Medical Lake -- Thumbnail History

  • By Jim Kershner
  • Posted 10/18/2012
  • Essay 10231
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Medical Lake is a city in Spokane County 15 miles southwest of Spokane on the shores of the lake that bears the same name. The region's tribes believed the mineral-rich lake had curative properties. The first white settlers arrived in 1872 and they, too, believed the lake had healing powers. By 1879 hotels and bathhouses had sprung up along the shores and tourists came seeking relief from rheumatism and other maladies. The town was incorporated in 1890. When an electric interurban rail line began operation in 1905 from Spokane, thousands of visitors jammed Medical Lake's bathhouses, beaches, excursion boats, campgrounds, and parks on hot summer days. By 1920, the public grew skeptical of the lake's healing properties and Medical Lake faded as a resort town. However, Medical Lake was equally well-known as the home of Eastern State Hospital, an imposing brick institution for the mentally ill, completed in 1891 on a hill across the lake from the business district. Other state institutions, including a residential facility for the developmentally disabled and a women's prison, arrived later. Today, Medical Lake remains the home of Eastern State Hospital and continues to be a bedroom community for Spokane and neighboring Fairchild Air Force Base. In 2010, the city had a population of 5,060, the most in its history.

Strong Medicine Water

For thousands of years, Medical Lake was an important site for the Spokane Tribe and other nearby tribes. The tribes believed that the waters, mud, and salts of the lake had curative properties. One early historian said that Indians "congregated in great numbers around its shores, bringing the afflicted from all directions" (Edwards, p. 268). According to one report, the tribes called the lake Skookum Limechin Chuch, which meant "strong medicine water" (Dullenty).

Indians would "place the sick on a bed above hot stones then by throwing water from the lake on the stones, they caused the steam to engulf the sick, thereby opening the pores to allow the sickness to leave the body" (Story, p. 8). They also made a powder from lake's salty residue and took it back to people who were too sick to make the trek.

Battle of Four Lakes

Pioneers knew the entire region as the Four Lakes country. There are actually more than a dozen lakes in the vicinity, with Medical Lake and its sister lake, West Medical Lake (less than a mile to the west), being two of the biggest. The famous Battle of Four Lakes took place not far from the present-day streets of the city.

Early historian N. W. Durham described the battle like this:

"On the plain below the enemy was massed, and every spot seemed alive with the red warriors which the soldiers had come so far to fight. The scene was in the vicinity of Four Lakes, near the present town of Medical Lake, and about 20 miles from the falls of Spokane" (Durham, p. 241)

Lt. Lawrence Kip (1836-1899), who was present, said that Indian fighters appeared to cover the country for a distance of two miles. Nevertheless, the troops of Col. George Wright (1803-1865), equipped with new and accurate rifles, routed the Indians with much bloodshed. It was the key turning point in the region's 1855-1858 Indian Wars, forcing the Indians to retreat toward the Spokane River, where they were decisively defeated four days later in the Battle of Spokane Plains.

White Settlers

Andrew Lefevre (1824-1900) and his nephew Peter ("Big Pete") Lefevre (1847-?) were the first white settlers in Medical Lake. Andrew Lefevre was a French-Canadian who came out to California during the Gold Rush, fought in the Northwest's Indian Wars, and then served as a freight hauler for the army. Peter Lefevre was born in Quebec and came west to work in mines in Virginia City, Montana, and then Walla Walla.

Andrew Lefevre may have come through the area as early as 1859, according to Rev. Jonathan Edwards' History of Spokane County. According to Andrew Lefevre's son, J. Peter Lefevre, his father stumbled upon Medical Lake while hauling supplies from Fort Walla Walla to Fort Colville. He was at a watering spot called Willow Springs, outside of today's Cheney when some of his ponies went missing. "So in the morning, he took off east to look for them," said his son. "It was then that he discovered 'lac de medicine,' as he called it" (Story, p. 4.)

