, Tacoma City Light surveyed the area that would become the high water mark of the future reservoir. Rose and a group of his friends climbed the hills south of town up to the survey line.
“We could go up and see where the lake was going to be. It was kind of amazing, really. We’d stand there and look across the valley. It seemed impossible — how could they possibly fill this valley with water? It would take a hundred years.”
He pauses and laughs as he told the story this week.
“It took eight months.”
Rose estimates that about 1,500 people were displaced by the lake. About 350 of those people were in or near Riffe. The town resembled a more compact version of today’s community of Glenoma. It was a crossroads about 7 miles east of Mossyrock with stores and gas stations. For a brief time it even had a pirate radio station that played popular songs, taking requests and dedications.
By 1955, when Tacoma had permission to build the Mayfield and Mossyrock dams, the people of Riffe knew their town’s days were numbered. Rose and other baby boomer children grew up with the unsettling feeling of knowing their hometown was doomed. The Riffe post office closed on May 31, 1966. By the spring of 1968, the town was under several hundred feet of water from the rising lake.
Rose’s book recounts stories back to the earliest settlements of Riffe. One particularly tragic event took place exactly 100 years ago. It shows the sometimes harrowing early days of the Cowlitz, where the untamed river gave life to the area but sometimes also brought death.
In May 1915, five residents of Morton drowned at Riffe while trying to cross the Cowlitz on a ferry as they headed to Mass at the Catholic church in the community of Harmony. The wagon’s front wheels had made it onto the ferry when the two-horse team suddenly panicked and tried to back up off the boat. Instead, the horses ended up pushing the ferry away from the dock.
The wagon and its passengers fell into the river. Two women and three small children drowned.
Rose’s aunt, Thelma Hancock, was a young girl who witnessed the accident. She told him that the screams of the victims as they were swept downstream haunted her for years.
That tragedy led to construction of a 170-foot bridge across the Cowlitz. It was purchased in Oregon for $25,000, disassembled and hauled to Riffe by rail, and rebuilt on the road running north toward Morton. Dedication of the Riffe bridge in 1919 was a lavish affair, with attendees dressed in their Sunday best and a musical performance by the Centralia Concert Band.
Upstream from Riffe was the community of Nesika, where the 1914 dedication of a bridge over the Cowlitz was greeted with equal fanfare. Just four years later, floods changed the course of the river and damaged the bridge approach. Over the years two more spans were added to accommodate the meandering Cowlitz.
The 848-foot bridge lasted until November 1967. It was set to remain open for a few more months as the valley neared inundation, but repair workers using cutting torches accidentally set fire to its creosote planking. The blaze destroyed 200 feet of the bridge and it was shut down for good. The steel bridge was sold to a Tacoma salvage company, which blasted it from its concrete footings during disassembly and managed to lose the third span — it was swept away in the river channel.
The elevation of the old Nesika bridge deck was 595 feet above sea level. Riffe Lake, at full elevation, is 778 feet — almost 200 feet above the old bridge and the small neighboring community.
Nesika was marked by a famous landmark near the east end of the bridge — an enormous “balanced rock” perched alongside what was known then as Highway 5.
The area was also home to a longtime community of Cowlitz Indians, including property owned by famed Cowlitz elder Mary Kiona, and their cemetery along a waterway known as Indian Creek.
The town farthest upstream under today’s Riffe Lake was Kosmos (pronounced CAUSE-muss), whose residents originally thought the new hydroelectric impound would give them lakeside property. As Tacoma’s plans developed, however, the dam proposal increased in height — and so the newly created lake became bigger, too.
“Those people of Kosmos didn’t anticipate having to leave,” Rose said.
When the water level is very low in Riffe Lake, the old Kosmos townsite emerges, ghostly and skeletal, from the water. The buildings are all demolished and gone, but the concrete below them is still there. So, too, are remnants of the bridges that once crossed the three creeks that met up with the Cowlitz River near Kosmos. Most prominent is the concrete and rebar jumble of the Steffen Creek Bridge.
With the town dismantled and water creeping up the valley, the Army Corps of Engineers blew up the bridge as a training exercise in 1968. The Corps spent a week setting off small charges on and around the bridge to see how much damage was done by different amounts of explosives.
“Finally, they just loaded it up and blew the whole thing apart,” George Cooper, of Glenoma, told The Chronicle in 2002.
The most prominent feature of Komsos before inundation was the Kosmos Timber Co. mill. It was moved toward Morton and became U.S. Plywood, eventually merging with Champion Papers.
What’s in a Name?
The 23-mile long lake formed in 1968 by the Mossyrock Dam was originally named after Ira S. Davisson, a mustachioed former Tacoma utilities commissioner.
Davisson, who had died at age 91 in 1951, was unknown in Lewis County and the name Davisson Lake was never popular here.
In advance of the 1976 national bicentennial, dozens of local groups, from the countywide Pomona Grange to the Lewis County Historical Society, successfully pushed for a name change to recognize the history of the submerged Cowlitz valley, rather than a Tacoma bureaucrat.
Davisson was not the only unusual name suggested for Tacoma’s projects on the Cowlitz.
Tacoma City Light had originally proposed naming the dam at Mossyrock after a onetime socialist turned Democratic U.S. senator with a passion for publicly owned hydroelectric facilities. If approved, the tallest dam in Washington would have been known as the Homer T. Bone Dam.
By Brian Mittge / For The Chronicle
View Flooded Towns on Our Interative Map
Coming Tuesday: A look back in time at the town of Mayfield and life in the Cowlitz River landscape before Mayfield Lake.