In 2006 the Chelan-Douglas Land Trust purchased the Horse Lake Reserve, intending to forever protect the land from development. Visiting the Reserve you can clearly see that the land now belongs to hikers, bikers, and the shrub steppe flora and fauna. And yet, a motley assortment of farm structures sprinkled across the property speaks to the fact that Horse Lake has already felt the touch of human development in the not-so-distant past. In fact, brothers Lee and Everett Burts—who sold one of the Horse Lake parcels to CDLT—grew up on one of the ranches and continued growing dryland wheat there until 2001.

Everett Burts just published a brief spiral-bound history of the Horse Lake area with stories from his own experiences on the Burts ranch and history from the Barnhill ranch (another of the original Horse Lake homesteads that CDLT now owns). Burts also writes about the pre-European human history of Horse Lake, the local geology, and sagebrush ecology. Before any of this, however, he answers one of the most burning questions that plagues Foothills hikers: 

“Horse Lake? Is there a Horse Lake? Where is Horse Lake? I am often asked these and similar questions when I mention that I grew up in the Horse Lake area. Yes Mary, there is a Horse Lake. That is the official name for a depression in the earth’s surface about three miles west of Wenatchee and about two and one half miles south of Monitor, on property now owned by Chelan-Douglas Land Trust. Historically, that depression held a pond about two to three acres in size. Its water collected in the depression during seasonal run-off from surrounding hills and also arose from a spring in the middle of the depression. During recent years the lake has remained dry, probably due to the current period of low annual precipitation in the area. I last saw water in Horse Lake during spring and early summer of 1984. 

The area that used to be Horse Lake hasn’t been filled with water for nearly 30 years.

How Horse Lake acquired its name remains a mystery to me. It must have been named early in the history of the Wenatchee area because that name appears in other accounts of pioneers in this area. The road leading to the ranches in the area, Horse Lake Road, was built and named during the early 1900’s. Perhaps surveyors who originally marked out township and section lines in the area came upon the lake and saw horses grazing or drinking from it. Who owned these horses, the Wenatchi Tribe? Were they a band of feral, “wild” horses? Did the early European settlers graze their horses in the area? Some day I may find answers to these questions…”

The early human and natural history is interesting, but Burts’ coverage of the rapid changes in land use and technology at Horse Lake in the past century is what makes this book fascinating. As I watch Lycra-swaddled bikers pedal their $4000 carbon fiber ponies or ride their Subarus up to the ranch its hard to believe that a mere 100 years ago ranchers had to walk or ride buggies to the top. Even into the 1930s Everett Burts rode a horse-drawn bobsled to the schoolbus stop in winter. Fortunately for bikers and drivers Horse Lake Road was rebuilt in the past few decades, but the original road was so steep it took six horses to pull a two-horse wagon to the top.

Living on the Horse Lake ranches would be much different now than it was for Everett in the 1930s-40s. We would probably use Horse Lake as a vacation escape, not a working ranch, and we’d no longer bathe in a washtub or use springs to keep our milk cool. We wouldn’t use catalogs on our bums in the outhouse, and we’d have electricity, which didn’t make it into Horse Lake homes until 1948, even though the line from Rock Island Dam to Stevens Pass hummed over their property and by their yards for sixteen years prior to hook-up.

The electrical line between Rock Island dam and Stevens Pass was built in 1932, but it was too expensive to install transformers for household power. The Burt ranch received electricity in 1948 when the Chelan County PUD ran a distribution line up to Horse Lake.

I’ve looked at the Horse Lake Reserve barns and at other artifacts I’ve found during hikes and tried to imagine their history. This makes fodder for some pleasant daydreams, but hearing the real story behind the objects is always better. In Everett’s book I learned many interesting details about Horse Lake that I wouldn’t have found in my daydreams. For instance, I learned that the Horse Lake area was once a hotspot for hapless prospectors, and that it’s still a popular place for folks with Gold Fever. I learned that part of the Burts’ property used to be owned by a Denverite who “in earnest or just for the hell of it” drilled a 250-foot well in search of petroleum. I also learned that in 1947, timber from the Horse Lake pine forest was used to make crates for shipping Wenatchee fruit. I learned that the Great Depression squeezed most of the farmers off of Horse Lake during the 1930s and 1940s, but that a few hung on to eek out a living for several more decades.

The Barnhill home was destroyed after CDLT purchased the ranch from the Wallace family. Hard to believe from the cheerful exterior, but the home was long-rumored to be haunted.

The land use has changed dramatically at the Horse Lake Reserve in one quick century. It’s seen prospectors, trappers, fishermen, loggers, miners, successful ranchers, and farmers at the end of their string. For a brief window the land was viewed as a source of material human wealth and a place to work hard, but CDLT’s acquisition shows that we now view Horse Lake instead as a spiritual refuge — a beautiful place to nourish body and soul through the gateways of outdoor exercise, outdoor recreation, or outdoor relaxation. On paper Horse Lake will be protected in perpetuity, but a ban on commercial and residential development doesn’t mean that Horse Lake will remain frozen as it is forever. Now, the foothills are contintually developed by wild fires, invasive plants, grazing mule deer, and droughts. Who can say how an evolving world will shape the Horse Lake landscape in the future?

For a closing perspective on the Horse Lake Reserve I’ll leave you with Everett Burts’ epilogue:

“As I think back about the research conducted in preparation for writing this paper, my own memories of the Horse Lake area, and what I have written, a few things come to mind. The first of these is that all human activities in the area were of short duration when measured in respect to human history and only a blink of an eye in relation to geologic time. Collecting wild animal pelts, extracting minerals from the soil and harvesting timber all left footprints on the land but only for a very brief period. Even agricultural activities endured for but a relatively short period, with only the Barnhill operation lasting three generations and my family’s efforts about two generations. Preserving this land for recreation and as a reserve for wildlife may prove to be its only sustainable use.

Like Humpty Dumpty, the land can never be returned to its original condition before people of European origin settled there, but with good care over time, it will regain most of its original character and function. The evidence of human activities that remain will add to its value for and interest to future generations.

The second thing that comes to mind is all the evidence that remains of hard work that went into trying to make a living on the land. Clearing land to plant crops or building roads with hand tools and horse drawn equipment was backbreaking work and very discouraging at times. The many rock piles scattered over the property are evidence of more hard hand labor. Few people alive today would attempt these things under circumstances that existed when they were accomplished. The abandoned home sites attest to the heartaches people endured as they were forced to move away leaving their dreams behind along with all that their hard work and sacrifices had accomplished.

Finally, I think of the Reserve as part of an experiment to determine if wild lands can be owned, managed, and preserved by a local organization funded by private donors…The outcome of this experiment could have a profound influence on the fate of other privately owned and government owned wild lands…”


The entire History of the Horse Lake Area can be purchased at the Wenatchee Valley Museum & Cultural Center for $6.95 or picked up from the Chelan-Douglas Land Trust for a similar fee.

This post was originally published on 5/14/13.

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