In 1872, Andrew Lefevre talked his nephew Peter into going into the sheep business with him. Peter later recalled that they bought "500 sheep and a few horses and cattle" in Walla Walla and headed north (Lefevre). They arrived with their livestock near the shores of Medical Lake on June 15, 1872. Peter later said he didn't believe that there were "ten people in the whole of what we call the Spokane Country" in 1872 (Lefevre).

"The Indians, to discourage his (Andrew's) settlement there, told him the waters were poisonous, but holding to his purpose, he took as a homestead the site of the present town," according to Durham (Durham, p. 325-326). Peter later said they "never had but one difficulty with the Indians" and that incident resulted only in the shooting of two dogs (Lefevre). Andrew Lefevre's homesite became, over ensuing decades, the center of the new settlement known as Medical Lake.

Peter Lefevre said they were "the first white people to demonstrate the curative properties of the waters of Medical Lake" when they cured their sheep of scab by washing them in the lake (Lefevre). Then Andrew Lefevre bathed in the lake himself and his rheumatism "was almost completely cured" (Dullenty).

J. D. Labrie, a fellow French Canadian and friend of Lefevre, also moved up from Douglas County, Oregon, that same year, bringing Andrew Lefevre's sons. Labrie also started a homestead on Medical Lake. Peter later established a homestead north and east of the lake. Edwards lists Medical Lake's other early settlers as Frank Malloy, C. W. Murphy, G. W. Ainsley, W. T. Barnes, G. H. Brower, Chas. W. Robbins, E. L. Smith, J. A. Fancher, and B.S. Dudley.

Stanley Hallett and the Lake That Cured

They were joined by an especially influential arrival: Stanley Hallett (1851-1926) an upper-class Englishman who actually "bore the title Lord Hallett when he came to America in 1872, but upon reaching the shores of America insisted on dropping the title" (Story, p. 5). He had worked as a merchant in California before arriving in Medical Lake in 1877, where he became a wealthy entrepreneur and the townsite's "principal promoter" (Edwards, p. 269).

Hallett operated a salt and soap company on the lake's shore, where he boiled lake water and packaged the salty residue, just as the Indians had done for centuries, and sold it as curative. He also made Medical Lake Soap, which was also touted as cure-all. 

By 1879, the lake was already attracting enthusiastic visitors. The West Shore magazine of Portland said that the water created such a sudsy lather that to bathe in it was "like getting shampooed" (Kowrach). In a visit three years later, the magazine also said, with comic hyperbole, that "it will cure almost any disease except lying and poverty" and "it will sugar-cure a ham in six minutes if the directions on the label are properly observed" (The West Shore).

Rev. Edwards, in his 1900 Spokane County history, wrote more seriously, "The water has proved a positive cure in severe rheumatism, catarrh, skin and other diseases" (Edwards, p. 269). Edwards called it a "modern pool of Bethesda" (Edwards, p. 268) Some Medical Lake boosters went much further, claiming it was useful against virtually any ill, including cancer. Scientists studied the water and determined it contained significant amounts of "sodic chloride, potassic chloride, lithic carbonate, sodic carbonate, magnesia carbonate" and many other elements (Edwards, p. 269).

Salt, Soap, and Settlement

The small settlement began to grow, boosted by several salt and soap operations. In 1882, The West Shore magazine reported that the little town had about 100 people, "really first-class hotel accommodations," and "convenient bath-houses" (West Shore). By 1889, it had "eleven hotels and boarding houses ... 12 general stores and four saloons" (History).

In December 1888, the town organized as a township with a board of trustees. Then, after Washington achieved statehood, the town voted on June 7, 1890, to incorporate as a fourth-class city. Hallett was voted in as the town's first mayor. He later served as a Spokane County commissioner, city treasurer, and state senator. He owned over a quarter of the early town's real estate, and in 1900, he built a grand castle-like home, Hallett House, which remains one of the town's landmarks.

Hallett 's Castle

Hallett House was built with a granite foundation and two-to-four-foot-thick walls made of rounded brick. It had rounded towers, crenellations, a ballroom, a library, and stained glass windows. "Father always wanted a castle," said one of his daughters (Vorpahl, "Lord Hallett").

