Kapowsin, Washington

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Looking past Lake Kapowsin to Mt. Rainier

Today the village of Kapowsin (US ZIP code 98344) is located approximately 25 miles (38 kilometers) south east of Tacoma in Pierce County, Washington, United States. The 2010 Census placed the population at 333. The town falls within the Graham Community Planning area. The largest and most distinguishing feature of the town is the 512-acre Kapowsin Lake.

Village of Kapowsin, circa 1920

‘Officially’ founded in 1901 when the Kapowsin Lumber Company built a sawmill adjacent to the lake [2] and the St. Paul & Tacoma Lumber Company and other investors extended their tracks from Tacoma to the town site and lake that had been originally settled by European loggers and farmers in the 1890s. Located at several mill sites around the lake, the village was concentrated on the northwest shore. The community was a thriving lumber town in the early part of the 20th century until the late 1920s, with multiple saw and shingle mills, a railroad depot, a high school, elementary school, natatorium, performance hall, hotels, restaurants, shops, and trades, and a population of about 1,000.

Shingle and Sawmills at Kapowsin, circa 1920

As the town grew, tribal members, local residents, farmers, loggers, and ‘tourists’ continued to fish for salmon and trout, and camp along the lakeshore. Residents walked over a floating boardwalk spanning the lake to work in the woods and patronize the businesses on the east side. Pilings were driven at many locations around the lake. Wharves and railroad spurs were extended around the lakeshore and out over the lake, and more pilings were driven to create log pens.

Loggers and people heading over to the “dance-hall” used the floating boardwalk

In 1928 Tacoma Public Utilities condemned and bought the town for a reservoir that was never built. TPU razed most of the buildings, leaving behind the relics of an abandoned industrial site: a few masonry walls and cellar holes, the railroad on the west shore, the platted lots shown on the County Assessor’s map, and the pilings. The rest of the demolished mill town was burned or dumped into the lake. Aside from the Fish & Wildlife boat launch, there is no longer legal public access to the shoreline.

Parts of the town remain a few hundred feet west of the lake with a store, gas station, tavern, post office, fire station and grange hall. Housing for the 300+ residents lies to the north and west of the lake. The railroad, the boat launch, the Hancock Forest Resources Company Douglas fir tree farm, an active quarry/rock crushing operation, and a single lakeside residential compound are all that remain of lake shore development.

The railroad, now operated by Tacoma Public Utilities Rail Division still runs through the town. The rail line carries freight between the industrial center in the town of Frederickson and the port city of Tacoma, but upgrading the tracks and bridges to carry freight south to Eatonville is not economically feasible. The line may one day be a part of a revived ‘light’ passenger service between Tacoma and Eatonville. This would serve the needs of County planners who wish to preserve open space and the rural character of that part of the county by allowing reuse of existing infrastructure, and the creation of pockets of density – not unlike what existed in the area over 100 years ago.

The Lake

In 1963 the surface of the lake was nearly covered with floating logs and detritus.
Puyallup and Nisqually Tribal members have been fishing from canoes on Kapowsin for thousands of years. (Ohop Lake, circa 1920)

200 years ago Kapowsin Lake was smaller and shallower, and the Puyallup and Nisqually Tribes had been living, hunting, fishing, and farming in the area for thousands of years. At about the time that Christopher Columbus ‘discovered’ Central America, a lahar from Mt. Rainier formed Kapowsin Lake and killed a standing forest. When Europeans arrived in the 1890s, the center of the small lake featured dead, old-growth trees sticking up out of the water. The settlers went out in boats, built temporary platforms around the trees, and sawed them off – leaving behind flat-topped, 4-5’ stumps sticking out of the water. They used the wood and the surrounding cedar and fir forest to build the wood products industry. Just south of the lake is the dividing line between the Puyallup and Nisqually river drainages. Farmers and the railroad chose that point to redirect Ohop Creek north, away from Ohop Lake and the Nisqually River to protect the railroad bed and dry out the valley to improve it for farming.

