Medical Lake: The Inland Empire's First Spa

  • By Edward J. Kowrach
  • Posted 2/15/2006
  • Essay 7533
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Edward J. Kowrach was a Catholic diocesan priest who retired in 1973 after serving 35 years as pastor of St. Anne's Church and as a chaplain at Lakeland Village, the state institution for the mentally retarded, both at Medical Lake, Washington, located some 15 miles from Spokane. Some of the material in this essay first appeared in his 1963 book, How Silently, a history of St. Anne's and the town of Medical Lake. He also wrote a biography of missionary Charles Pandosy. His account of the health spa at Medical Lake first appeared in The Pacific Northwesterner, Vol. 20, No. 2 (Spring 1979), p. 17-22. It is reprinted here with the kind permission of The Westerners of Spokane.


The Inland Empire's First Spa

When the rolling Palouse Hills of Northeastern Washington and the dryer Big Bend Country to their west were being fenced and plowed for wheat-growing a century ago, Medical Lake, 15 miles west and south of present Spokane was the area's first health resort. As such it became nationally and even internationally known, but only for 25 years or so, after which its allure to health seekers gradually weakened and finally died.

The man who named the lake, which also became the name of the town which grew up at its east side, was Andrew Lefevre (pronounced La-FAY), an uneducated, beard-trimmed French Canadian. It was he who proudly took credit for being the first white man to discover the claimed curative properties of its slightly alkaline waters. He was born on a farm near Montreal in 1824. When he was about 24 years old, he left home to seek his fortune in the California Gold Rush that began in 1849. Unsuccessful after three years of searching for his fortune, he drifted north to Washington Territory, arriving in 1856, just in time to help stamp out its most serious Indian uprisings.

After that he became a freighter on the old Colville Road, the region's first. He hauled supplies from the second Fort Walla Walla, around which today's city grew, to the U.S. Army post at Fort Colville, 240 airline miles almost due north, and on to the placer mining camps in the Kootenai district of British Columbia.

I found, in my research, a notation that he had been in the Medical Lake area as early as 1859. But it could have been up to 10 or 12 years later, on one of his many freighting trips, when several of his horses strayed while he was camped at Willow Springs, four miles west of today's Medical Lake and town. He found them the next morning grazing near the milelong body of water he later was to name Lac de Medicine. Some time after that he filed a pre-emption claim on a quarter section of land at the east side of the lake. Why he chose that particular piece of ground no one today knows.

In the spring of 1872, Lefevre, with the help of two friends, trailed his horses, cattle and 500 sheep, plus all his worldly goods in an accompanying wagon, to his new homestead. He had been living at Frenchman Flat, which is in the Walla Walla River valley near today's alfalfa seed-growing town of Touchet, 12 miles east of the Columbia River.

The following spring, Joseph Labrie, another of Lefevre's Frenchman Flat neighbors, brought Lefevre his three sons. Their mother, Lefevre's second wife, had died three months before. One of the sons, Peter, many years later gave this account of how his father became convinced the waters of Medical Lake had curative powers bordering on the miraculous:

"On the 1872 move from Frenchman Flat, Lefevre had been suffering from a severe case of rheumatism. Arrived at Medical Lake, he had promptly bathed in it and begun feeling better. Before shearing time the next spring, he had washed his sheep in the lake to clean their wool. Much to his surprise, this treatment apparently cured the sheep of scabies, a contagious skin disease caused by tiny parasitic mites burrowing under the skin."

How many baths in the lake it took, the son didn't say, but he did testify they cured his father's rheumatism. It isn't difficult to suppose that after pondering the remission of his rheumatism, and the equally unexpected disappearance of scabies from his sheep, the elder Lefevre must have exclaimed, "Voila! It had to be lake water that did the curing!"

The foregoing is the scanty historical record, all we have to go on at this late date. Lefevre probably was sincere in his belief that medicinal properties of the lake water cured him and his sheep. We also can assume he must have been an enthusiastic as well as convincing spreader of the good tidings, because a constantly increasing number of health seekers from near and far began coming to test the efficacy of the lake's waters for their ills.

