Soap Lake, a small town on the southern shore of its namesake lake, has long been a tourist mecca thanks to the supposed healing powers of its mineral-rich waters. Located in Grant County 23 miles northwest of Moses Lake, Soap Lake reached the height of its popularity in the 1920s and 1930s, when health seekers flocked to the lake to bathe in its waters and even its mud. Today Soap Lake is home to fewer than 2,000 residents, "one-fourth the size of its earlier heyday" (Hilding).
In Baden-Baden, Germany, thermal water and mud baths have been taken for most of recorded history. In the city of Bath, England, there is likewise said to be something potent – dozens of helpful minerals – in the water. Closer to home, at Saratoga Springs, New York; White Sulphur, West Virginia; and Hot Springs, Arkansas, bathers gather to maintain their health or address whatever ails them. Washington has its own mineral spa in the center of the state, made official in 1905 as the Soap Lake Sanitarium.
Balneology – the science of the therapeutic effects of baths and bathing – has been in practice for centuries. Still today, essential bath oils and bath bombs for home use remain big business. Soap Lake is said to contain the most diverse mineralization of any body of water in the world. Swimming in the lake, one notices that its foamy water, like a lubricant, is silky on the skin. Its black mud also is said to have matchless virtues; bathers gather and apply the stuff and then let it dry to a gray crust in the sun.
A chemical engineering professor at Washington State University has plumbed the wonders of the lake. With the help of an $840,000 National Science Foundation grant, Brent Payton and two colleagues from other universities studied extremophiles. Those microorganisms live where no other life forms can exist. Soap Lake is stratified, meaning the top and bottom layers of the lake have never mixed in two millennia, "the longest documented stratification of any lake on earth" (Hilding). The bottom anaerobic layer interests scientists the most. The salinity there is five times greater than seawater. They believe extremophiles hold information for studying environmental cleanup, pharmaceutical drugs, and extraterrestrial life.
Indigenous people have known of Soap Lake’s soda waters for centuries; they dug roots and built steam huts along the lakeshore, and called truces amid battles to bathe themselves and their horses. They named this natural spa Smokiam. Laura Ackerman (b. 1961), who came of age in the town of Soap Lake, pronounces it Smoke-EYE-um. She recalls a drinking fountain downtown that offered both fresh water and water directly from the lake.
Several decades before Soap Lake became a tourist attraction, Medical Lake in Spokane County enjoyed a similar vogue. By 1905, "thousands of visitors jammed Medical Lake’s bathhouses, beaches, excursion boats, campgrounds, and parks on hot summer days" (Kershner). Once Soap Lake’s bathhouses began enlisting visitors, however, Medical Lake’s star began to fade. Soap Lake then became so jammed that hotels had to buy hundreds of tents to lodge overflow guests. Some came for fun, others for the cure. Some guests arrived in stretchers and had to be carried from horse-drawn rigs to lodgings. Dance halls gave others the opportunity to demonstrate their improved health under the spell of jazz bands.
A "sanitarium" was defined as an establishment for the medical treatment of people who were convalescing or who had a chronic disease. Incurable diseases were more common then, and microbial-based ailments were treated by plastering, injecting, ingesting, or immersing. The popularity of natural cures would begin to fade after a German pathologist discovered the first sulfa drug (prontosil rubrum) in the late 1930s and penicillin was discovered to kill bacteria in the early 1940s. Slowly, Soap Lake would lose its allure as a health mecca.
A Moonlike Landscape
To the uninitiated, the shrub-steppe topography and abundance of basalt around Soap Lake might seem as alien as a moonscape. For some, the high temperatures and absence of humidity, combined with the alkali mineralization in the lake, can make for a spa-like experience, all of it in the open air. Grand Coulee and its massive dam lie some 60 miles northeast. Part of the Grand Coulee canyon, Soap Lake has a similar landscape. Some of the basalt columns rise 900 feet.
Its geography traces to the last Ice Age, when an ice dam formed Lake Missoula to the northeast. That lake froze and thawed dozens or possibly hundreds of times, and its shores collapsed and generated floods over centuries. Its discharged waters churned to the Pacific Ocean 400 miles away. On the way they gouged huge waterfalls, best visible at nearby Dry Falls. Soap Lake, also formed by Ice Age floods, became a rich repository for sodium sulfate, sodium carbonate, epsomite, and other salts. The chemicals drained from ancient lava flows when the floodwaters scoured them. The pH of Soap Lake is between 9.8 and 10, compared with seawater, which ranges from 7.4 to 8.5.
