Soda Lakes We Visited: 8/24/2001
39 31' 31"N, 118 52' 32"W - SODA LAKE WEST quad

Directions: 4.8 miles east on Highway 50 to Soda Lake Road; 2.3 miles north on Soda Lake Road; 0.9 miles west on Cox Road; 0.8 miles NW on local dirt road

From Fallon: 8.8 miles

4WD or high clearance desired

What Was

We include Soda Lakes in our list because it is the site of the first recorded mineral discoveries in Churchill County. by Asa Kenyon in 1855. Kenyon was one of the first settlers in the county, and established a trading post at Ragtown in 1854.

The Soda Lake and Little Soda Lake are actually "maars" and the USGS describes them thusly:

Also called "tuff cones", maars are shallow, flat-floored craters that scientists interpret have formed above diatremes as a result of a violent expansion of magmatic gas or steam; deep erosion of a maar presumably would expose a diatreme. Maars range in size from 200 to 6,500 feet across and from 30 to 650 feet deep, and most are commonly filled with water to form natural lakes. Most maars have low rims composed of a mixture of loose fragments of volcanic rocks and rocks torn from the walls of the diatreme.

Early emigrants, after crossing the nearby Forty Mile Desert, were rewarded with some small springs along the shoreline of the lake. Asa Kenyon settled here in the early 1850's, claiming Little Soda Lake and selling it in 1868. The U.S.G.S. did a survey in 1885, noting that the depth at that time was 147 feet.

The soda deposits are described in the April 1882 issue of Manufacturer and Builder:

In Nevada cystallized soda can be dug up as ice from a pond. Near Ragtown there is an inexhaustible supply of pure soda extending down to an unknown depth. On the surface of the ground are two or three feet of sand, but below this lies the soda, looking like a solid mass of ice. It was this soda that gave rise in the early days- when the emigrants were crossing the plains- to the stories that there was to be found, under a few inches of sand, a solid mass of ice. The soda as dug up from the plains in sheets from 2 to 3 inches in thickness, really does look more like ice that does any other mineral formation.

Soda (as in baking soda and bicarbonate of soda) began to be "mined" at Soda Lake in the late 1860's. When it was cold it was allowed to precipitate out in the large evaporating ponds; when the weather was hot it was pumped from the lake into vats and the water allowed to evaporate in the heat. It was then heated in two steps in a furnace to get rid of impurities, like the many brine shrimp.

After Lahontan Dam was built, the water table rose and with it, Soda Lake, covering the soda works. Oops. They tried to pump the water out of the lake to a depression a couple of miles distant, but that effort was soon abandoned. The Lake is now about 50 feet deeper than it was originally. The complete story of Soda Lakes can be read in a short pamphlet written by Sharon Lee Taylor entitled Soda Lakes: Nevada's Underwater Mystery in the Desert, and available for free at the Churchill County Museum.

Churchill County's "oil boom" began here. From the Nevada Division of Water Planning:

A water well on the Douglass Ranch near Soda Lakes in the Lahontan Valley revealed traces of oil and caused a brief flurry of excitement throughout the area. Old timers had insisted that "oil springs" had been found around the shoreline of Big Soda Lake as far back as 1865; however, with the arrival of the Truckee-Carson Irrigation Project in 1903 rising lake waters had submerged the springs and blocked their flow. Even so, oil exploration in the Lahontan Valley persisted, particularly during the years of World War I. While oil never proved to be a boon to the county, during such drilling operations continual problems were encountered with hot artesian water that made drilling difficult and oftentimes dangerous, and frequently forced the abandonment of wells altogether.

Roy Cox Williams recollects in his book:

It was quite a thing, all right, and there's a fresh water spring on the west side of the big lake and I guess it was good drinking water, 'cause I heard my father tell of wagons that came across the plains, why they came over there for water. I might add that my mother's people, when they came across the plains, they got enough soda from there, Soda Lake, to last them for a year after they got to California. Then there was a spring on the south side of the lake that I heard my father tell about, when they came across the plains, he said there was a man and a woman lived there. It was good water, 'course the lake now is clear up over the top of the spring. I don't know how far down it was or anything about it, but it was good drinking water, and the lake now - you can't believe it, but it was quite a place for people to go for picnics on holidays or something like that. We've got pictures of our father and our families there, then I was reading an article cut out of the paper, that Hazel cut out of the paper and it was telling in the early days that Soda Lake was quite a place to go on picnics and so forth, and it's just hard to believe now that it was like that. There was trees down in there, too, I guess, growing along the edge way down there.

Post Office: None

Newspaper: None

What is

This area is now better known for its geothermal power plants than the mining of soda- two nearby power plants run by OESI produce over 16 megawatts of power. I'm told there are those who scuba dive down to the remnants of the old soda works. The Coast Guard also maintains a LORAN (long-range aid to navigation) station nearby. Plenty of brine flies, if you're into that sort of thing. The roads in the area are sometimes a bit sandy, hence the 4WD suggestion. Otherwise, use your head and get by with your Mom's Buick.

The soda works in 1880- now under water.
(Photo courtesy Churchill County Museum)
The soda works in 1869
(Photo courtesy Churchill County Museum)
The I.F. (Ick Factor) of Soda Lake is incredibly high these days.
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