Outside was a tennis court, grape arbor, and ice house. Neighbors gathered for tea parties on the grounds. On the Fourth of July, Hallett and his daughter would climb to the top of the tower through a trap door and light "$50 worth of Roman candles and other fireworks" while the town looked on (Vorpahl. "Lord Hallett").

Eastern State Hospital

Hallett played a leading role in the acquisition of Eastern Washington Hospital for the Insane, now called Eastern State Hospital.  In 1886, the territorial legislature resolved to build an asylum to serve the eastern portion of the territory, since the sole asylum, the Western Hospital for the Insane at Ft. Steilacoom,  was overcrowded. Most cities in Eastern Washington expressed little interest in having this hospital.

Yet a group of Medical Lake boosters, including Hallett  and Andrew Lefevre, jumped on the idea. When a territorial commission came to look at nearby Spokane as a site, the Medical Lake boosters invited them over. The Medical Lake offer proved too good to pass up: 80 acres of free land, donated by the citizens, ample water from a spring on site, and plenty of on-site granite for use in building.

The commission settled on Medical Lake for the site chiefly because the offer was "much the most liberal of any made" (Story, p. 22). The legislature approved the choice and construction began in 1888 with Hallett one of the three supervising commissioners. It was officially opened in 1891.

"It is a magnificent building and thoroughly equipped for its purpose," wrote Edwards in 1900. "It is on the west side of the lake, about 180 feet above the water, on a very picturesque spot, surrounded by evergreens of natural growth, commanding an extensive view of the surrounding country. The building in its extreme length is 416 feet, the center portion four stories high" (Edwards, p. 269).

The builders claimed -- although confirmation is lacking -- that "it was then the biggest building in the State of Washington" (Dullenty). It began with 216 patients, most of whom were transferred from the west side hospital at Steilacoom. The staff expressed concerns early that the more dangerous patients were being shunted off to Medical Lake. One superintendent noted that some of the patients "are vicious and desperate men who have lost little of their cunning by becoming insane" (Story, p. 22). He asked for a new security building on the grounds for such patients. One was constructed in 1912. The hospital continued to add both land and facilities. A report made around 1914 showed yearly numbers of 552 admissions, 260 discharges and 156 deaths.

In 1914, about 252 patients were transferred by wagon to a new residential facility for the developmentally disabled about two miles south, which was called (in the era's nomenclature) The School for the Feeble-Minded. The name was later changed to Eastern State Custodial School. It acquired its present name, Lakeland Village, in 1947, and it remains a residential facility for the developmentally disabled.

A Resort Town

Meanwhile, the town's reputation as a health resort continued to grow. The arrival of two railroads by 1890 -- the Central Washington line and the Seattle, Lake Shore & Eastern -- allowed tourists from Spokane to take the waters.

"Being so near Spokane Falls, the spot is visited by many of our people, some of whom make frequent visits of a day's duration, while others camp out on the shores of the lake, or seek accommodations at the hotels of the town, for weeks at a time." said the Spokane Falls Weekly Review in 1895 ("Medical Lake"). The paper said Medical Lake was destined to become the Saratoga or White Sulphur Springs of the West.

Washington Water Power announced plans in 1904 to build an electric rail line from Spokane to Medical Lake on the former roadbed of the Seattle, Lake Shore & Eastern. The "interurban," as it was called, was completed it in 1905, and instantly made Medical Lake into a popular weekend excursion spot. The population of the little town jumped from 516 in 1900 to 927 in 1910 and to 1,259 in 1920.

The interurban made several trips a day, bringing thousands of people on hot summer days. On one particularly hot day, bathers rented 1,400 bathing suits. There were footraces every Sunday and band concerts at a lakeside bandstand. The lake was ringed with parks and resorts: Camp Comfort, Stanley Park, The Coney Island Resort and the Pavilion Boathouse. During Medical Lake's resort heyday, which encompassed the first two decades of the century, as many as five excursion boats hauled passengers around the lake.

"Sundays were big days, with 'hawkers' in nautical uniforms cajoling Spokanites to rent their boats or take soothing restful rides in a launch," wrote a reporter in 1912 (Dullenty and Kowrach).

