Salton Sea - Ghost Town Lake in the Desert
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Situated in the
California is the Salton Sea,
the largest lake in the state. The Salton Basin has held
various waters over the last three million years as the
changed its course and spilled over, filling up the basin with fresh water
lakes that would eventually evaporate. Then, the process would start all
One of these long ago
lakes in known history was Lake Cahuilla which formed around 700 A.D. and
was utilized extensively by the Cahuilla and the Kumeyaay Indians for
fresh water fishing, bird hunting, and marsh plants. The ancient lake
continued to occupy the basin off and on until about three centuries ago.
By the time European explorers came to the area in the 16th
century, the Salton Basin was completely dry, though just a half a
century before it had been some 26 times larger than the size of the
current Salton Sea.
Over the decades, the lake continued to rise and fall until the last
large infilling occurred in the early 1700s. However, by the time Don
Juan Bautista de Anza led the first large European party through what
is now known as the Imperial Valley, the Salton Basin was a
salt-encrusted mud flat. In the 1800’s the
Colorado River flooded the basin several times creating a number of
lakes that came and went.
As early as 1815, salt mining began in the area and when the railroad
came through the basin, large scale salt mining started in 1884, and
the dry lakebed began to be referred to as Salton Sink or the Salton
In the late 19th century the California
and its ambitious president, Charles R. Rockwood, determined to make
the Imperial Valley into an agricultural oasis in the desert. A series
of canals were constructed in 1900 to allow for irrigation and for a
few years the river flowed peacefully, regulated by a wooden head
gate, and watering the fields of fruits and vegetables. However, the
flowing waters contained large amounts of silt, which soon blocked the
head gate. To correct this problem, the California
then cut a new channel a few miles south of the Mexican border.
Unregulated by U.S. authorities, the new channel crossed an unstable
river delta and when the Colorado River waters began to peak from
heavy rainfalls and snowmelt in the summer of 1905, the dike broke and
the Salton Basin began to fill at an alarming rate.
For two years, the
Colorado River flooded the Salton Sink, destroying the town of Salton
and the Southern Pacific Railroad siding. The railroad, having
substantial business interests in the region, spent some three million
dollars to stop the river's flow into the Salton Sink, finally
succeeding in 1907. However, a "new” lake body had been created, which
was called the Salton Sea.
The large sea, surrounded
by desert terrain, was a natural site for fishermen, but without an
outlet, the sea became more and more saline as fresh water was pumped out
of the lake for irrigation and when the water returned through run-off it
included dissolved salts from the soil, pesticides and fertilizer residue.
As the saline levels increased, the fresh water fish died and over the
years, officials began to experiment with bringing in various species of
salt water fish, including salmon, halibut, bonefish, clams, oysters, and
more. Unfortunately, these fish also died due to the high saline level.
However, in the early
1950s, certain species survived including gulf croaker, sargo, orange
corvine and tilapia. As the fish began to thrive, it fueled a recreation
boom in the 1950s and the inland desert sea became an inviting
sport-fishing and vacation destination. In no time, its coastline
developed numerous resorts and marinas catering to water skiers, boaters,
and fishermen. Billed as "Palm Springs-by-the-Sea,” restaurants, shops,
and nightclubs also sprang up along the shores. The lake enjoyed immense
popularity, especially among the rich and famous as movie stars and
recording artists flocked to the area. From Dean Martin, to Jerry Lewis,
Frank Sinatra, and the Beach Boys, the lake became a speedboat playground.
Salton Sea’s bright lights would quickly fade in the 1970s when
the sea’s water level began rising from several years of heavy rains and
increasing agricultural drainage. Shorefront homes, businesses, resorts,
and marinas flooded several times until the water stabilized in 1980 after
a series of conservation measures to reduce field run-off. However, for
the many resort areas, it was too late. The salt and fertilizers of the
run-off had accumulated to such a degree that they had reached toxic
levels, which began a cycle of decay. As algae fed on the toxins, it
created massive amounts of rotten smelling matter floating upon the
surface of the lake and suffocated many of the fish.
Within just a few years, the resorts had closed, the marinas were
abandoned, and those who could afford to, had moved, leaving in their
wake, abandoned businesses and homes, and scattered junk.
Today, Salton Sea
continues to maintain itself, fed by the Alamo,
Whitewater, and New Rivers, as well as continued agricultural runoff from
irrigated farmland. Covering an average surface area of about 375 miles,
it is the largest lake in
still the lake is in trouble. The salt in the Salton Sea is higher than that of the Pacific Ocean and
numerous restoration plans have been developed over the years, the latest
of which proposes to reduce the size of the lake to make it more
manageable at a cost of billions of dollars and more than two decades to
lake is dotted with "signs” of more prosperous times and the area is much
like a "ghost lake," surrounded by small "ghost towns," "ghost resorts,"
and "ghost trailer parks."
Bombay Beach -
Located on the east shore of the Salton
Sea, Bombay Beach was first developed by R.E. Gilliagan in October, 1929
as a private community that quickly grew with weekend visitors and
retirees. By the 1960s, the town sported numerous businesses and homes.
However, the next decade would take its toll on the community as tropical
storms and flooding destroyed parts of the town. Though this permanently
affected Bombay's development, the small town still supports about 350
people and a few open businesses amongst a sunken trailer park and
abandoned buildings. A dike now protects the west portion of of the small
community that is located just south of the Salton Sea State Park. It is
one of the lowest elevation communities in the U.S. sitting about 225 feet
below sea level.
Desert Shores - This small community still supports more than 1000
people and has actually grown over the last several years. However, signs
of its resort community heydays can still be seen a few abandoned
businesses and fading billboards. One of the many communities that
developed during the sea's heydays in the 1950's, the city was bustling in
the 1960s with the Desert Shores Yacht Club, Marina Mobile Estates, a
five-fingered marina, a fishing barge just offshore, and numerous
businesses. However, in the 1970s the town was battered by a couple of
tropical storms and the rising sea level flooded many of the shoreline
resorts and homes. Desert Shores is located just
north of Salton Sea Beach on the west
side of the sea east of
Continued Next Page
Desert Shores Harbor during its heydays,
vintage 1947 postcard.
Desert Shores Market. Photo by Kathy
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