Though the entire logging town of Kosmos has been submerged under Riffe Lake for 40 years, you can still see the faded white centerline...

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RIFFE LAKE, Lewis County —

Though the entire logging town of Kosmos has been submerged under Riffe Lake for 40 years, you can still see the faded white centerline on the highway that once ran right through town.

The road stretches south across the muddy lake bed toward the rubble of the Steffen Creek bridge, dynamited in the 1960s as the Mossyrock Dam was being built about a dozen miles west of here. All that’s left of the old Highway 12 bridge is crumpled concrete and rusted metal.

Nowadays this is normally all hidden, the mostly forgotten remains of the bustling town that 77-year-old Don Thayer called home when he was a boy and his father worked in these woods.

He remembers dances at the Grange hall and rowdy nights at the Circle H Tavern. In logging slang now virtually lost to younger generations, he recalls “hoot owling,” or starting work before dawn, and that his mom and sister were “flunkies” — cookhouse waitresses.

Most winters, low water on this man-made reservoir offers Thayer small glimpses of what’s left of Kosmos. But this year, because of flooding worries farther downstream, the lake has been allowed to drop more than usual. And for curiosity seekers and old-timers like Thayer, it means extra bits of history have been exposed, just like the massive stumps that still cling to the banks of what once was the free-flowing Cowlitz River.

“There’s a lot of memories here,” said Thayer, who now calls Chehalis home. “This is what I used to wake up to every morning — you got mountains on all sides of you.”

Dad worked as crew boss

Log trucks still rumble past Kosmos, but these days they’re loaded with what Thayer calls “dog hairs” — puny trunks that bear little resemblance to the old-growth giants that rugged men hauled out of these Cascade foothills 50 miles west of White Pass in eastern Lewis County.

Thayer was 7 when he first laid eyes on Kosmos. It was the Great Depression and his father moved the family to the area so he could work as a crew boss. Thayer lived with his parents and older sister in a converted bunkhouse in the town that by then had been thriving for four decades.

Established in 1904 with a grocery store and a post office, Kosmos reached its heyday in the 1940s, when mills and logging camps dotted the landscape. Loggers would spend the week working in the camps, most returning to town on weekends. The timber that came down from the hills was hauled onto trains to Tacoma and beyond.

Then came Tacoma City Light.

The utility, now called Tacoma Power, decided to harness the Cowlitz River to make electricity for homes and businesses 75 miles away. Even then, the dam plan was controversial, and became even more so after federal officials approved a 20-foot increase in the height of Mossyrock Dam in 1964. Those 20 feet doomed both Kosmos and its sister community of Riffe.

From bedrock, the Mossyrock Dam — which was completed in 1968 — looms up 606 feet, making it the tallest dam in the state, even though only the top 365 feet are visible, said Tacoma Power spokesman Pat McCarty. At capacity, the reservoir of Riffe Lake covers nearly 12,000 acres.

“Tacoma wanted the water power, but people here wanted their homes,” Thayer said. “It’s a piece of history that’s now gone.”

Lake well below normal

It’s not unheard of to see large parts of old Kosmos. In the early 1990s, in fact, enough of the town was exposed that old storage tanks full of petroleum were found, and Tacoma Power had to pay millions of dollars to clean up the mess. Kosmos was again exposed during the drought in spring 2001, following a winter that saw half the usual amount of snow fall in the Cascades.

This year, Riffe Lake has been allowed to drop 40 feet below normal levels because of fears about another flood like the catastrophic one that drowned Lewis County in December.

With a particularly robust snowpack in the mountains above, the worry is that if another storm were to hit, Riffe Lake would need to be one of the first lines of defense to keep the water back.

Still, flooding worries will quickly diminish as spring arrives, said Dennis D’Amico, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Seattle. Despite the above-average mountain snow, a fast melt at this point is unlikely, he said.

So Tacoma Power is already starting to let Riffe Lake fill back up. And that means Kosmos’ winter cameo will soon be over.

Reservoir swallows town

So Wednesday, Thayer motored out to Kosmos, where he pulled out a couple of old photo albums from the trunk of his car. Thayer followed in his father’s footsteps and began working these woods as a teenager. His own children were born here, and it was here he returned after four years of military service in Korea.

“I got home on Sunday and went back to work on Monday,” he said.

But by 1963, he saw “the writing on the wall” — logging was no longer the booming industry it once was. And so Thayer moved his family to Tacoma and started a new career working with heavy equipment. Five years later, Kosmos was swallowed up by water.

Several years ago, Thayer made a hobby out of collecting Kosmos memorabilia, visiting the town’s aging former residents to copy photographs and collect stories before they were lost in time.

On Wednesday, Thayer ventured around the exposed lake bed and reckoned where the grocery store, the post office, the tavern and the saw mill once stood.

Finally, he found the site of his parents’ old house, seeing it for the first time in decades. The concrete slabs that held the garage and wood shed are all that’s left.

Since about 1989, Thayer and other former Kosmos residents have held an annual summertime reunion at a little park nearby. … But the reunions have gotten smaller as the years go by and the older folks pass away.

For his part, Thayer plans to donate his memorabilia to a new museum in Packwood, about 20 miles east.

That way, he hopes, Kosmos’ history won’t die with him.

“I want the past to be remembered,” he said.

Sara Jean Green: 206-515-5654 or sgreen@seattletimes.com