Moses Lake -- Thumbnail History

  • By Jim Kershner
  • Posted 11/04/2007
  • Essay 8349

Moses Lake was not incorporated until 1938, yet for centuries Indians gathered camas roots and waterfowl eggs on its site on the shores of a large, shallow, wildfowl-rich lake near the center of Washington. The lake was named after Chief Moses (1829-1899), head of the local tribe variously called the Kowalchina, the Sinkiuse, or the Columbias. White settlement came late because the land of sagebrush and bunch grass  was too dry for farming. Yet by the 1880s enough settlers had gathered to disrupt tribal hunting grounds. By 1910, settlers formed a small community named Neppel. Growth came slowly until irrigation from the lake was developed. In September 1938, the small community voted to incorporate under the name Moses Lake, pop. 302. In 1942, Moses Lake Army Air Base (later renamed Larson Air Force Base) was established. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the town boomed because of expansion of the air base and the new availability of irrigation water from the Columbia Basin project, enabling vast areas surrounding Moses Lake to be converted to farming. By 1950, the population was 1,679. Interstate 90, completed in 1959, passed the southern end of town and increased the town's prominence. Today (2007) the air base has been converted into a training center for Japan Airlines pilots. Big Bend Community College provides educational opportunities, and with a population exceeding 16,000, Moses Lake is the center of an important agricultural region.

Chief Moses's Lake

According to Indian legend, the place where Moses Lake’s waters now lap originally contained only a creek, but a huge storm blew for months and created a natural sand-dune dam, which blocked the creek and created the vast, winding serpentine lake. Indians of the mid-Columbia tribes had long gathered camas roots and collected the eggs of nesting birds along the shore. Chief Moses was the chief of one of those tribes; he had camped and foraged along the shores of the lake since his boyhood in the 1830s. The settlers came to call the lake Moses Lake in his honor. As for the town, it did not yet exist.

By the 1880s, however, enough white settlers were scattered along the lake shore to disrupt Chief Moses’ band in their annual egg-gathering expeditions. They were forced to search for eggs at more remote lakes. By around 1892, the situation reached a head when the old chief’s people were driven off of their old camas-gathering ground by a monocled British rancher. The rancher even tried to get the sheriff to evict the Indians. The sheriff refused, but as Robert H. Ruby and John A. Brown point out in their book, Half Sun on the Columbia: A Biography of Chief Moses, the days of free access to their traditional grounds were fading. By 1904, according to an  account published 42 years later in the Grant County Journal, Moses declared that “the white man had brought bad spirits to the lake and the Indians would come no more” (Grant County Journal).

Farming and Irrigation

The area was dry and dusty; the agricultural boom that occurred at the turn of the twentieth century in other parts of Central and Eastern Washington mostly bypassed the area around the lake. It wasn’t until 1910 that a village -- a loose collection of houses and farm buildings called Neppel -- was established on the site of present day Moses Lake. The town was named after the German hometown of one of the settlers.

Around 1911, Neppel’s farmers built a dam to keep the lake from breaking through the sand dunes at its outlet. They began pumping irrigation water, which allowed for the planting of thousands of acres of apple orchards where the city of Moses Lake now stands. The people of Neppel were resourceful in creating other industries as well: Pioneer settler Elsie Rudloff recalled that in the 1920s, people harvested carp from the lake and sent them to Jewish markets in New York City. They also rounded up jackrabbits by the thousands.

The orchard industry died out in the early 1930s, hit hard by drought, low prices, and the Great Depression. The little community weathered another disaster in 1937 when a fire threatened to wipe out all of Neppel. The Moses Lake Inn burned down but the wind shifted enough to save the village.

Yet by 1938, prospects were looking up. U.S. Highway 10 was built through town, making it a prominent way-station for cross-state drivers -- or, as a later writer put it, turning it into the little town where a driver “had to check his speed from 70 to 60 while he negotiated the two or three block of the main street.” (Stark).

Becoming Moses Lake

By September 1938 the town was emboldened enough to hold a vote to  incorporate, under the more geographically descriptive name of Moses Lake. The measure passed by a vote of 71 to 41. On September 15, 1938, the town of Moses Lake officially came into existence. Its population was only 302.

But it was on the verge of boom. The first hint of things to come came in early 1940 when rumors circulated that the U.S. Army was interested in buying a huge chunk of land near the lake for use as a desert bombing range. That didn’t happen, but when World War II started, the Army opened the Moses Lake Army Air Base just north of town for training P-38 pilots and later, B-17 Flying Fortress crews. Moses Lake, in the rain shadow of the Cascades, turned out to have ideal flying weather -- clear weather most of the time, high cloud ceilings the rest.

The other element in the boom: potatoes. Farmers in the 1940s had plentiful new irrigation sources from the Columbia River and from the lake itself. They began planting potatoes, which turned out to be perfectly suited to the soil and climate. Some farmers harvested two crops of potatoes in one year, 1940. One farmer said, “If you didn’t make $50,000 that year in Moses Lake, you were a bum” (Stark).

Potatoes remained an important crop but the farmers around Moses Lake soon diversified into corn, onions, carrots. and sugar beets.