When Soap Lake’s popularity was peaking, two geologists coincidentally were tracing the evacuation route of the Lake Missoula floods. They pointed to giant ripple marks on stone, to scoured and plucked basalt that only coursing waters could have made, and to strand lines high above the town of Missoula, Montana. J Harlen Bretz (1882-1981) floated his theory of geological catastrophe at a conference in 1927. His peers sneered. They worried he was suggesting that Noah’s Flood might have had some basis in fact. For 50 years after Bretz spoke up, his fellow geologists pored over the landscapes around Soap Lake, exploring landforms that had borne the greatest flooding to take place on Earth. Convinced at last of the landscape-scale cataclysm, they commended Bretz in a telegram: "We are all now catastrophists!" (Soennichsen).
Recognition as a City
Incorporated on June 9, 1919, the City of Soap Lake lies at the south end of its namesake lake, seven miles north Ephrata, the seat of Grant County, the fourth-largest county in Washington. Soap Lake claims some 1,700 residents today , which is "one-fourth the size of its earlier heyday" (Hilding).
In the early decades of the twentieth century, when the town and its waters became known as a health retreat, the many visitors became known as patients. Claims were made that cures could be had for everything from rheumatism to sexually transmitted diseases. Large hotels and clinics were built to accommodate the thousands of clients enthusiastic to drink and drench, plaster and ingest. Some establishments had onsite physicians, nurses, masseurs, bath attendants, and mud-packers.
The Soap Lake Sanitarium offered products ("Carbonated Water, Salts, Soap, Shampoo, Ointment and Foot Relief"), services ("Cabinet Bath, Blanket Sweat, Massage, Alcohol Rub, Salt Glow, Osteopathic Treatments"), and minor surgeries ("Corns, Bunions, Ingrowing Toe Nails Removed Without Pain”) (Kiefer). Patrons could enjoy entertainments, including carriage rides by one W. D. Woodward, who recited memorized poetry and classical essays to the delight of "his lady patrons" (Kiefer). Entrepreneurs evaporated the lake's water on an industrial scale and shipped the salts, or bottled the water and sold it to trusting customers. Still today Notaras Lodge – aka Soap Lake Natural Spa and Resort – pipes lake water directly into the rooms of its log cabins and hotel. Guests turn a bathroom spigot to enjoy the comfort and healthful luxury in private. Back in the salad days, a "naturist" community received the sanction of the town’s first woman mayor, Maggie Waltho, who stood up to the county sheriff. "She defended the rights of nude bathers who had practiced their unclothed sun worship on the west beach for decades" (Kiefer).
While Americans were becoming more savvy about fraudulent medical claims, quacks, charlatans, and corrupt manufacturers flourished in the U.S. during Soap Lake’s peak. Dangerous claims were widespread and shocking by today's standards. Cocaine Toothache Drops promised "Instantaneous Cure!" Hamlin’s Wizard Oil contained 65 percent alcohol. Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound, which treated "nervous prostration brought on by female trouble" (Nespor) also contained alcohol. Consequently, legislation enacting the Pure Food and Drug Act was passed in 1906. Key parts of the law mandated that every "medicament" containing alcohol, chloroform, morphine, opium, cocaine, heroin, cannabis – and a variety of other narcotic and psychoactive substances – "must have their quantities and proportions listed on the packaging" (Nespor). Amid such a regulatory backdrop, Soap Lake could claim legitimacy. It could demonstrate that its products were entirely natural.
The U.S. military gave Soap Lake even more legitimacy. In the 1920s, thousands of soldiers returning from World War I arrived at Soap Lake with Buerger's disease, "a malady similar to gangrene" (Hilding). Excessive tobacco use by soldiers under fire was a possible cause. Afflicted soldiers discovered that bathing in the lake's mineral waters helped arrest their disease. Besides its many minerals, the lake contains ichthyols, which can treat infections, cuts, and scrapes. The water is likewise known for its high hydrostatic pressure, which increases circulation and oxygen flow. In 1933, the Veteran's Administration sent nine veterans to Soap Lake and funded their eventual recovery. A period photo shows scores of hopeful amputees gathered for treatment on the porches of hotels.