Around this time, for several reasons, Medical Lake's appeal began to fade. The advent of the automobile made it easier for people to visit other recreation spots. The lake's famous mineral deposits had been dredged to the point where they were depleted. Development around the lake spawned unsightly algae blooms. The public was growing skeptical about the healing powers of Medical Lake's waters -- and that of any kind of mineral waters. By 1922, the interurban line went out of business. The days of Medical Lake as a resort town were over.

A Sensational Crime

The mostly quiet town had a thrill on December 28, 1923, when a gang of bandits hijacked a car in Spokane, forced the driver to the floor, drove to Medical Lake and robbed the First National Bank at Medical Lake. They were captured after a wild chase through the snow-covered country roads between Medical Lake and Spokane.

Five young Spokane men were arrested and provided plenty of sensational fodder for the press over the next few days. Ollie Hill, a 19-year-old Medical Lake woman, was said to be "the brains of the gang" ("Girl Bandit Leader"). She did not go with the men on the actual holdup, but it was she who advised them to hit the bank in Medical Lake because it would be "easier pickings" than a Hillyard bank ("Girl Bandit Leader"). She was arrested as an accessory to the crime. Police described her as "a wildcat and a bad one all around" ("Girl Bandit Leader").

"The seriousness of their crime does not appear to affect them at all," said The Spokesman-Review the next day. "They have won the admiration of the officers by their coolness since the capture. They swaggered around the identification room in the county jail while being photographed for the newspapers and seemed to revel in their notoriety" ("Bank Thugs"). "We're too old to cry so we might as well laugh," said robber James O'Dare, 23. ("Bank Thugs").

All but one of the men pleaded guilty right away. Less than six hours after the robbery, they were sentenced to jail terms of seven-to-20 years.

The Coming of Fairchild Air Force Base

The population continued to grow, if slowly, to 1,671 in 1930 and 2,114 in 1940. Then the town's fortunes received a major boost during World War II. The army announced plans for the Spokane Army Air Corps depot right on the edge of Medical Lake. A headline in 1941 trumpeted "Medical Lake Ready to Boom" ("Boom"):

"With thousands of permanent employees at the depot, large numbers of them are going to establish their homes as close to their work as possible, which means Medical Lake," said a city councilman. "Surely hundreds, possibly a thousand or more, will establish their home in our town" ("Boom").

They did. By 1950, Medical Lake's population has more than doubled to 4,488, and then in 1960 went to 4,765, a number that would not be exceeded until the 2010 census. The base was renamed Fairchild Air Force Base in 1950 and would become an important Strategic Air Command base and key component in Medical Lake's economy. By one estimate, one-third of Medical Lake's residents were either active or retired military personnel.

An Ailing Lake, a Hospital, and a Prison

Yet Medical Lake stagnated economically, along with the rest of the Spokane area, in the 1960s and 1970s. The population dropped to 3,529 in 1970 and to 3,600 in 1980. The days when Medical Lake was synonymous with healing waters were long gone. In 1946, a headline declared that Medical Lake had lost its salty properties and had become a "fresh water" lake ("Fresh Water"). It was not a particularly clean lake. Sewage seeped into the lake from lakeshore houses. The lake developed high levels of phosphorus, which caused algae blooms. The oxygen level was so low that the lake could "not support fish life" -- only a species of salamander (Kowrach).

For many outside residents, Medical Lake was now synonymous with Eastern State Hospital and Lakeland Village. This created a significant image problem for the city, said Mayor George Ramsey in 1989. Ramsey told a reporter that he was in the stands at a Medical Lake High School football game when he overheard a visitor say this: "Those kids play pretty good for being retarded" (Vorpahl, "Not to Be Confused With").

"People have only the image that Medical Lake is the institution," said Ramsey. "Medical Lake has nothing to do with the hospital" (Vorpahl, "Not to Be Confused With").

Medical Lake had also become closely identified with several other state institutions. By 1989, Medical Lake was the site not only of Eastern State Hospital and Lakeland Village, but also Interlake School (for the developmentally disabled) and the Pine Lodge Corrections Center for Women (a women's prison), which opened in 1979.

