The town of Alder Buried under Alder Lake
'Nice little town' of Alder moved out 57 years ago
BEFORE DAM CAME: Foundation remnants stir fond memories of life in tiny community
Eijiro Kawada; The News Tribune
It has been more than half a century since the old town of Alder was submerged behind a dam, creating the seven-mile-long Alder Lake reservoir.
The recent dry weather and the increased need to drain the lake to make electricity have lowered the water level enough to expose the foundations of buildings that once stood there. It has prompted passers-by to walk the streets of the former townsite and stirred memories in former residents.
Few remember what it was like before the water came in 1944, when about 200 people lived in Alder.
Thelma Gilmur of Fircrest spent her childhood years in Alder. She said she was too young to get attached to the town before water covered it.
"Those days, we were happy to think of power. Dams in those days were good," Gilmur said.
The lake is alongside Highway 7 on the way to Mount Rainier. From Sunny Beach Point, visitors have left footprints in the mud leading toward a hill in the middle of the nearly empty lake. It is an island when the lake is full.
Before 1944, there was a school on the hill. Its concrete foundation remains. There is another foundation near the school's. Gilmur remembers it as the "Grandma Wackerle's" house.
"She used to come out during recess and call me and my brother for cookies," Gilmur said.
Children went to the Alder school through the eighth grade, then to high school in Eatonville.
Gilmur hasn't been back to see the old Alder, yet. She said she might do so while taking care of business in Eatonville next week.
Pioneers established Alder in the late 1800s in the Nisqually River valley at the foot of Mount Rainier. Alder Creek ran through the town.
In 1942, the Second Nisqually Dam Project began. Construction lasted during World War II, and workers poured the last bucket of concrete in September 1944.
David Thureson, 76, is Gilmur's brother and hauled concrete buckets for several months. He was a high school senior and worked at the cookhouse, an outdoor kitchen for the dam workers' camp in town.
Before the dam was completed, Thureson was drafted into war duty. Water covered the town when he came back. Floating logs covered a third of the new lake.
"There was nothing (of the town) you could see," Thureson said.
Before the water came, people hauled several buildings out of the town to Alder's new location, about a mile away. Part of the former school building stands along Highway 7 and serves as the Alder Community Club. A church from the first Alder stands in the new Alder, and a store at the entrance to Alder Lake Park serves as the center of town.
In the lake bottom, concrete steps from the old school lead to what used to be an business district at the bottom of the hill. Timbers and silt cover much of it, but the former Mountain Road and a railroad bed indicate where the stores stood.
"I heard that people who lived there could recognize the hotel" from its foundation, said Shawn Smith, who has lived near the lake for eight years.
She was waiting along Highway 7 for her children's school bus to return from Eatonville. Alder children go to Columbia Crest Elementary School in Ashford, and middle and high school in Eatonville these days.
Alder Lake covers 3,065 acres when it's full, stretching into Pierce, Thurston and Lewis counties. It is about 30 miles south of Tacoma between the towns of Alder and Elbe.
Tacoma Power's Nisqually River Project produces enough electricity to power about 41,000 homes. The lake also provides recreational opportunities at its campgrounds, picnic areas and boat launches. The project includes about 3,300 acres of wildlife habitat.
For 25 years, Henry Ortiz has been working at the La Grande power station, about a mile downriver from the reservoir. He said the lake level last week was 30 feet lower than the average for this time of year.
It was at its lowest last fall when it dropped to 1,138 feet above sea level, Ortiz said. It has been filling up slowly since. The maximum elevation of the lake surface is 1,205 feet above the sea level.
"I've never seen that lake this low," Ortiz said.
The lake bottom is filled with hundreds of exposed tree trunks. Some are several feet in diameter and several feet tall. Alder Creek once again runs under an old railroad trestle.
Before the power company built its dam, Alder children took turns altering the flow of the creek.
"Boys made a dam, and girls made a dam," Gilmur said. "Boys made (the creek) big enough to dive in it."
Children used to fish in the creek and eat lunch along it.
"It was a nice little town," Gilmur said.
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* Staff writer Eijiro Kawada covers East Pierce County. Reach him at 253-597-8633 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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