Mossyrock — A Thumbnail History

By Linda Holden Givens Posted 6/02/2022 HistoryLink.org Essay 22491

Mossyrock is a small city on U.S. Highway 12 in central Lewis County, nestled between Mayfield Lake and Riffe Lake, two reservoirs formed by dams on the Cowlitz River. The name, originally written in two words as “Mossy Rock,” derived from a 200-foot-high rock covered with green moss. Homesteaders began arriving in the mid-1800s. A Mossy Rock post office opened in 1875, and the name was changed to Mossyrock in 1895. Mossyrock incorporated on January 2, 1948. With an economy supported by acres of blueberries and other agriculture and providing services to tourists and recreationists, Mossyrock’s population has grown slowly and steadily to nearly 800.

Klickitat Prairie and Mossy Rock

The settlement that became Mossyrock was established on Klickitat Prairie in the homelands of the Cowlitz Tribe. Upper Cowlitz villages were located along the Cowlitz River east of what became Mossyrock, while the Lower Cowlitz occupied an estimated 30 villages sprinkled along the Cowlitz River downstream from present-day Mossyrock southward almost to the Columbia River.

Klickitat Prairie, about five to six miles long and two to three miles wide, had no trees except some vine maple, alder, and cottonwood along the base of hills. Farther up the hillsides, fir and cedar trees were visible. The prairie has three to five feet of black soil, with a dark brown clay underneath, then gravel from 40 to 50 feet in thickness, and then again clay underneath. The prairie extends east to west between the Cowlitz River on the north and Klickitat Creek, a tributary of the Cowlitz, on the south. Klickitat Creek slopes west down into the river.

Between Klickitat Creek and the Cowlitz River on the east end of Klickitat Prairie stands a steep 200-foot-high rock covered in the winter with green moss, resulting in the name “Mossy Rock.” The rock formation is the most visible point and beautiful view in the area. When visibility is good, observers standing on the rock can see Mount St. Helens, about 25 miles to the southeast, and Mount Adams farther east, some 40 miles away.

Early Settlers

Non-Indian settlement around Klickitat Prairie began by 1852, when Henry Bussy (d. 1861) located a donation land claim on the east end of the prairie. In a 1922 letter to The Chehalis Bee-Nugget, Daniel Shaner (1845-1926), an early Mossyrock pioneer and a Civil War veteran said to have been a bodyguard for President Abraham Lincoln in 1865, called Bussy “the first of the white settlers to die here” (“Preserve the Relics”). Some accounts, which are disputed, indicate that William Halland (or Holland) named the area Mossy Rock. Some old timers said Halland arrived in the area about 1865 or 1867 and was the first postmaster for the community, but there are no records supporting that assertion.

On July 8, 1874, homestead settler Joseph L. Mitchell claimed land in and around the area that would become Mossyrock, purchasing 160 acres. Less than a year later, on March 15, 1875, Laura Winston (1861-1951) was appointed the first postmaster of Mossy Rock (as the name was then written). The first official mail deliveries to Mossy Rock came three times a week from the Napavine post office 23 miles to the west. The postmaster position changed hands often, which meant the post office, generally located in the postmaster’s home or business, also changed frequently over the years. Early carriers rode horseback over trails to deliver and receive mail.

A wooden wagon bridge over the Cowlitz River was completed on October 30, 1879, at Mayfield a few miles west, carrying the first wagon road into Mossy Rock. Over two decades, an influx of new settlers came into the area from all across the United States and internationally. Among the first to arrive and file land claims were Batiste Kyowani, John Oliver Doss (1848-1927), Felix Owen, Thomas Landew, Jesse Clay, James Swigert, John L. McKibbon, and Robert Davis.

The homesteaders were sometimes referred to as brush settlers because they took claims out in the brush or timber. Some new settlers were Civil War veterans. Washington’s total non-Indian population grew to more than 300,000. Washington Territory became the 42nd state on November 11, 1889, when it was admitted to the Union.

The little town was not platted until Joseph Mitchell donated his claim and platted the town of Mossy Rock on January 8, 1891, with the two-word name that had been used from the beginning. But on February 4, 1895, George W. Jerrells (1848-1922) was appointed postmaster and changed the name to one word — Mossyrock.