Medical Lake -- the body of water -- is just one of 495 in Spokane County that have a surface area of one acre or more, according to Lakes of Eastern Washington by Ernest E. Wolcott, published in 1964. It is slightly boomerang shaped, lying north to south, just over a mile long and about a quarter of a mile across at its widest point. It has a surface area of 148.9 acres, a maximum depth of 60 feet, and a water volume of 5,060 acre feet. Its mean sea level elevation is 2,390 feet.

Its waters do not support fish life. Fish biologists attribute this to its abundant organic matter content which depletes the oxygen content of its slightly saline water. Other than aquatic insects, the only living creature the lake now supports is, a species of salamander. Bass fishermen, who prize them as live bait, call them water dogs.

An 1890 chemical analysis made by a New York City laboratory showed the water in Medical Lake contained 101.463 grains of chemicals per gallon, listed as follows in old fashioned chemical nomenclature: Sodic chloride (ordinary salt), 16.730; potassic chloride, 9.241; lithic carbonate, traces; sodic carbonate (washing soda), 63.543; magnesia carbonate, .233; ferrous carbonate, .526; calcic carbonate (lime), .186; aluminic oxide, .175; sodic silicate, 10.638; potassic sulphate, traces; sodic diborate, traces; organic matter, .551. Total, 101.463.

Analyses made since then show the same minerals present, but in slightly lesser quantities. That could be due, in part at least, to the fact that at the time there were three companies in the town of Medical Lake evaporating the water in the lake to obtain its minerals to sell in various medicinal forms.

As did other towns in Eastern Washington, Medical Lake grew slowly, and with the exception of the 1893 panic era, steadily. Oldest residents of the town told me Medical Lake's peak years as a spa came at about the century's turn, and lasted to about 1907. Building of the Washington Central Railroad from Spokane to Coulee City between 1888 and 1891 gave the town a big boost.

"To bathe in (Medical Lake) is like getting shampooed," West Shore Magazine of Portland, Oregon, raved in August 1879. "The water raises lather like the finest toilet soap. Scabby sheep are driven thither and are cured by frequent dips in the lake. Men afflicted with rheumatism, and even palsy, try the water and go away healed. The curative properties are said to be marvelous. It will cure almost any disease, except lying and poverty. The [Medical Lake] area is therefore a poor country for doctors. One young physician located there some time ago, but finding no practice, he went to herding sheep ... time will come when it will be a Mecca for the sick and ailing."

Three years later, West Shore Magazine had this to say: "A town has sprung up ... a commodious hotel with bath houses is open to guests, and a factory for preparation of powder from the medicinal waters [has been opened] -- The little town of Medical Lake contains some of the most enterprising men in the upper country, and boasts of its own weekly newspaper."

By 1882, a manufacturing company was organized to recover the lake's minerals, which then were sold in the form of salts, tablets, soap, an ointment, and even a porous plaster. The water was also bottled for export. About one ounce of salts could be obtained from every five gallons of water evaporated.

In 1888, the residents of Medical Lake voted in a town government with a board of trustees in charge. The next year the town was incorporated to comply with the laws of the new state of Washington.

At that time Medical Lake was quite a bustling community. Besides being a health resort, it was the center of a prosperous wheat-growing and livestock area. In 1889, the town's then-leading citizen, a Mr. Hallett, had enough influence in state politics to land for Medical Lake the new Eastern Washington Hospital for the Insane. He is reported to have had the choice of either the hospital or a new normal school, now Eastern Washington College of Education, which was built at nearby Cheney.

Mike Glascow, one of Medical Lake's oldest residents, remembers the town's zenith as a health resort as being between 1900 and 1907. At its peak as a spa, the town boasted six or seven hotels which catered largely to health seekers. One of them, which called itself a sanitarium, had lake water pumped directly to its bathtubs. It also had facilities for treatment with mud from the lake bottom.

