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.
Then there’s Raymond Gravelle. The former North Bend resident discovered Soap Lake on a motorcycle trip, fell in love, moved there, got involved in the town’s civic life—and then ran for mayor. He won on a promise of renewal—a promise that resonated with the town’s beleaguered residents.
Gravelle likes to tell how, soon after he was elected in 2011, a couple of retired friends drove their RV from Missouri for a visit. “I gave them the mayor’s tour,” he says.
A couple years later, when they paid a return visit to the town, the couple was initially confused. The town’s Main Street was unrecognizable. Gone was the drab street that pedestrians avoided and along which cars had drag raced. In its place was a xeriscaped street with wide sidewalks that invited pedestrians to explore the small businesses that lined its length. And instead of a straight and narrow speedway, the redesigned Main Street calmed traffic with bump outs and a center island sporting a flagpole and new plants.
“‘Did we miss a turn?’” Gravelle remembers the couple asking. “They thought they were in the wrong town!”
For Gravelle, that story embodies the pride of accomplishment he shares with his community as they completely renovated their town’s Main Street. Like many rural communities in eastern Washington and elsewhere, residents are fighting to remain viable and relevant as economic sands shift beneath their streets.
Soap Lake is no stranger to economic hard times. In the early twentieth century, the lake was already famous for its healing waters. One story has it that a buckaroo died out on the range and was buried on the shore by his friends. A few days later, he rode back into camp, thanking his friends for burying him where they did: the healing waters had seeped in and revived him.
In 1905, a sanitarium and hotel was built. Nationally advertised, the Siloam (named after the pool where Jesus restored the sight of a blind man) thrived for 15 years. Then, according to local historian Bennye Rushton, it went up in a blaze accidently started by the owner.
More hotels sprang up, dance bands were imported from Spokane, and life was good. But popularity is fickle, and health fads come and go—and Soap Lake has been on a long, slow decline for decades. In the 1970s, the population was around 1,750, and Roxie Thorson had a 20-room hotel with seven bungalows—“but no one to rent them to,” according to a 1973 New York Times article.
More recently, local artist and architect Brent Blake thought a giant 60-foot-tall lava lamp would enlighten people about the wonders of Soap Lake. The lava lamp idea has lain dormant since the mid-2000s, though it’s never died. Gravelle and others think the lava lamp could still happen.
But first things first: downtown sidewalks hadn’t been redone since the 1950s, and shuttered businesses on Main Street gave passing tourists little reason to stay over.
“We needed help,” Gravelle says. It was proving difficult to get townspeople to agree on a path forward for the town’s infrastructure renewal.
A Rural Communities Design Initiative team brought their design and negotiation skills to bear on the challenges facing Soap Lake. Codirected by WSU interior design faculty members Bob Krikac and Kathleen Ryan, RCDI’s student-led teams have for years helped rural communities conceptualize the possible, find the common threads among competing interests in order to make and act on decisions, and assist preservation and revitalization organizations win grants to fund the work.
“I went to a small community development workshop at an Association of Washington Cities conference and there was Kathleen talking about RCDI,” says Gravelle. “And as soon as it was over, I made a beeline for Kathleen and said, ‘We’ve got to talk!’”
It was actually Krikac who made the first trip to Soap Lake and, in a community meeting, described RCDI and what it could potentially do for Soap Lake. “The main thing we do is facilitate conversations so communities can sort through their ideas. We help them imagine possibilities, help them make plans—and then turn it back over to the community for them to make it happen,” he says.
It takes a lot of moxie to make change happen. Money has to be raised—Trudy Black helped raise $2.4 million for the downtown revitalization—which means plans have to be made, which means the community has to come together and actually agree on the way forward. RCDI students helped with both planning and consensus building.
“One of the critiques of this type of service learning is that it stifles creative juices,” says Lucas Vannice ’14 of his RCDI experience.
He disagrees: “The sky is not the limit, the guy in the back constantly complaining is the limit. The flipside is that you’re working with real people. They have a budget, and they’re worried about it. Maybe all they have is a small grant or community funds. So a lot of this is negotiating with the clients—and that’s creative thinking in its own way. And when you get out in the real world—well, is the sky ever the limit?”
The RCDI team helped Soap Lake residents work through several disagreements. One of the techniques they use is visualization. Talented design students sketch residents’ ideas on the fly. That’s one of the best ways to get past competing agendas, Vannice says. “We put images to the ideas and budgets to the drawings.”
“It’s just amazing, the level of detail that had to be attended to,” says Black. “They walked us through the options. And when one idea got thrown out, they were back with two more. They had our backs.”
Renewal of a rural community, like physical or emotional healing, is an ongoing process. Soap Lake continues the process, working with RCDI to develop plans for connecting the beach parks with a system of trails. With clearly articulated plans comes funding to implement them. Gravelle is optimistic about the future. “Our engineer says, ‘I’ve never seen a town with so many plans!’”