Clusters of small settlements began to grow up in the area around Mossyrock. These included Silver Creek, Salkum, Harmony, Mayfield (or Winston Creek), Swofford, Wilson (or Salmon Creek), Riffe, and Nesika, and later Ajlune and Green Mountain.

Church and Education in Mossyrock

In Mossyrock at the dawn of the new century, as the old frontier was slowly coming to an end, many new immigrants to America were still settling in Lewis County. In 1900 Reverend Judson Brown (1855-1939), an early circuit-riding preacher, began ministering to settlers in Mossyrock and surrounding areas. The Mossyrock Christian Church was built but in 1908 but quickly dwindled and later reemerged as the Mossyrock Community Church. The Richland Valley Church of the Brethren was founded in 1917 and built a church in 1919. Pastor Ezra Leroy Whisler (1881-1954) was recruited to provide service.

The 1909-1910 Polk’s directory wrote of the town:

“Mossyrock. Lewis County. A p o, also known as Klickitat Prairie, located on the Cowlitz river, 30 miles se of Chehalis, the county seat, and 25 e of Winlock, its nearest shipping, telegraph and express point, on the NP ry. Telephone connection. Mail with stage daily to Chehalis” (Polk’s …, 874)

In 1909, Lewis County had a total of 122 school districts. By 1910, the county’s population had grown from 15,157 in 1900 to 32,127. Mossyrock had three school districts, numbers 7, 76, and 98, which were consolidated into No. 266 in 1910. The new school district included the Salkum, Silver Creek, Wilson, Mayfield, Harmony, Mossyrock, Riffe, and Swofford schools, with a total of 11 schools in the district. Most students walked to school, or rode a pony if they were lucky. The first student to graduate from Mossyrock High School was Niel A. Kjesbu (1890-1966) in 1914.

Adventurer, Castaway, Survivor

On December 22, 1916, Gladys Cora Swigert (1894-1977), the daughter of John Franklin and Addie (Ada) Viletty Miller Swigert, married Neil Wagner Taylor (1894-1958). Five months later, Gladys Taylor left her husband a note stating she would not be back. At the time of her disappearance, Lewis County officials searched for her high and low, without success. The love of adventure is said to be her reason for leaving the marriage.

On May 13, 1917, the schooner A. B. Johnson was preparing to sail from Willapa Bay in Pacific County to Australia. The 23-year-old Taylor decided to board the ship on a dare, a scandalous move for the daughter of the prominent Swigert family of Mossyrock.

She became a stowaway hiding in a storeroom. The ship’s captain A. B. Peterson, who she knew, found out too late she was on board and could not turn the ship around. Taylor was reprimanded and assigned as stewardess. She was the only woman on board and needed protection. Peterson introduced Taylor as his wife to keep her from experiencing uncomfortable situations. The United States had just entered World War I and German naval officer Count Felix von Luckner (1881-1966) targeted American vessels in the South Pacific. The A. B. Johnson would become the first target of his mission.

On June 14, 1917, the schooner was captured by von Luckner’s raider SMS Seeadler. It was set on fire and sank the next day. The crewmen and Taylor were captured and taken to the island of Mopelia (or Maupiha’a), remaining there after von Luckner and his officers left the island. The castaways were found by a rescue team headed by Captain Haldor Smith (1872-1960) and taken to Tahiti on October 6, then on to San Francisco on October 10. The Seattle Star quoted Taylor on her arrival in San Francisco:

“I was treated like a queen. Never again shall I expect to be thrown among men in any walk of life and conventional circumstances who will treat me with such unfailing courtesy and kindly consideration. I was not once afraid. The day the rescue vessel came, I didn’t know whether to be glad or sorry. Something finer and more wonderful than I had ever before known was drawing to a close. I almost wept when … the island of my adventure, faded on the horizon” (“14 Vessels Sunk …”).

Spanish Flu in Mossyrock

As World War I was coming to a close in the fall of 1918, the influenza pandemic commonly (but inaccurately) called the Spanish Flu caused millions of deaths worldwide. It’s not known where the virus originated. In the United States, a quarter of the population caught the virus. There was no vaccine to fight it. People were urged to isolate or quarantine, practice good personal hygiene, and limit social interaction, and wearing masks in public was required.