Camp Comfort, on the lake shore, was more of a resort than a hotel. It drew large numbers of summer campers who lived in tents. Mr. Glascow remembers that before the days of gasoline engines, Medical Lake boasted several steam launches. The OK Steamer could carry 40 to 50 passengers, and the Iva Joe and Georgia B 15 to 20 each. These were the largest power boats on the lake. And, of course, there were scores of rowboats for hire. They were especially popular on days when large group picnics were held at the lake.

Medical Lake's days as a spa were prolonged by the completion to it in 1905 of an electric interurban line from Spokane by the Washington Water Power Company. On holidays, especially the Fourth of July, as many as 3,000 people from Spokane took advantage of the interurban's low fares for family outings. One Spokane newspaper reporter wrote a news story in 1912 containing this quote:

"Sundays [at Medical Lake] were big days, with hawkers in nautical uniforms cajoling Spokanites to rent their boats, or take soothing, restful rides in a launch."

A difficult question for me, or anyone else, to answer today is, "How much, if any, healing properties did the minerals in Medical Lake water have?" The answer has to be probably not much, for the good reason that if they were as beneficial as their early day boosters claimed, they yet would be on the market and in use. They're still in the lake, even if somewhat reduced from their original strength, but no one bothers to recover them by evaporation, and much less offer them for sale.

Belief in the healing properties of certain natural waters was brought to this country by our ancestors from Europe. But those beliefs go back thousands of years to early civilizations, and most likely as far back as the first men to live on our continent.

In 1900, the Rev. Jonathan Edwards, then pastor of Spokane's Westminster Congregational Church, praised Medical Lake, in his History of Spokane County, Washington, as a "modern pool of Bethesda." He was referring to the story in the fifth chapter of the Gospel of St. John, verses 2-15, in which Jesus miraculously healed a cripple: "Now there is at Jerusalem by the sheep gate a pool in Hebrew called Bethza-tha (Bethesda), which has five porticoes. In these lay a multitude of invalids, blind, lame, paralyzed. One man was there, who had been ill for 38 years ... (Jesus) said to him, "Do you want to be healed?" The sick man answered, "Sir, I have no man to put me in the pool ... and while I am going another steps down before me." Jesus said to him, "Rise, take up your pallet and walk!" and at once the man was healed and he took up his pallet and walked."

The Rev. Edwards's linking of Medical Lake to the Pool of Bethesda can be criticized as being inappropriate because in the cripple's case, it wasn't the waters of the pool that performed the miracle, but Jesus. The scriptural account does prove this: That the people of Jerusalem in Jesus's time believed some waters had healing properties.

Even in the days of our fathers, when the practice of medicine was far from its current standard, people -- especially those who couldn't afford doctors grasped at any straw that might bring them relief from their ills. Then, and long before, almost any water source that was markedly different in taste or odor, or both, was almost automatically considered to have medicinal values. The worse the taste or odor, the more medicinal the water was therefore considered to be.

Undoubtedly there were, and still are, some natural chemicals in water sources here and there that had, and still have, actual medicinal value, but usually in such minute quantities that doctors prefer to prescribe them in more effective forms. Water containing certain alkalis for example, might help neutralize, to a slight extent, excess stomach acid.

Several years ago, the Medical Lake town council received a letter from a doctor in Vienna, Austria, asking about the possibility of obtaining a package of Medical Lake Powdered Extract. He had a case, he explained, which he believed only the Medical Lake salts would cure!


Edward J. Kowrach was a Catholic diocesan priest who retired in 1973 after serving 35 years as pastor of St. Anne's Church and as a chaplain at Lakeland Village, the state institution for the mentally retarded, both at Medical Lake, Washington, located some 15 miles from Spokane. Some of the material in this essay first appeared in his 1963 book, How Silently, a history of St. Anne's and the town of Medical Lake. He also wrote a biography of missionary Charles Pandosy. His account of the health spa at Medical Lake first appeared in The Pacific Northwesterner, Vol. 20, No. 2 (Spring 1979), p. 17-22. It is reprinted here with the kind permission of The Westerners of Spokane.

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