Many Washington residents take advantage of the waters of the Cowlitz River, fishing, boating or water skiing in Mayfield or Riffe Lakes.

awesome rvBut did you know the history of the dams that created the lakes, or the towns that are no longer there because of them? Did you know the recreational opportunities available because of them? Did you know one of the dams is the tallest in Washington State, or that a fish hatchery built on the river was the largest in the world at the time?

There is so much more behind these lakes than you might guess.

Back in the 1940s, Tacoma Power realized a need to provide hydropower to provide electricity and began the Cowlitz River Project. According to Monika Sundbaum, Community Relations Officer for Tacoma Power, “The dams produce enough energy to power 135,000 homes and businesses in Tacoma and surrounding areas each year.”

Mossyrock Dam
Mossyrock Dam looks deceptively small from the viewpoint on Highway 12. In reality, it is the tallest dam in Washington State. Photo credit: David Keaton.

Besides providing power, Tacoma Power states a commitment to “support natural-origin fish populations and own hatcheries that raise fish for harvest, protect more than 20,000 acres of wildlife land and own/operate four campgrounds, and offer recreational opportunities at our reservoirs.”

However, whenever dams are built, there are often towns that have to be flooded to create the reservoir. The town of Riffe was named after Floyd Riffe, who came to the area from West Virginia in 1893. The town of Kosmos was founded in 1904. Both towns had to be flooded to create the reservoir. The process of losing the towns was expectedly controversial.

Today, during times of very low water, the “bones” from the town of Kosmos are revealed, showing roads and foundations. You can only drive a short way on the old road leading to the town because it is now blocked, but you can look out over the “Kosmos Flats” and imagine that it was hard for the people to leave. The setting, nestled in a valley between the mountains, would have been idyllic. But the project moved forward.

Mayfield Dam was completed in 1963 and is 250 feet tall. Mayfield Lake is the reservoir created from the dam.

Hatchery Display
Interactive displays about the life cycle of fish mesmerize children at the Cowlitz Salmon Hatchery and Visitor Center. Photo credit: Josh Keaton.

Mossyrock Dam was finished in 1968. At 606 feet tall, it is the tallest dam in Washington State. When you see tiny Barrier Dam it seems, well, not like a dam at all. That’s because it is not a hydroelectric dam.

“This low dam diverts all upriver migrating fish to a fish ladder,” Sundbaum explains. “The fish ladder leads to a separating station where fish are sorted by species. Some of the fish are retained by the hatchery to produce the next generation of salmon, while others are transported upstream to continue their migration.”

Barrier Dam was part of the construction of the Cowlitz Salmon Hatchery, according to Pat McCarty, Generation Manager for Tacoma Power, who has been with Tacoma Power for 37 years. He explains, “Barrier Dam was built in 1968 as part of the construction of Mossyrock Dam. At the time it was built, the Cowlitz Salmon Hatchery was the largest hatchery in the world.”

Kids as well as adults can enjoy a presentation on the life cycle of salmon at the Cowlitz Salmon Hatchery and Visitor Center. “Our award-winning visitor center features interactive displays that show a salmon’s journey through life and explore the 5 Hs of a salmon’s lifecycle—hatchery, hydropower, harvest, habitat and high seas,” Sundbaum says.

The reservoir that was created from the building of Mossyrock Dam is 23 miles long and now called Riffe Lake. At one point it was called Davisson Lake, but the lifelong residents of the area petitioned to have the name changed to reflect the well-respected founder of the town of Riffe.

Fishing Bridge
The “Fishing Bridge” by Taidnapam Park is a favorite spot to catch Silver Salmon. Sue Schepp is very pleased with her catch. Photo credit: Nancy Keaton.

In order to meet Tacoma Power’s commitment to providing campgrounds and recreational opportunities, ample choices are available for camping, fishing and boating at Mayfield Lake Park on Mayfield Lake, Mossyrock Park and Taidnapam Park on Riffe Lake. It’s a great local getaway spot.

However, Tacoma Power isn’t the only owner/operator of dams on the Cowlitz River. Lewis County Public Utility District (PUD) operates the Cowlitz Falls Dam, which was built in 1994. The PUD also provides recreational facilities at Lake Scanewa (formed by the creation of the dam), Cowlitz Falls Day Use Park and the Leonard “Bud” Allen/Cowlitz Falls Campground.

There are also other recreation areas along the Cowlitz River and its lakes, such as Ike Kinswa State Park on Lake Mayfield and Lake Mayfield Resort and Marina, which is a privately owned facility.

While the process of building the dams and flooding the towns was a difficult one, the resulting opportunities are now there for all to enjoy. Whether you enjoy kayaking, fishing, boating, swimming or water skiing, you’ll find a great number of opportunities along the Cowlitz River or on its associated lakes. And now you’ll be able to do so with some of the history of the area in mind.

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