By early October the virus reached rural Lewis County, forcing schools in the area to shut down. Over the next few weeks, the number of cases decreased. The ban was lifted in early November 1918 but shortly afterward it was discovered new cases had been reported. In early December 1918, the virus subsided, schools and businesses reopened. As the new year began in January 1919, the virus infected many families in Mossyrock. School was open but attendance dropped significantly.

Lebanese Pioneer in Lewis County

Ghosn Tonios Wassai Ghosn (1878-1968), a Lebanese immigrant born in Syrian Arab Republic, immigrated to New York in 1905 and made his way to Lewis County in 1908 at the age of 30. In 1910, he opened a general-merchandise store in Richland Valley three miles southeast of Mossyrock (and not to be confused with the city of Richland in Benton County. The area had no post office so Ghosn applied for one in the store he owned. He established the post office on June 29, 1914, and named it Ajlune (also spelled Ajloun or Ajlun) for his Lebanese hometown. Ghosn served as postmaster until December 12, 1919.

The pioneer businessman, a well-respected and established resident, left Ajlune in 1922 and headed to Mossyrock, where he immediately opened a general store. Ghosn owned homes in both in Ajlune and Mossyrock. On May 28, 1924, he was appointed postmaster in Mossyrock, serving six months. At the time he was living in nearby Salkum. Ghosn owned a Ford Model-T, one of few in that era who could afford an automobile.

In April 1928, Ghosn went back to Lebanon, where he stayed for nine months, traveling to various locations and visiting his hometown. He married Marie Rose Aboushabky (1901-1959) there in October 1928 and returned home to Lewis County in January 1929 with his new bride. The newlyweds welcomed their first child, Francois Joseph Ghosn (1929-2019), in November 1929. In 1931 the family moved from Salkum to Mossyrock, where the couple had four more children: Paul, Michel, George, and Therese.

By 1956, Ghosn owned the oldest business in Mossyrock. He went on to own many businesses: a store, a movie theatre, a hotel, Ray’s Café, a barbershop, a television sales and service store, and a cannery. He owned an entire block of buildings fondly called the Ghosn block. Marie Rose Ghosn died in in November 1958. One of their sons, Paul, took over the family businesses. Ghosn died at the age of 90 in 1968.

On Blueberry Hill

Neal Allen Aldrich (1899-1983) and his wife Marjorie J. Hutting Aldrich (1904-1997) purchased 20 acres in Mossyrock in 1933. At the time they were living on seven acres in Silver Creek and Marjorie Aldrich was teaching in Mossyrock. They moved to the Mossyrock property, where around 1940 Neil Aldrich planted blueberries in the garden. Within two or three years, they began to enjoy the fruit. In the fall of 1944, during World War II, the family planted blueberries on an acre of land. They would have planted more, but due to the war blueberry plants were scarce and hard to come by. In the spring of 1945, the Aldriches bought more blueberries from a family friend and planted another third of an acre. These were the first commercial blueberries in Mossyrock and all of Lewis County.

More blueberry operations soon began in the county, including in Napavine in the late 1940s and northwest of Centralia in 1950. Several more blueberry farms were also established in Mossyrock — the Anderson farm (later Pan American Berry Growers) and a small field planted by Frank and Alice Grose, both in 1952, and one planted by Frank Hamilton in 1954. As the Aldriches had found, the soil across much of the area, known as Mossyrock silt loam, proved to very good for blueberries. Most of the 155 acres growing blueberries in Mossyrock as of 2021 are on that soil.

Incorporation and Mossyrock Dam

Mossyrock incorporated on January 2, 1948, becoming an official town. The 1948 census put Mossyrock’s population at 337.

Underneath the water of Riffe Lake, backed up behind Mossyrock Dam, lie three former settlements — Riffe, Nesika, and Kosmos. Even many people in the area have no idea these towns used to exist, much less that their sites are now underwater. By 1955, Tacoma City Light (now Tacoma Power) had surveyed the area for two future dams on the Cowlitz River, Mayfield and Mossyrock. The dams were controversial from the start and met with stiff opposition from many local residents and the state Game Department.

