Nearly 200 feet below the surface of Mayfield Lake, the contours of canyons and remnants of old towns trace the lines of memory for the former residents of this now-flooded region of the Cowlitz.
“The river was the lifeblood of the area, really,” said Gaylen Brown, now 83, who grew up in the towns of Winston Creek and Mayfield in the 1930s and 1940s. “We fished and swam in it all the time. There was always something going on in the river.”
The town of Mayfield was perched on a narrow shelf, maybe 150 yards wide, above a deep canyon where the Cowlitz River churned near the site of today’s Mayfield Dam.
He and other children of the town would sometimes go down to the river there and play in a cave at the river’s edge.
The high arched bridge into Mayfield crossed the deep, narrow Cowlitz gorge about halfway between the current bridge over the lake and the Mayfield Dam.
Brown said the bridge into Mayfield was about 120 feet above the Cowlitz River. Tacoma Power estimates the reservoir now sits about 50 feet above the old townsite.
“The kids and I would throw gasoline over the edge and light it as we’d throw it over,” he said, then watch the stream of flame descend into the river.
One time a neighborhood boy threw Brown’s wire-haired terrier over the bridge, too. The dog somehow survived and managed to make it back to their house. It lay in the yard for a few days and eventually fully recovered.
There was also the time a drunken man jumped off the bridge. He landed halfway down the slope. It was a steep bank, but he also survived.
That bridge even helped form Brown’s family. His stepfather came to Mayfield to work on painting the bridge. He boarded in town, got acquainted with Brown’s mother, and they ended up marrying.
The Devil’s Eyebrow
Upstream, near where the Highway 12 bridge crosses Mayfield Lake today, a churning spot in the river was known as the Devil’s Eyebrow.
“It was a place where the river came down in a narrow gorge and ran head-on into a rock abutment and made a sharp left turn, then went back to other side of channel, hit a rock and turned downriver again,” Brown said.
In those days the big spring chinook salmon were thick in the river.
Locals used to go down to the Devil’s Eyebrow and gaff the fish, using hooking techniques similar to those of the Native Americans before them.
“Of course it was illegal, but everyone did it,” Brown said. “People used to net them. It was just a way of life. There were plenty of fish and I don’t think we did any harm to them.”
A feat of derring-do in the Cowlitz canyon is still talked about to this day.
A lad named Herb Looney, who grew up in that section of the river, swam down the gorge from Mayfield to Winston Creek, about a mile. It was a risky maneuver through a canyon of solid 30-foot rock walls on both sides.
“In those days it was quite a feat,” Brown said. “We didn’t dare go down there. Once you got in, you couldn’t get out.”
Looney survived, emerging to the popular swimming hole in Winston Creek to acclaim.
His youngest brother Warren wasn’t so lucky during a different outing on the Cowlitz. The boy was building a raft with a brother. The watercraft got into the current. The boy, who was about 11 or 12, got scared and tried to swim back to his brother. He didn’t make it.
Brown wasn’t much of a swimmer, but he dog-paddled a couple hundred feet across the Cowlitz where it was smooth and green — but deep — at the Winston Creek swimming hole a time or two.
“Of course my mother didn’t know,” Brown said. “She’d have died.”
The kids would fish for sea-run cutthroat there. They fished year-round, with flies in the summer and bait in the winter.
The Benefit of Being a Democrat
Brown grew up all over the Mayfield area. His family once owned and farmed the land that is now the Lake Mayfield Resort. For much of his life they lived in a pair of converted logging boarding houses that his family moved from the nearby town of Winston Creek into Mayfield, where they joined them into one building. His mother ran the post office there. She had been appointed to the political patronage post, Brown thinks, because the other applicants in town — two different storekeepers — were Republicans during a Democratic presidential administration.
“She happened to be the only Democrat,” he said.
Logging was the major industry in the area, with trains running in from Chehalis to pick up railroad ties that were loaded from elevated docks in the now-submerged town of Winston Creek.
Trucks would also haul logs, but it was a steep grade up into Silver Creek. Kids would grab the back of the log trailers and ride the 2 miles up the hill. The drivers would see them in the rear view mirror and offer them a smile and a wave, Brown said.
The steam logging machines, called Skagits, were powered by wood. A guy would stoke the engines with 2-foot-long logs throughout the day.
“You could hear ’em a mile and a half away,” Brown said.
The Blackberry King of Mayfield
Paul Ghosn, 83, is a living link to a remarkable entrepreneur of the Cowlitz Basin. His father, Ghosn Ghosn, owned stores up and down the valley. He also ran a successful fruit packing business that shipped the region’s evergreen blackberries to customers across the continent.
Starting in the mid-1920s, and running until the lake formed, the Ghosn Canning Co. provided summer income for families and students who wanted to make some spending money for school shopping.
In fact, in years when the blackberry harvest was late in the season, the Mossyrock School District would shut down for a week so the students could go pick, Ghosn said.
The plant employed 20-30 people on three shifts during berry season. They would pay berry pickers as much as 13 to 15 cents a pound. Hundred of families made extra spending money by picking the berries for the plant.
“It was pretty handy during the Depression,” Ghosn said. “They could pick a hundred pounds easily and make three or four dollars a day.”
The plant shipped its berries to California, Chicago, Texas and beyond in No. 10 gallon cans. Restaurants and pie producers snapped them up.
“The berries went everywhere,” Ghosn said. “One year he shipped 10 (rail) car loads of berries. That’s a lot of blackberries.”
They also processed beans for buyers, largely in New York.
The Ghosn plant was on property that is now partly submerged by the lake, north of the old townsite of Mayfield, off what is now Baker Drive.
The elder Ghosn also ran a small general store in Mayfield, but sold it to concentrate on his other enterprises. Those include the G Theater in downtown Mossyrock, which he built so the children of town could have some entertainment.
Where Was Mayfield?
Drivers crossing Mayfield Lake on U.S. Highway 12 can glimpse the old road to Mayfield.
The modern-day highway takes a sweeping left down the hill from Silver Creek toward Mayfield Lake. If you were to continue straight instead, you’d be on the old road down to the now-submerged Mayfield Bridge.
When dam building began in 1955 and Tacoma City Light took possession of the area, the town of Mayfield was vacated. The houses were bulldozed and burned, Brown said.
Brown moved to Toledo in adulthood and went to work for the state highway department helping lay out the route for Interstate 5. He became a certified engineer, retired after 30 years with WSDOT, and now lives near Scott Lake.
Brown remembers his youth in Mayfield fondly.
“It was a good time,” he said. “We had a good life in those days.”
Brian Mittge is a community columnist for The Chronicle. Reach him at email@example.com or twitter.com/bmittge.