In 1938, the federal government authorized construction of a Veteran's Hospital in Soap Lake for research and treatment of Buerger’s. As late as 1940, one in 18 people living in the city had the disease. In that respect, the history of Soap Lake bears comparison again to Medical Lake, which became the site of Eastern Washington Hospital for the Insane, now renamed Eastern State Hospital. Unlike the pine forests in Medical Lake, however, the Soap Lake landscape is stubby sage and alkali-laden basalt. Seattle Times reporter Ross Anderson dubbed it "a geological dead end for minerals such as sodium, carbonate, bicarbonate, sulfate – 16 minerals in all – that leach from the surrounding rock" ("Soap Lake Mourns ...").
Boosterism made for a special set of outlandish claims to promote the town and its lake. During the Washington State Fair of 1920, the Soap Lake Commercial Club arranged a display of local products. Instead of offering the products for sale, the Soap Lake supporters and promoters deployed PR that seemed like altruism. In curlicue script they named the lake "The Greatest Healing Spot on Earth" and "God’s Gift to the Sick from the Heart of Washington" (Kiefer).
A Legacy of the Lyrical
If the advent of modern medicine diminished it as a natural spa, Soap Lake continues to enjoy adherents. Not only local historians but also former citizens of the Soviet Union champion the place. Suspicious regard for modern medicine might attract them. So might reverence for ancestral practices that elevated bathing. The same patronage by Eastern Europeans may be found at other hot springs and natural spas around the American West.
In the early 2000s, local filmmaker Kathy Kiefer (b. 1957) made a documentary about Soap Lake, titled Dirt Roads, BeachScapes & Bygone Days, in which she asserts that "word again is getting back out about the mud." There is good mud and so-so mud, she claims. "You know you have the right mud when it’s creamy black, almost like Pond’s Cold Cream." A product sold to remove makeup, Pond’s Cold Cream is entirely white, unlike the black mud Kiefer claims "has a place in the alternative treatment of various skin diseases” (Dirt Roads ...). Kiefer champions the mud, the town, and the healthful waters in person, in print, and in her widely admired film, which opens over moody piano music and melancholy scenes of abandoned beaches and homes. Sage is framed through the window of a vacant farmhouse. Tattered drapes and shattered windows transmit a mood of glories fallen to ruin. Strings swell to complement the piano score. Using techniques perfected by documentarian Ken Burns, the filmmaker brings historical still photos to life by pairing them with period music and moving across them to bring them alive.
The film then turns musing and inquisitive. Closeups of flowers and tree shadows glimpsed through a window underscore verses that Kiefer presumably wrote. "How do we know when a place is home? Why do we stay? When do we go? Is it time? Is it late? Is it true? Why do we wait?" She arrived in the town in 1980, just after Mount St. Helens blew, and found work in one of the hotels. Her film is a touching homage to a place that time almost forgot before she came to resuscitate its reputation. Elders’ faces are shown up close. Notaras Lodge, made of river stones, is personified: "This rounded rock sentinel gazed upon lives passing by" (Dirt Roads ...)
In one often-duplicated photo, a spirit of the healing water is personified as well. A spirit-woman mounts a mound of rocks on the shore, her arms spread wide, a gown falling to her feet. A bandaged man on crutches follows her. The caption in longhand at the bottom of that vintage promotional photo reads, "It Will Cure You" (Dirt Roads ...). The spirit-woman evokes Jesus. His many miracles include restoring a man who was born blind. Jesus sent him to the Pool of Siloam where he regained his sight. Siloam became not only a symbol of restoration after that, but also the name of an early hospital in Soap Lake, the Siloam Sanitarium. Founded in 1909, that three-story structure of 100 rooms overlooking the lake on a high hill burned down in 1921. It was one of the many fiery casualties that afflicted the city in the twentieth century.
Kiefer also wrote an illustrated history of Soap Lake in which she records an "Indian beauty contest ... and Canoe Dance" held in 1967. Their addition was part of the town’s Suds and Sun Celebration and its Camas Bowl. "Soap Lake citizens would select a princess, and the Indian [prince] and princess selected by the town would dance together during an opening ceremony" (Soap Lake, 124). Annual pow wows were conducted by the tribes from 1953 to 1972, and reintroduced in 2023.
In 2012, Kiefer teamed with historian Robert Ruby (1921-2015) to launch a failed bid to have the lake renamed Smokiam to reconcile with the United Tribes of the Colville Reservation. Under their proposal, the City of Soap Lake would retain its name, while the water body would undergo the change. The proposal was considered by a state committee but failed due to opposition from citizens and the city council. True to the commercialization of all things, a Smokiam RV resort now can be found on the north end of the lake.