The lake, pocked with the stumps of the cut-off dead trees, served as a log pond until 1965. The photograph at the right shows the surface of the lake nearly covered with floating logs. Over time, remaining logs and detritus migrated north to the outlet and slowly increased the height of the natural dam. Thousands of logs sank to the bottom of the lake. In 2006-2007 a side scan sonar analysis revealed that the overwhelming majority of the (well over) 25,000 large pieces of woody debris (aka ‘targets’) on the bottom of the lake were horizontal logs left from logging. Today, because of the combination of more water entering the lake and a higher dam, the depth of a lake has increased to a point where stumps that were once 4–5 feet above the surface of the water are now several inches below it. The higher water levels have substantially enlarged wetlands and drowned additional forest, killing the trees there. Because of the submerged stumps, the lake is not safe for boating, and over the years a number of people have drowned from capsizing after hitting hidden stumps.[3] [4] [5]

Fishing remains but even that is very different now. According to older local residents, there used to be strong runs of steelhead, Coho and Chinook salmon in lower Kapowsin Creek and the lake as well as healthy stocks of native char and trout – all of which supported strong runs in the Puyallup River. Resorts developed to serve sportsmen from around the region, but they are gone too. During the 1950s, bass, crappie, and other ‘spiny ray’ species were introduced, and while they are popular game fish, they are voracious, invasive predators of native migratory salmon and trout. State Fish and Wildlife reports document the materially reduced condition of the native fish populations.

Abandoned factory foundation – looking more like Detroit than Pierce County

Kapowsin Is Not Like It Was 200 Years Ago: A Park Can Make It Better

Some users are not good stewards.
With very little activity at the lake, it is easy to use it as a dump for cars, trash, meth labs, and anything else

Many users are not good stewards of the land, leaving behind trash and human waste, and causing erosion and destruction of plants and fish and wildlife habitat. The railroad still blocks the west shore, and hundreds of pilings from railroad piers, log pens, and buildings remain in the water. The pilings plus what is left of the standing trees cut in the 1890s and the sunken logs left by the timber companies have been adopted as habitat by the non-native ‘spiny ray’ fish. Graffiti covered concrete walls remain in the old town site, as do former railroad grades and foundation holes. Trash litters the ground, and vandals shoot up road signs. One Boy Scout cleanup lasting only 4–5 hours netted over 1,000 pounds of trash and junk. Wrecked cars and abandoned meth labs plus illegal four-wheeling on adjacent private property completes the picture. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BygrlAWE52c

Illegal trespassing and destruction of habitat. Some users are not good stewards

A park and the activity it will bring will decrease crime and vandalism. One only needs to read a few of the Kapowsin labeled blogs, fishing/ hunting/outdoor activity web sites or see the YouTube videos to understand the scope of the problem from thefts, broken car windows, assaults, late-night parties, underage drinking, fighting, and drowning accidents.[6][7] [8] A park with better security and a more active base of local, law-abiding users will benefit all responsible users. More restroom and trash facilities will be provided to keep trash and human waste out of the lake. Maintained trails will reduce habitat destructive activity in the uplands, along the shoreline, and in the near-shore areas.

The shoreline, forest, fish, wildlife, and even the bottom of the lake have been fundamentally changed by human activity, and not always for the better. The Governor’s Task Force report on Parks and Outdoor Recreation [9] speaks of Washingtonians losing their connection to outdoor spaces and activities. The more people use the park at Kapowsin, the more educated, connected, and passionate stewards of the forest and the lake there will be.

Aquatic sports, their foot-traffic and income producing potential, and ancillary public/private development are required to pay for it.

The Graham Community Plan, County Comprehensive Plan, and Pierce County Parks Plan all advocate in favor of creating a park with aquatic activities. Such a park will have no negative effect at all researchers’ ability to control invasive species or study the history or archeology or ecology of the lake. Department of Fish and Wildlife priorities, primarily fishing for spiny ray species, stocked trout, and duck hunting will be improved and made more accessible for all people of all abilities. Monitored parking, ADA accessible trails, and improved facilities such as fishing floats and blinds can be provided. The county and indeed the entire region will benefit materially from enabling significant economic, educational, health, social, and cultural activities at the lake.

Kapowsin Lake is not pristine; it is an abandoned industrial site. But it is unique and its potential as a park for Pierce County is very real. The uplands and the lake itself have been profoundly impacted by human activity over the past 120 years, and today it is an abandoned industrial site that attracts a disproportionate amount of trash, vandalism and crime. Kapowsin Lake presents an opportunity to meet some of Pierce County’s well-documented need and desire for parks, healthy outdoor recreation, and positive youth activities. Increasing its healthy recreational and outdoor sports activity levels and visibility will increase the level of public stewardship for the entire area, and reduce the negative activities.

The health, social, educational, and financial benefits of the sports, recreation, environmental, and service programs slated for the park explain why broad support for the park exists. The 25,000 K-12 students within 30 minutes of the lake in the Bethel, Orting, Eatonville and Puyallup School Districts will have access to rare, world-class facilities and programs available in only a few places around the globe, and the economic benefits of these to Pierce County and the State are significant. Reducing the size of stumps left by loggers by a few feet so that people can more safely use the lake, and then creating even more fish habitat in the near-shore environment to mitigate for any loss of habitat for invasive fish species is a worthwhile trade-off for a world-class park.