The term “ghost town” in today’s time has evolved from its more literal interpretation to describe any small town that has been abandoned or vacated (except for Liberty, Washington’s only living ghost town). In fact, there’s a whole culture of folks dedicated to discovering and exploring ghost towns and their history. Most of the time, however, towns devoid of inhabitants have nowhere to grow but older. Not so for old Alder.
Tacoma is directly connected to Mount Rainier National Park via Washington State Route 7. The beautiful drive winds through east Pierce County, into and out of the Ohop Valley and along the Nisqually River to Alder Lake, a body of water made artificially larger after the construction of Alder Dam – the same structure that turned old Alder into a ghost town when the dam was built in 1944.
Primarily a logging and mining town, Alder was settled in the late 1800s and finally platted in 1904. Named for the predominance of alder trees surrounding the area, it boasted a population upward of 200 in its heyday. Though there wasn’t anything particularly special about Alder, it became a part of Washington State history when residents were told to evacuate in 1942 because the second Nisqually Dam Project would result in the town being forever submerged underwater.
In late summer and early fall when Alder Lake is drawn down to its lowest point of the year, visitors can literally walk where water once covered just weeks prior. Swimming area buoys, once floating on the surface, now rest half buried in the sand awaiting the return of recreational waters that come with the snowmelt in springtime. And when the lake is low enough, you can literally hike through history as the foundations and – if you’re lucky – artifacts of the old Alder townsite become exposed once more.
The easiest way to get there is to park at the eastern entrance to Sunny Beach Point just before Alder Cutoff Road. There’s plenty of parking room when the park is closed for the season. A short walk through the park on paved trails leads you right to a path at the swimming area that takes you out onto the lakebed. In late fall the ground is very solid, the plant life is abundant and if not for the landscape being dotted with waterlogged alder stumps you probably wouldn’t think that you were standing in the middle of a lake.
Just a few hundred yards from the swimming area is the highest point in Alder Lake. It’s an island only accessible by watercraft when the lake is full but nothing more than a small hill at the lake’s low point. It’s on this island that you’ll find the ruins of old Alder’s schoolhouse. A large stone foundation with two massive pillars indicating the entryway are all that remain of the town’s only educational facility.
Interestingly, when the town was flooded in 1944, only three of the original buildings were saved and relocated. One of them was the schoolhouse, which now serves as a community hall just outside the entrance to Alder Lake Park. Another building saved and relocated was the Presbyterian church which today sits very near the community hall (in the area that today is called Alder, hence the references to “old” Alder). A third building rescued was relocated further up the road closer to Eatonville.
After only a few minutes exploring, you’re likely to discover more building foundations and rusted out remnants of once-underground pipes connecting shops in the former business district of old Alder. Closer to the waterline you might find ladies shoes from a fashion era long since past or the engine block to a Model A Ford which might be peeking up from beneath the water’s surface. Old tires and unidentifiable pieces of rusty machinery can be found sparingly throughout the area and – again, if you’re lucky – the railroad trestle that once carried iron horses over Alder Creek through the middle of town.
I’ve seen pictures of pottery and dishware that previous explorers have uncovered at the old Alder townsite, and I have no doubt that more is waiting to be unearthed by amateur archaeologists. Just remember if you stop for a visit the next time you’re on your way to Mount Rainier, to leave anything you find in its place so it can be discovered anew by the next budding historian. Take only pictures and leave only footprints…lest the ghosts of old Alder be roused by your curiosity.