The First Salton Sea

Prehistorically, the Gulf of California extended north through the Imperial and Coachella Valleys; over time geologic shifts and water borne silt changed the topography of the land near the Mexican Border, cutting it off from the Gulf to create the Salton Sink. Subsequently, the Colorado River would change course, on and off creating a vast inland sea, now called Ancient Lake Cahuilla. Around 1580, the last vast lake evaporated.

Tufa deposits mark the shoreline of Ancient Lake Cahuilla, Coachella Valley

Before construction of Laguna Dam in the early twentieth century, the Colorado was still an active river, draining much of the Western US. Springing from watershed high in the snowy Rockies, the “Red River” raced southward and downward, carving the Grand Canyon and other marvelous canyons as it dashed on to the Sea of Cortez. As it approached the Gulf of California, the landscape changed, leaving behind the rock canyons and allowing the river to meander, creating an alluvial delta with the material carried downstream. Captain J. H. Mellon, who operated steamboats on the Lower Colorado, estimated the silt extended the delta fan into the Gulf by more than 6 miles over the course of the 40 years prior to 1905. (H.T. Cory, The Imperial Valley and The Salton Sink, Part IV, (John J. Newbegin, 1915), a reprint of Irrigation and River Control in the Colorado River Delta, from Vol. LXXVI, Transactions American Society of Engineers, p. 1214.)

Smaller overflows of the Colorado River banks continued into the nineteenth century, down the New and Alamo River channels, flowing into the Salton Basin and duly evaporating.

The winter of 1890/91 was the wettest since readings began being kept in 1850. In February, 1891, a number of breaks in the west bank of the Colorado allowed water to spill over into the delta and the New River channel. In June, when Spring runoff brought high water again, more water spilled into the streams running north into the Salton Trough reaching Salton, site of the New Liverpool Salt Works.

From The Californian: Illustrated Magazine, Vol. I, No. 1 October 1891.

The sea was approximately 40 miles long and 10 miles wide, but only 4 feet deep. (B. A. Cecil-Stephens, “The Colorado Desert and its Recent Flooding,” Journal of the American Geographical Society of New York, Vol. 23 (1891), pp. 367-377)

In July 1891, the New York Times printed remarks by John Wesley Powell, Director of the U.S. Geological Survey, that even if the lake were filled to the level of the river, it would evaporate at the rate of approximately 6 feet per year.

In 1892, a wood engraving (based on the Cecil-Stephens map) was published in La Nouvelle Géographie universelle, la terre et les hommes, 19 vol. (1875-94), text by Elisee Reclus. The Cartographer was Charles Perron (vol 16, pg 575). A hand-colored copy of the engraving is shown here.

The first Salton Sea did indeed evaporate due to the extreme heat and lack of sufficient incoming water sources. The situation was totally different following the 1905/07 flooding, as the entire river was diverted into the trough creating the lake, and runoff from agriculture in the Imperial Valley provided a new source of water to replenish that lost to evaporation.

For information on the 1905/07 flooding that created the current Salton Sea, my blog page Creation of the Salton Sea has a preview of a book I’ve written. historytrove.com/creation-of-the-salton-sea/

North Shore Beach and Yacht Club

Salton Sea, Calif.

Designed by Swiss-born Modernist architect Albert Frey,* the Yacht Club is an architectural gem sitting in a pretty desolate location, the northeastern shore of the Salton Sea, across Highway 111 and the Southern Pacific tracks from the unincorporated community of North Shore. Built in 1959, the marina was used to dock boats, in an era when the Sea had more visitors per year than Yosemite.

A postcard of the Club circa 1959, taken from a boat on the Sea, reissued by the now closed Salton Sea Museum (no copyright notice) https://www.saltonseamuseum.com/

With the jetty long gone and the Yacht Club abandoned and vandalized, in 2009, Riverside County restored the building. For about a year the Salton Sea Museum operated from the building, with over 7000 visitors signing in. Sadly the museum closed, and the facility is now primarily used as a community center by Desert Recreational District. BUT at least it is being used and maintained!

Now the “new” problem is the dropping Sea water level, leaving the inlet to the marina cut off from the Sea. Last month the Coachella Valley Mountains Conservancy** voted to approve a grant, which along with funds from the Bureau of Reclamation and the California Natural Resources Agency, would enable the Salton Sea Authority to rehabilitate the inlet and marina. If you go to Google Maps satellite image of the area, you can see a tiny, compromised inlet from the Sea to the marina. However, last Sunday I went down to take photos and stood “in the inlet,” on dry beach to take the photo below.

I should be standing in water! Or, on a boat.
From the deck looking toward the Sea

Last Spring Desert X https://www.desertx.org/ brought more visitors to the area to see the outdoor art installations around the Coachella Valley, including the Salton Sea. It reminds me a little of Marfa Texas, in that a gem of art, is sitting in an out of the way location.

Looking east toward the highway and the train tracks

Next week the Salton Sea Summit will convene at UCR Palm Desert campus; let us hope this will bring needed attention and solutions.

*Albert Frey’s architecture is Desert Modernism, centered on Palm Springs; his work includes the Palm Springs Tramway Valley Station and the Tramway Gas Station, now used an a Visitor’s Center on the entry into the City, as well as City Hall, etc.

** I am the State Senate appointee and current Chairwoman http://cvmc.ca.gov/

NEW LIVERPOOL SALT WORKS

In 1893, George Durbrow and investors incorporated the New Liverpool Salt Company at Salton, on the Southern Pacific main line, south of Mecca, CA.

Salt was deposited on approximately 1000 acres of dry sea bed (ancient Lake Cahuilla) by seepage from salt springs in the foothills. Although called a mine, the salt works actually resembled a harvest operation, needing only to cut salt from the field, crush it, bag it, and send it by narrow gauge rail to the nearby railway station at Salton.
The quality, quantity, and uniqueness of its gathering led to it being featured in an 1899 issue of Strand Magazine and a 1901 issue of the National Geographic Magazine.

salt plow published in “A Common Crystal” by John R. Watkins, Strand Magazine 1899

In “The Saline Deposits of California,” California State Mining Bureau, Bulletin No. 24 (1902), Gilbert E. Bailey, described the operation:
“The sight at the salt works is an interesting one, for thousands of tons are piled up like huge snow drifts,…Indians operate cable plows, harvesting over 700 tons of pure salt per day. A portable railroad conveys the salt to the works.

The [crystal] lake is constantly being supplied by numerous springs in the adjacent foothills, which flow into the basin and quickly evaporate, leaving deposits of very pure salt that vary from 10 to 20 inches in thickness.”

In February 1891, the Colorado overflowed its banks, into the Mexican delta, leaving water standing in low areas. The following June, it overflowed again, reaching the standing water; the resulting flood from the commingled waters reached the Salton Basin, creating a lake approximately 30 miles long and 10 miles wide, but only 5 feet deep. Being shallow, it evaporated, leaving the Salt Works intact.

However, in 1905-1907, when the Colorado River overwhelmed the California Development Co. intakes for the Imperial Canal, the diverted water flooded the Salton Basin creating the Salton Sea. First the salt field was submerged, then the salt plant, and then the town of Salton and the rail lines.

salt works
Salt Works at Salton, Summer 1905. USGS photo