City residents, although originally wary about hosting a prison, grew to think of Pine Lodge in a positive light. Mayor John Higgins said that the women inmates "run the city recycling center, grow vegetables for the food bank and make quilts for children's charities" (Craig). In 2010, he attempted to save Pine Lodge from closure due to state budget cuts, but it was shut down later in the year.  Interlake School closed in 1993. Lakeland Village remains open and had 250 residents as of 2012, yet it too has been threatened by budget cuts.

As of 2012, Eastern State Hospital remains one of the state's two major psychiatric institutions. Eastern State, occupying its original 1888-1891 building, has a total of 287 beds, broken down into the following units: 91 beds in its adult psychiatric unit, 95 beds in its forensic services unit (for patients who enter the hospital through the criminal justice system), and 101 beds in its geropsychiatric unit (for patients over 50). It has 700 employees on its staff, ranging from psychiatrists to nurses to physical therapists.

A Laid-Back Town

The lake itself began to recover after a the town installed a sewer system in 1964. Phosphorus levels decreased and an aerator was installed in 1986 to improve oxygen levels. It became safe for bathing again. Fish once again thrived and it became an excellent trout-fishing lake. The minerals were no longer present at the old levels, yet  Medical Lake's reputation as a modern "pool of Bethesda" still lingered. A half-century after the last bathhouses had disappeared, the city council received a letter from a Viennese doctor asking for a package of Medical Lake Powdered Extract. He had a case, he believed, that "only the Medical Lake salts would cure" (Kowrach).

In the 2010 census, Medical Lake's population grew to an all-time high of 5,060. That year, Mayor Higgins described his town like this: "We're a kind of laid-back town, kind of a bedroom community. We don't have a lot of commercial or retail. We have lakes for skiing and fishing. We do five triathlons a year ... . We have a bluegrass festival that bring people from all over. We have very little crime. ... It' s just a nice place to raise your kids" (Craig).

Sources: The Story of Medical Lake, a supplement to the Cheney Free Press, 1972; Rev. Jonathan Edwards,  An Illustrated History of Spokane County (Spokane: W.H. Lever Publishing Co., 1900); N. W. Durham, History of City of Spokane and Spokane County, Washington, Vol. 1, (Spokane, Chicago, Philadelphia: S.J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1912); Peter Lefevre, "Reminiscences of Peter Lefevre -- A Pioneer of 1871," Willam S. Lewis Papers, Joel E. Ferris Archives, Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture, Spokane; "History," on the City of Medical Lake's website accessed October 9, 2012 (; Jim Dullenty, "Medical Lake is Now 100," Spokane Daily Chronicle, September 5, 1972, p. 25; "Oldest of Pioneers in Spokane," Spokane Daily Chronicle, July 3, 1929, Section Two, p. 1; Beverly Vorpahl, "Lord Hallett's Castle National Historic Site," Spokane Daily Chronicle, June 28, 1976, p. 1; Edward J. Kowrach, "Medical Lake, The Inland Empire's First Spa," The Pacific Northwesterner, Vol. 20, No. 2 (Spring 1979), p. 17-22, reprinted on (; "To the Spokane and Beyond," The West Shore magazine (Portland), August 1882, p. 155; "Medical Lake," Spokane Falls Weekly Review, July 25, 1895; "Medical Lake Ready to Boom," The Spokesman-Review, October 2, 1941, p. 1; "Information About Eastern State Hospital," website of the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services website accessed October 13, 2012 (; Beverly Vorpahl, "Not To Be Confused With ...", The Spokesman-Review, January 26, 1989, Voice section, p. 4-S; John Craig, "Mayor Supports State Institutions," The Spokesman-Review, February 8, 2010, p. A-5; "Medical Lake Now Fresh Water," Spokane Daily Chronicle, February 11, 1946, p. 3; "Think Girl Bandit Leader," Spokane Daily Chronicle, December 29, 1923, p. 1; "Medical Lake Bank Thugs Caught and Sentenced Six Hours After Holdup," The Spokesman-Review, December 29, 1923, p. 1-2.

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