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Lost Resorts and Submerged Artifacts of the Salton Sea

“The assembled forces of the river reached the intake, and the trembling wooden structures that stood between the pioneers and ruin, besieged by the rising flood, battered by the swirling currents, bombarded by drift, gave way under the strain and the charging waters plunged through the breach…

Then a new and alarming phase of the river's destructive work developed and everyone saw that the war at the intake must be forced to a speedy finish or the cause would be lost. The immense

volume of water, flowing with increased strength and velocity as it defined for itself a more distinct channel down the steeper grade of the Basin, began cutting in the soft soil a vertical fall that from the foot of the grade moved swiftly up-stream…a great gorge through which a new-made river flowed quietly to a new-born and ever-growing sea. The roar of the plunging waters, the crashing and booming of the falling masses of earth that were undermined by the roaring torrent were heard miles away.” –Harold Bell Wright, The Winning of Barbara Worth, 1911

History and Facts:

If the Salton Sea dried up, Death Valley’s Badwater would no longer hold the record for the lowest point in the United States. Archaeologists theorize that a former inland lake existed in the area and named it Lake Cahuilla after a nearby Indian tribe that now controls a large chunk of Palm Springs real estate. Ancient watermarks on the surrounding mountains suggest that the Sea was over 20 times its present size as recently as the year 1500. The lake may have existed sporadically into the 17th century, and legend dictates that a treasure-laden Spanish galleon floated through these parts before getting embayed and trapped by the whims of the Colorado River delta. (See “Lost Ship of the Desert.”) The deepest part of the mucky bottom lies over 300 feet below sea level.

In 1905, heavy rainfall caused the Colorado River to inundate a dike which was built to provide water for the Imperial Valley’s farms and the formerly dry Salton Sink took the brunt for almost two years. When the berms were finally fixed, a 15 by 35 mile artificial lake remained. The town of Salton and a Southern Pacific railroad siding (and some say an entire railroad engine) were completely submerged. In 1944 and ’45, the crew of the Enola Gay made secret flights to the Sea from Wendover Air Base in Utah to practice their aim, adding a few dummy atom bombs to the treasures that await when the water inevitably dries up again. This might take years, as the Salton has become a stopover site for millions of migrating birds, as well as a profitable fishing lake, as long as people (and recently, a pet food company) don’t mind life-threatening levels of selenium in their food.

The main water supply for the Sea is the New River, which was formed relatively recently in geological terms and has basically evolved into a slough for phosphate and nutrient-rich agricultural runoff that gives it the distinction of being the most polluted river in America. The river begins life (it that is what it may be called) from various mysterious sources south of the border in Mexicali, one of many maquiladora boomtowns and capital of Baja California. Almost immediately, it is inundated with what the locals refer to as “agua negra,” the outflow of hundreds of illegal sewage operations. This may actually be the only source for the river. There are laws in Mexico against this sort of thing,

but there are of course bribes to keep things in check. With no Border Patrol agents to stop it, the black river crosses into the U.S., and makes its way though the Imperial Valley, picking up more miraculous molecules on its way.

When it finally reaches the Salton, this chemical smoothie feeds massive algae blooms, which periodically choke most of the oxygen out of the water leading to mass die-offs of aquatic life. In fact, much of the shoreline appears to be ringed by pleasant stretches of white sand, until a closer look smashes that illusion: the beach is littered by dead and dying fish and birds, lying on the billions of bleached bones of the less hardy that have preceded them. Thousands of pounds sun-dried fish jerky await the seagulls. The smell is unpleasant but not unbearable (depending on the wind) and gives little hint of the recreational bonanza that was once the Salton Sea.

When first formed, the Sea was in fact a freshwater lake. Over the years, the saline content of the ancient Colorado River delta began to leach into the water, first killing off the trout, and then other species in accordance with their salt tolerance, but tenacious hopefuls kept restocking the Sea with hardier species. Beginning in the 1930s, eager developers realized that the populations of Los Angeles and nearby Palm Springs could provide a steady stream of weekend fun seekers. For a while, they were right. Towns sprung up around the shore to cater to fishermen, campers, and boaters. Resorts appeared and did a brisk business, entertaining everyone from Joe Six Pack to the Rat Pack.

As overeager agribusiness boomed in Imperial County, the influx of runoff reached biblical proportions in the 1960s, and the water level began to wildly fluctuate. Whole towns and sections of towns were suddenly waist-deep in ever more saline flooding. Things got so bad that the entire shoreline area of Bombay Beach had to be abandoned in the late 1970s, leaving a trailer park burial ground that looks today like the remains of some sort of white trash Atlantis. Once the pride of their smiling, beer-bellied masters, the skeletons of mobile homes now stand waist-deep in stagnant water and salt-caked mud. The remains of an easy chair sits sentinel on the scene, and rusted signs advertise long-closed

bait shops and liquor stores. A 20-foot high berm surrounds the remaining streets and homes of the dilapidated community and its population of 366 remaining homesteaders. There seem to be far more homes than people. A few children scrape out whatever games and mischief that their imaginations can dream up. Adults have long ago forsaken the outdoors and stay inside with satellite TV and Internet connections, if they have them. The median annual household income as of the 2000 census was about $17,000.