A Legacy of the Strange
Seattle architect Brent Blake (1943-2013), who grew up 23 miles away in Moses Lake, had an epiphany in 2002. His epiphany was meant to put Soap Lake back on the map after its heyday a century before. He would build a 60-foot lava lamp worthy of entry in the Guinness Book of World Records. He reckoned it would cost a million dollars. The promo poster makes it seem as if the massive orangish roadside attraction had just plunged to Earth from outer space. His visual mockup of the whimsical wonder features a circular walkway up top that recalls the rotunda of the Space Needle. Blake lamented that the town had languished for a century. It only needed something striking to put it back on the public map.
Gordon Tift had a similar epiphany. It hit him like a lightning strike and sat him straight up in bed. After years mourning the decline of his hometown, the 80-year-old shared his idea with Seattle Times reporter Ross Anderson in 1998. "Think Stonehenge. Five statues, solid rock, maybe 25 or 30 feet tall, right here in the city park and looking out over the lake. Only they’re a rock band!" He continued, "They’re solid basalt, held together with rebar and epoxy, looking out over the lake. The biggest rock band in the world, right here! People would come from all over." Tift’s epiphany, Anderson wrote, arose in a place where "a peculiar strain of hope springs eternal" ("Soap Lake Mourns ...").
In 2013 Kelly O, a writer for Seattle weekly The Stranger, celebrated the many eccentrics and eccentricities of the town. In her report, Kelly praises "the freaky magic" of the place. It is "Eastern Washington’s most magical swimming hole." Acknowledging that Soap Lake is much less crowded than it used to be, the writer credits the "high mineral content" for the sensation that "you’re floating around in a lukewarm bathtub that has a little too much Johnson’s Baby Oil in it." Kelly O continues, "It makes your skin feel slick and slimy. Tiny bugs buzz around near the shore, where the water often deposits a bizarre foam, not unlike shampoo" ("The Freaky Magic ...").
The candor in The Stranger article contrasts with the nostalgic PR offered up by partisans. The mud, Kelly O says – which "people rub all over their bodies in hopes of soothing aches and pains – is so sulfurous, it smells like the worst Easter-egg fart you’ve ever farted" ("The Freaky Magic ..."). The analogy is one which other commentators have danced around to avoid. The same sulfur compounds some patrons find reeky are responsible for healing skin conditions. "Does it really heal?" Kelly O asks. "Locals roll their eyes, but the huge population of Russian immigrants who have taken over Soap Lake's western beach will tell you different" ("The Freaky Magic ..."). Without ever saying the town today is tacky, a residence of lowbrow kitsch, Kelly O ironically celebrates the place. We meet a "Drunk of the Week" named Sandy, and learn that Seattle drag performer "Jackie Hell grew up here, perfecting her craft as a bored teenager" ("The Freaky Magic ..."). A rich description of a motorcycle club rally in Soap Lake follows. Its stunts included gravity-defying rides up a wall, a knife-throwing show, and a topless belly dance. The story concludes with the wish that the lava lamp is never built, fearing it will encourage tourism.
With the lava lamp still on the drawing board in 2023, the greatest draw of Soap Lake today might be the Notaras Lodge. It was built of rounded river rock in 1911 by high-stakes gambler and real-estate investor E. Paul Janes, who disappeared mysteriously in New York City two years later. Today the lodge rents out vintage cabins constructed of massive old-growth logs, spruce or ponderosa pine (a detail on which the records conflict). The charm of these cabins comes not only from the silky water piped into the bathtubs but from the funky décor. Each cabin is laid out with antiques from different aspects of American culture. Many of the cabins were destroyed in a 1998 fire. The inlays of figurines in epoxy-based plastic fueled the flames, but several choice cabins remain.
The culture of Soap Lake, and the sudsy Smokiam on whose south shore the town sits, have both changed. Though the population has dwindled by 75 percent, Soap Lake's cultural diversity has increased. Besides the influx of Eastern Europeans, keen to follow ancestral tradition, the town welcomes a lot more Latinx people today, some of whom have risen from the migrant farming class to afford vacations at hotels and resorts. The beaches resound with non-English speech. The attraction of the water remains the same, though. Even if the salinity levels have fallen due to leakage from other water sources, the true believers still arrive. They pursue balneology by any other name.