Main Street, USA

Locals credit Washington State University's Rural Communities Design Initiative for assisting their town of 1,500 in the eastern Washington scablands with improvement efforts.



November 3rd, 2016

By: Brian Charles Clark
Washington State Magazine

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Photo: Soap Lake School District
An early view of Soap Lakes' Main Street


Standing on the beach at Smokiam Park, I dip my hand in the lake. The water is soft, slippery, almost squishy feeling. It's full of sodium carbonate--washing soda. It's a tiny lake, and on its southern beach is Soap Lake, a town experiencing a little renaissance.

Locals credit Washington State University's Rural Communities Design Initiative for assisting their town of 1,500 in the eastern Washington scablands with improvement efforts. Soap Lake declined from fame and modest prosperity to a near ghost town but has recently rediscovered its pulse.

"Smokiam" is a Tsincayuse word that means "healing waters," so maybe the sense of renewal in Soap Lake is not so surprising. This is a quirky place, a weird mashup of the human desire for health and harmony and Mother Nature's power to cataclysmically shape the landscape.

More than 10,000 years ago, flood waters repeatedly burst through the Glacial Lake Missoula ice dam over the course of 2,000 years. With a flow rate 60 times that of the Amazon, water cut like a mad sculptor across eastern Washington.

One of the sculptural results is the Grand Coulee, carved out of repeated floods and stretching 60 miles from the eponymous dam in the north to Soap Lake in the south. As water moves through the Coulee, it picks up minerals and salts and then just stops here, leaving a shallow layer of mineral wealth at the bottom of this meromitic lake.

This nature's soup of mineral-rich waters has for thousands of years made the lake a destination for aching souls seeking a healing bath. And while the claims for its medicinal powers are many, and the evidence is scarce, the town that sprang up around the lake has a magnetic attraction that brings people from all over the world to bake like lizards in the sun after caking their joints in sulfury black mud.

Among those who immigrated to Soap Lake is Trudy Black who, along with her family, has been coming up to Soap Lake from Moses Lake for decades. The waters, she makes clear to me, really do help cure what ails one. The former health care professional now works with townspeople to improve infrastructure and parks.

Andy and Nell Kovach, part-time residents from the Seattle-Tacoma area, are eager to help make Soap Lake more attractive. They bring serious skills to the town, as Andy's an architect, and Nell helps him run his practice.