Approval to move forward with the plan to build the dams spelled doom for Riffe, Kosmos, and Nesika. Construction was delayed in part due to local resistance. The smaller Mayfield Dam was completed in 1963. In February 1966 construction began on the Mossyrock Dam, built to provide electricity for the city of Tacoma. Completed in 1968, the dam stands 606 feet high and is the tallest in Washington. The 23-mile-long artificial reservoir on the Cowlitz River created by building Mossyrock Dam was named Riffe Lake. When the water is low, remnants of the three settlements are still visible.

A Mount St. Helens Memory

Mount St. Helens is about 25 miles away from Mossyrock. On May 18, 1980, when the volcano erupted, many people had just seconds to make a decision to escape the blackness that was coming upon them, handle the unexpected shock of what was happening, or simply endure the nightmare.

That morning Mossyrock residents Lesley (1913-?) and Dale (1924-1997) Davis were driving with their friend Al Brooks about seven miles from the mountain when from a distance they saw a dark gray cloud. Within seconds black ash surrounded them. They had gotten up early in order to take photos of wildlife, then hunt for deer and elk. Dale Davis saw an albino deer and wanted to take a photo. They considered that stop the difference between life and death. If they had continued driving without stopping, they would not have survived. The hot ash hit their truck and melted the grill. For about 15 minutes they were in complete shock. They could not see. They had a flashlight and decided to walk. After 26 miles and 10 hours someone picked them up.

A total of 57 people died in the Mount St. Helens blast, including one who lived in Mossyrock. Keith Adelbert Moore (1942-1980), who was Lesley Davis’s son-in-law, died while fishing on the Green River about 14 miles from the mountain. Davis had burns on her ankle and back. The death of her friend Brooks five years later was attributed to the emotional trauma of the eruption. Forty-two years later, many survivors still remember the eruption and some suffer mental and physical challenges.

Mossyrock Moves Forward

In 1963, Neal Aldrich’s son Glenn C. (b. 1936) and his wife Wisten P. Aldrich (b. 1942) took over the Aldrich blueberry farm. Over the years, the Aldrich Berry Farm grew. The entire family cleaned, packed, and marketed the blueberries. In 2022, the blueberries are still sold from the farm and other venues. The farm consists of 60 acres, 26 of them blueberries. Nearly 80 years after the first acre was planted, those original plants are still growing and producing fruit. Every year Mossyrock hosts a three-day Blueberry Festival the first weekend of August. The highlight of the festival is a parade followed by a pie-eating contest and other activities.

March 15, 1975, marked 100 years of mail service to Mossyrock, with 25 postmasters having served the community. A small celebration was held to commemorate the centennial. There were no speeches, awards, or fanfare, but there were photos displayed and decorations throughout the post office. Cake and coffee were served by postmaster Helen Marie Belcher (1913-2007), who greeted the curious and other visitors. Belcher served a total of 20 years as postmaster, from 1964 to 1984.

The City of Mossyrock had an estimated population of 775 as of 2021. The city supports two retail market areas: the city’s downtown commercial center and a travelers market area. There are neighborhoods of diverse housing types including apartments, single-family homes, and townhouses. The city maintains an agricultural tradition with farming within city limits. The town is proud of three historic brick school buildings on Williams Street from the 1930s. The community is served by a high school, junior high, and elementary school, and the Mossyrock Community Church.

The small town has grown at a relatively slow but steady pace over the past 55 years. Mossyrock offers business services to tourists, campers, fishermen, and boaters and accommodates their thirst for the outdoors.


This essay made possible by:

Association of Washington Cities


Sources:

