Two municipalities in Washington share nearly identical historical and legendary parallels that touch at several tangents.
Medical Lake and Soap Lake are both named for the respective eponymous bodies of water around which they once thrived. The water and mud in both lakes have long been reported to possess curative properties. And debate continues to swirl around the question of whether those healing powers are actual or apocryphal.
The town of about 5,000 residents, incorporated in 1890, is located 15 miles southwest of Spokane. Local Native American tribes believed the waters, mud and salts from the lake could heal their sick, and according to one historian, the tribes called the lake Skookum Limechin Chuch, or “strong medicine water,” and “congregated in great numbers around its shores, bringing the afflicted from all directions.”
Another researcher found that the 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.” For those too ill to make the trek to the lake, tribe members would make a powder from the salt and take it back for personal ministration.
The first white settlers, Andrew Lefevre and Stanley Hallett, arrived in the 1870s and began to market the salts for medicinal purposes. Lefevre claimed that by bathing in the lake, he was “almost completely cured” of rheumatism.
Hallett, a British entrepreneur, developed a salt and soap industry, and during the next decade, several commercial bathhouses were established. Resort hotels soon followed along the lakeshore, and in 1891, the state constructed Eastern State Hospital, bestowing further economic boom to the town.
Medical Lake continued to grow until the 1920s when the lake declined in popularity among increasingly skeptical tourists. Over the decades, the mineral deposits had been depleted and lakeside development caused unsightly algae blooms. Further, the introduction of the automobile made other recreation spots more accessible.
The town stagnated until the 1940s when the federal government established Fairchild Air Force Base to support the military during World War II. The hospital and military base constituted the mainstay of the Medical Lake’s economy, and the town began restoring the lake’s health with a new sewer system in 1964. The lake again supports fishing and bathing and continues as a steady attraction for summertime recreation.
Soap Lake is a third-class city situated between Seattle and Spokane. Its lake is internationally renowned for the unique composition of minerals in its waters and mud. In fact, scientific studies have shown Soap Lake to have the most diverse mineral content of any body of water on the planet.
The lake’s benefits are accessed through two methods: mud baths and soaking. The mud bath suggestion is to apply mud over one’s body and lie in the sun to dry, allowing the mud to extract moisture, oils and toxins through the skin. Soaking in the water reportedly opens capillaries and increases circulation.
The waters are very alkaline, with a pH of 10.0, with the highest mineral concentrate consisting of sulfate, carbonate, bicarbonate, sodium and chloride. The lake’s depths are divided into two strata of water and mud that have never mixed in its history.
Native Americans were the first to benefit from the lake, which they called Smokiam, or “healing waters,” and Let-to-to-weints, or “healing water springs.”
Soap Lake boasts a current population of about 1,700 residents, down from its peak of 2,580 in 1955. The trajectory of popularity of Soap Lake approximates that of Medical Lake, for many of the same reasons. During the first half of the 20th century, a number of sanitariums operated on the lake’s shores. During the Great Depression, when the Grand Coulee Dam was completed, the town, located in a desert climate, burgeoned from the resulting irrigation canals. After several decades, however, those same canals diluted the mineral properties of the lake and the tourist trade dwindled.
Soap Lake is currently attempting to revive tourism by again highlighting the curative properties of the lake, along with its natural and relaxing beauty, promoting paddle boating, kayaking and lounging on the beach. No motorized watercraft are allowed on the lake.