Larson Air Force Base

Meanwhile, the Moses Lake Army Air Base was mothballed at the end of World War II, although not entirely abandoned. Then, in 1948, Moses Lake landed the biggest windfall in its history: The installation reopened as a U.S. Air Force base, the headquarters of the 325th All-Weather Fighter Wing, bringing in more than 1,000 military personnel and civilian employees. In 1950 it was renamed Larson Air Force Base, a tribute to the late fighter pilot Major Donald A. Larson (1915-1944) from nearby Yakima, who was killed in a mission over Nazi Germany. One of the tasks of the new base was to patrol the skies over Hanford’s atomic facilities and the Grand Coulee Dam.

The base grew even bigger through the 1950s as it acquired a troop carrier wing and an air transport operation. Because of its proximity to the big Boeing plants on Puget Sound, it also became a Boeing test flight center for B-52 Stratofortress bombers. Boeing built a massive hangar at the base, capable of holding eight B-52s at once. In 1960, it became a Strategic Air Command (SAC) base.

Boom Town

Meanwhile, Moses Lake had turned into a boom town. By 1952, population was estimated at 4,244, up 60 percent in two years. The town grew so rapidly that the business district became “scattered over several streets and chopped into several wide-apart districts,” according to a 1951 story in the Spokane Spokesman-Review.

The schools were struggling to keep up. In 1954, enrollment in the Moses Lake school district had jumped three-fold in five years, 20-fold in 10 years. The crunch was so acute that in 1954 Larson barracks were put to use as classrooms.

By the late 1950s, growth had leveled off. Yet the city continued to thrive, helped by the 1957-1959 construction of Interstate 90 along the southern edge of town, assuring that Moses Lake would remain a stopping point at close to the halfway mark between Seattle and Spokane.

An Evolving Airport

Larson Air Force Base declined in status through the 1960s -- it was known throughout the service as “Moses Hole,” according to Col. Clyde Owen, the base’s last commander. The Boeing Flight Center operations, which had once employed 1,400, closed in 1962. Finally, Larson Air Force Base closed in 1966.

Yet when it closed Col. Owen took over as director of what was now called the Grant County International Airport. He had heard through contacts at Boeing that Japan Air Lines was looking for a new location to train its pilots because of noise complaints at its present training facility in Hawaii. So in 1968, Japan Air Lines signed a deal to use the airport as its main training facility for Boeing 747s. As of 2007, it remained a Japan Air Lines training center. The airport also continues to be used for training flights by both the U.S. Air Force and Boeing.

Big Bend Community College

The state granted Moses Lake a different kind of training facility in 1961: a community college. It was named Big Bend Community College and when its first president was appointed in 1962, it consisted only of 144 acres of sagebrush flats. When the college opened on September 12, 1962, classes were held at Moses Lake High School pending completion of the new buildings. About 300 students were enrolled.

By September 1963, the new facilities were finished and enrollment was around 700. After Larson Air Force Base closed, the college acquired 159 acres of the former base and by 1975 had moved its entire campus there. It now (2007) has an enrollment of just under 2,000.

Today and Yesterday

Moses Lake is also home to the Moses Lake Museum and Art Center, which houses a large collection of tribal and archeological artifacts gathered by local collector Adam East (1871-1956). East spent much of his life exploring ancient sites in the Columbia River Basin. He turned down a number of offers to buy his collection, because he wanted them housed in the region. Through community effort, work began on the museum in 1956, but East died before the museum could be officially dedicated in 1958. It was originally called the Adam East Museum.

When Mt. St. Helens erupted on May 18, 1980, Moses Lake was directly in the path of the ash cloud. Residents reported seeing ominous black, fluffy clouds approaching from the west and then ash started falling like gray rain. The city was covered with several inches of ash. Crops were damaged and roads and businesses were closed for days; it took months to clean up.

Today, Moses Lake remains an agricultural and transportation hub for Central Washington. Its population was 14,953 in the 2000 census, and has since topped 16,000. Reflecting the burgeoning Hispanic population in the Columbia Basin and elsewhere in Washington, Moses Lake's population is about 26 percent Latino.

Sources: History of the Big Bend Country ([Spokane]: Western Historical Publishing Co., 1904); Robert H. Ruby and John A. Brown, Half Sun on the Columbia: A Biography of Chief Moses (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1965); "Clyde Owen," oral history, Center for Columbia River History website accessed October 26, 2007 (;  “Larson Air Force Base,” Grant County International Airport website accessed October 26, 2007 (; “History of the Moses Lake Area,” City of Moses Lake website accessed October 26, 2007 (; Ray Mitchell, “Neppel Old-Timers Recall Moses Lake’s Early Days,” Spokane Spokesman-Review, September 24, 1963; “Indian Background of Moses Lake,” Grant County Journal, September 6. 1946; Charles Stark Jr., “Moses Lake Spuds, Gold Mine,” Spokane Spokesman-Review, August 5, 1945; Charles R. Stark Jr., “Moses Lake Fights Back,” Spokane Spokesman-Review, June 20, 1965; “Moses Lake Museum to Be Dedicated,” Spokesman-Review, May 1, 1958; “Moses Lake Is Scattered, Booming Basin Community,” Spokane Spokesman-Review, February 20, 1951; Greg Johnston, "Central Washington's Wide-Open Country Is a Land of Surprising Detail," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 21, 2005 (; Donna B. Johnson and Lynne T. Smith,. "Testing the Recommendations of the Washington State Nutrition and Physical Activity Plan: The Moses Lake Case Study," Prieventing Chronic Disease Vol. 3, No. 2 (April 2006), (

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