“Once a body gets down 200 feet or so, it will just stay there,” said Bob Peck, describing the potential fate of careless boaters on Rock Lake. “I hear they stay in a pretty good condition too, until someone pulls them up - then they just fall apart,” said the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife fisheries biologist. Lying up against sheer, black basalt cliffs, Rock Lake is perhaps Whitman County’s most mysterious natural feature, not to mention a pretty darned good fishing lake. Since white settlers first came to the area, the lake has been a part to weird tales, tragic deaths, unrecovered bodies and big fish stories.
The natural impoundment of Rock Creek has limited access and no development other than the few landowners who ring its banks. But this wasn’t always the case. About 1903, Willis Anson Evans moved to the Rock Lake area. He knew the Milwaukee railroad would soon be building a line the entire length of the lake from Malden to Ewan.
Evans bought land near the lake’s outlet and by 1905 had built a store, dance hall and a two-story hotel known as the Cliff House.
According to the Summer 1975 issue of the Bunchgrass Historian, water in Rock Lake was still pure enough to drink in 1905. A five-gallon bucket was lowered on a cable from the Cliff House to the lake to retrieve the hotel’s water supply.
Evans soon imported a gasoline-powered launch, built a 25-passenger steamboat and began a Sunday excursion business. He also rented row boats and provided horse-drawn vehicle parking and picnic areas on his property.
Today, Rock Lake is all but forgotten. Forgotten that is by everyone except dedicated anglers.
The state routinely stocks German brown trout and rainbows in the lake. Browns up to 7 pounds have been taken. Serious anglers say the next Washington state record lives in Rock Lake.
The lake is also home to largemouth bass, perch and crappie. “Last fall we planted 7,000 brown trout fingerlings in Rock Lake,” said Madonna Luers, Fish and Wildlife Department regional spokeswoman in Spokane.
Last year, more than 30,000 rainbow trout fingerlings were planted in addition to 8,500 catchable yearlings. But this year says Luers, Rock Lake should receive 20,000 rainbows weighing 5 to the pound and 18,000 weighing two to four fish per pound. The fish should be in the water by the end this month.
Last year’s fish have wintered well, given the open water and mild temperatures. Holdovers are currently being caught near the lake’s outlet by a variety of traditional methods.
Anglers will most often cruise some 40 to 100 feet off the shoreline casting toward the bank for browns or trolling deep for rainbows. As the weather warms more, expect the spiny rays come to life. Usually runoff will darken the water early each spring and summer. But when the silt settles in late July, August, and September, fishing is probably at its best for the fall-spawning browns.
Indian and urban legend says the lake is also home to a monster. Like many such tales, it’s easy to dismiss. But local landowners insist there is something very large living in the lake. With no commercial development to benefit in the area, there seems to be no good reason for the rumors to persist unless they’re true.
“My sis owns property on one of the lake’s points,” said a local landowner and hobby historian of the area who requested not to be identified. “One evening, she was rounding the point into a bay when she saw something huge on top of the water suddenly splash and go under. I asked her how big it was. ‘It was as big as a tree and stretched further across than my living room,’ she said. I think it was a sturgeon myself.”
A number of serious Inland Northwest anglers claim to have recorded very large moving objects down deep on their electronic gear while fishing the lake. They also claim to have found deep holes in the lake, some up to 400 feet deep.
With abandoned railroad tracks running its length, Rock Lake holds other secrets, too. Supposedly there was a train wreck that dumped a load of new cars in the lake. Model T’s, to be exact.
The anonymous landowner says he has had a number of inquiries about the incident and a few years ago a team of Puget Sound salvage divers came over to look. The divers were hampered by poor diving conditions but they did bring up some brake lines and other parts.
The story goes that the cars are wrapped and well preserved thanks to the cold, deep lake. They remain quite tight-lipped about what they found.
Another train wreck in the 1940s dumped a load of lumber and shingles into the lake. Rumors suggest that a load of new military staff cars also took the plunge off a flat car during World War II.
The self-described historian says that story is “a bunch of malarkey.”
Today the abandoned line is part of the John Wayne Trail. Access is by permit-only and administered through the Washington Department of Natural Resources office in Ellensburg.
Rock Lake has taken its share of bodies.
On March 19, 1956, four local men home on leave from the Army were on the lake in two boats. A deadly March wind came up and caught the party unprepared. No bodies were recovered despite military searches and an ominous screen of hog-wire stretched across the lake’s outlet.
A red granite headstone rests at the Pine Creek cemetery in memory of the tragic event.
On another occasion, brothers, both priests, failed to return after boating on the lake. A search found the overturned boat with one of the bodies entangled in ropes still tied to it. Searchers also found a place on the shore where one of the brothers had tried to crawl out, but apparently slipped back into the icy waters. His body was never recovered.
Rock Lake is dangerous. It is nine miles long and a mile or so wide in places. Surrounded by the Palouse, the lake is highly susceptible to the region’s notable winds.
“If you want to fish Rock Lake,” said Peck, “bring a good-sized boat, cruise slowly, and avoid the points under power.”
Pinnacles of basalt are randomly located inches under the surface waiting to rip the guts out of a boat, or the lower unit off an outboard.
Spots one could land a boat in an emergency are scarce among the steep cliffs along the shores. And Rock Lake’s banks are lousy with rattlesnakes in the spring and summer.
To get to Rock Lake, take Highway 195 south from Spokane to Steptoe. Turn west onto State Highway 23 to Ewan, then turn north again. The lake’s only graveled boat ramp is just past Ewan.
MEMO: Hikers, equestrians or mountain bikers interested in traveling the abandoned railway now known as the John Wayne Trail near Rock Lake should call the Washington Department of Natural Resources in Ellensburg, (509) 925-6131 for permit application forms and details.
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