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 Sunday, 5 January, 2003, 16:44 GMT
Ghost town plans return to life
Main street,  Soap Lake
Tourists have deserted the town's once famous mineral spas

The little town of Soap Lake, in central Washington State, is well on its way to becoming a ghost town.

Even on a weekday, the main street is almost deserted. It is easy to imagine that classic tumbleweed somersaulting across the road. It certainly would not need to look both ways.
There were times when you couldn't even find a place to sit on the beach, there were so many people

Resident Kathy Kiefer

Two restaurants are up for sale. And the dusty antique shops trade only on the internet - it is not worth their while opening for so few visitors.

Tourists do visit central Washington, attracted by the sunny weather and the spectacular volcanic scenery of basalt cliffs and brilliant blue lakes.

But they drive right by Soap Lake. There is little reason to stop.

Proud past

It was not always so. A hundred years ago, Soap Lake was a prosperous health spa.

The healing qualities of the waters at Soap Lake, leached from the ancient lava flows, attracted thousands of people. Hotels, apartment blocks, and massage parlours sprang up all round town.

Soap Lake from the shore
Soap Lake's healing waters once attracted crowds

Resident Kathy Kiefer has been researching the town's history.

"There were times when you couldn't even find a place to sit on the beach, there were so many people, " she says.

"The hotels were packed, so packed that if you didn't have a reservation there was no chance of finding a room. There's even one woman who tells the story of a man who slept under his car."

No longer. People now turn to antibiotics rather than the healing waters of Soap Lake. With little industry and no railway line, Soap Lake began to decay.

But the 1,700 inhabitants are refusing to let the town die, so they have come up with an ingenious, if somewhat bizarre, idea to attract the tourists - hundreds of gallons of coloured gloop.

They want to build the world's largest lava lamp - 18 metres tall - slap-bang in the middle of town. Yes, a giant version of those lamps filled with a thick liquid and moving bubbles in bright, contrasting colours.

Glowing cylinder

The idea came from designer Brent Blake: "The more I thought about it, the more I thought it's an incredibly interesting kinetic piece of sculpture, " he said.

"It's moving, and flowing and glowing and has character that a static object wouldn't have.

"If you were driving up the highway, and knew nothing about this, and you saw this glowing cylinder of goo, you couldn't drive by, you'd have to pull over and park and go take a look at this."

Insanity, or inspiration? Brent Blake insists that, considering the town's history and geology, it does make sense.

Lava lamps are, after all, very relaxing and soothing, he says, which matches Soap Lake's reputation as a health resort.

And the ancient lava landscapes stretch out as far as the eye can see.

A closed-up shop in Soap Lake
Business has borne the brunt of decline
Indeed, the idea might not be as crazy as it sounds. The United States already boasts the world's largest milk bottle, egg, ball of twine, frying pan and bottle of tomato ketchup, to name but a few. People drive out of their way to see them.

Brent Blake has been out winning hearts and minds. In the cosy Del Red bar, which would have a grandstand view of the giant lava lamp, opinions were generally favourable.

"Yes it's a bit bizarre, but we need that around here. We have the bizarre people, might as well have the bizarre lava lamp, " said one customer.

And from another: "I would definitely come to see it. We have no business in this town, there are only two or three left. This might give it a boost."

All agree that a giant lava lamp will not, by itself, bring tourist money to Soap Lake.

There has to be something extra to tempt them to park, have lunch, or stay the night.

Brent Blake's eyes light up with enthusiasm as he describes his vision of Soap Lake, 10 years from now:

"There will be dancers dancing round the lava lamp in the middle of the plaza, and all the various crafts, pottery and painting and street performers.

"There will be galleries, and new motels, hotels and restaurants. And people will come from everywhere to visit this unique and special community."

He and the other residents of Soap Lake hope they have found the formula to save this little town and its sparkling blue waters, for another 100 years.

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