“14 Vessels Sunk By Germans,” The Seattle Star, December 17, 1917, p. 1; “Syrian Is Postmaster,” The Tacoma Daily Ledger, July 16, 1914, p. 12; “Preserve the Relics,” The Chehalis Bee-Nugget, October 27, 1922, p. 6; “G. Ghosn Returns From Syria After Nine Months,” Ibid., February 22, 1929, p. 7; “High Mossyrock Dam to Flood Out Kosmos,” The Daily Chronicle, December 23, 1963, p. 1; Evelyn Williams, “The Mail Has Been Going Through for 100 Years at Mossyrock,” Ibid., March 24, 1975, p. 2; “A Mossy Rock Was Namesake for Central Lewis County Town,” Ibid., July 1, 1976, p. 31; “SV A. B. Johnson 1917,” Wrecksite website accessed April 12, 2022 (https://www.wrecksite.eu/wreck.aspx?133605); “The Victims of Mount St. Helens,” The Columbian, April 1, 2010 (https://www.columbian.com/news/2010/apr/01/the-victims-of-mount-st-helens/); Jessica Rush, “Mossyrock Woman Marooned in the South Pacific in 1917,” LewisTalk website accessed April 14, 2022 (https://www.lewistalk.com/2019/02/14/mossyrock-woman-marooned-in-the-south-pacific-in-1917/); Nancy Keaton, “Dam Stories of the Cowlitz River,” LewisTalk website accessed April 15, 2022 (http://www.lewistalk.com/2016/09/12/dam-stories-cowlitz-river/); Kristina Lotz, “Aldrich Family Responsible for Bringing Blueberries to Lewis County Still Grows Them,” LewisTalk website accessed April 17, 2022 (http://www.lewistalk.com/2016/10/19/aldrich-family-responsible-bringing-blueberries-lewis-county-still-grows/); Robin Montgomery, “Schools, Shutdowns and the “Spanish Flu”: A History Lesson from the 1918 Influenza Pandemic,” LewisTalk website accessed April 2, 2022 (https://www.lewistalk.com/2020/10/28/schools-shutdowns-and-the-spanish-flu-a-history-lesson-from-the-1918-influenza-pandemic/); Lewis Co., WA GenWeb Project website accessed April 15, 2022 (http://www.jtenlen.drizzlehosting.com/walewis/walewis.html); Brian Mittge, “Underwater Towns of the Cowlitz River: A Look Back at Kosmos, Nesika, and Riffe,” The Chronicle, June 12, 2015 (https://www.chronline.com/stories/underwater-towns-of-the-cowlitz-river-a-look-back-at-kosmos-nesika-and-riffe,71982); Pat Jones, “Mossyrock’s History Includes Its Bridges,” The Chronicle, December 8, 2005 (https://www.chronline.com/stories/mossyrocks-history-includes-its-bridges,226117); Carin Haldy, “Get Those Blueberry Blues,” The Chronicle, July 30, 2003 (https://www.chronline.com/stories/get-those-blueberry-blues,249780 ); “Mossyrock East Lewis County,” The Historical Marker Database website accessed April 16, 2022 (https://www.hmdb.org/m.asp?m=158981); “Some History of Aldrich Berry Farm & Nursery, Inc,” Aldrich Berry Farm & Nursery website accessed April 16, 2022 (http://www.aldrichberryfarm.com/history.html); Guy Reed Ramsey, Postmarked Washington: Lewis and Cowlitz Counties (Chehalis: Lewis County Historical Society, 1978); “Mossyrock,” Northwest College of the Bible Pioneer History website accessed May 2, 2022 (http://www.ncbible.org/nwh/WaLewis.html#mossyrock); Polk’s Oregon and Washington Gazetteer and Business Directory 1909-1910 (Seattle: R. L. Polk & Co., 1909), 874; “April 1, 2021 (Revised) Population of Cities …,” Washington Office of Financial Management website accessed May 31, 2022 (https://ofm.wa.gov/sites/default/files/public/dataresearch/pop/april1/ofm_april1_population_final.pdf); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, “Flu in Washington: The 1918 ‘Spanish Flu’ Pandemic” (by John Caldbick), “Donation Land Claim Act, spur to American settlement of Oregon Territory, takes effect on September 27, 1850” (by Margaret Riddle), “Lewis County — Thumbnail History” (by David Wilma), “Tacoma City Light’s Mossyrock Dam on the Cowlitz River generates electricity on October 13, 1968” (by David Wilma), http://www.historylink.org (accessed May 11, 2022); Linda Hannon, email to Linda Holden Givens, January 20, 2022 and April 21, 2022, in possession of Linda Holden Givens, Auburn, Washington; Sara Dana, email to Linda Holden Givens, May 6, 9, 11-12, 2022, in possession of Linda Holden Givens.