Dead towns seem to favor the eastern shore—the four-lane highway from Palm Springs to El Centro runs along the west side of the Sea, and most establishments survive on the increased traffic. Some 16 miles north of Bombay Beach on highway 111 are the remains of the North Shore Beach and Yacht Club. Abandoned in the late 1970s, the facility became a rehab center and then an old folks home before it was finally left to the elements. It’s now used sporadically for location shoots when a rock video calls for the ubiquitous run-down building to be transformed into a rockin’ roadhouse through the simple magic of a pentatonic guitar solo. The windows are boarded up and the soot-encrusted shadow of an elegant stairway crawls up the wall in the lobby. The beachfront swimming pool is fenced off and filled with trash. A covered boat dock rests 10 feet above the waterline, and a playground sits half-buried in fish and bird bones.

Perhaps Nancy Sinatra once played on the monkey bars or rode down the slide, but no one cares anymore. Watch out for the bored (and overzealous) caretaker. He’ll leave his TV dinner long enough to drive the 200 feet or so to holler at trespassers.

The Department of the Interior is in a race against time and the agriculture industry to try and save the Sea before it becomes incapable of supporting any sort of wildlife—a strange legacy for a manmade lake that was the result of a monumental accident borne of greed and the haste that was its downfall.  –GB

The Dead Sea

The Salton Sea is one of the most mysterious and enigmatic places in California. This baking-hot, below-sea-level region had flooded and evaporated, like a puddle-in-a-parking-lot, thousands of times over the course of millennia.
  In the early 1950s the California Department of Fish and Game stocked the Salton Sea with thousands of fish captured in the Gulf of California. The Lake Tahoe-sized inland desert sea became an inviting sport-fishing and vacation destination for millions of nearby Southern California residents. Modern resorts and marinas sprang up all around its shores, and for about twenty years it was an idyllic place to be. By the ‘70s however, the sea took a turn for the worse. Because the Salton Sink has no natural outflow, the water had no way to

leave except outflow, the water had no way to leave except through evaporation. Salt and fertilizers from the Imperial Valley run-off accumulated, eventually reaching toxic levels, and a cycle of decay began. Algae fed on the fertilizers in the run-off. The vast, but short lived, algae field created an enormous amount of rotten smelling, decaying matter as a natural part of its life cycle. To this day the Salton Sea is an incredibly foul smelling place. The late ‘70s also saw two major storm seasons rip through the region, dramatically flooding many of the Salton Sea resort towns. Between the smell and the floods, most of the population that could afford to move away, did, leaving near ghost towns all around the Sea’s rim.

I’ve spent a lot of time exploring the abandoned places along the Sea’s edge, but one of my favorite, seldom-talked-about spots is the Salton Sea Test Base. Opened by the Navy in 1942, the 8,000-acre southwest shore facility served as a training base for PBY Catalina seaplane operations. In 1944, B-29s, including the Enola Gay, secretly flew over 150 missions from Wendover, Nevada, dropping dummies of the atomic bomb at the Test Base as practice for the Hiroshima run. Abandoned in the mid-70s, the SSTB was used for live-fire military training exercises through the ‘80s, completely destroying all of the structures at the facility.

Today only the Marines and Navy Seals use the Test Base for training. Surrounded by signs warning of unexploded bombs and almost inaccessible due to encroaching sand dunes burying sections of the access road, the base has always held a fascinating attraction for me. One night I finally slipped over the dunes and into the base just to see what was out there. As I expected, all the base buildings were gone and the long seaplane pier had been bombed down to its pilings. The only structures still evident were the concrete ordinance-storage bunkers. As I rode my mountain bike out of the SSTB late that night, tripod slung over my shoulder, several Apache attack helicopters on maneuver buzzed me repeatedly. No doubt I was leaving an infra-red trail visible in their night scopes. Plainly trespassing on restricted government land, I high-tailed it out of there.  –Troy Paiva

Salton Sea is a Creepy, Creepy Place

Dear Weird CA;
This place is nuts. Murky and really, really, really creepy. The Salton Sea is below sea level, and is believed to once be a settlement that was washed out by a river. Half this ghost town is under the water, eck. Railroad tracks lead into the water—built who knows when. In the ‘40s, ‘50s, or maybe ‘60s the Salton Sea was rendered "the largest fishing population in a man-made lake in the world." The fresh water run-off for the lake, made by accident, made the Salton Sea a hot spot for communities and an aspiring yacht club.

The fall of the Salton Sea was due to the salinity levels of the lake growing dramatically from local farming. The water table was directly affected. If I'm correct, the Salton Sea was once connected to the ocean. The salinity levels became so high that fish by the millions, as well as birds drinking the water, died. Hence the beach of bones. And I'm talking no sands. I'm talking about walking on a beach of nothing but bones. The smell of the rotting dead bones with a mix of head and shoulders shampoo and hot stale humid area is enough to make anyone puke on contact.

The communities that grew around the lake vanished or simply moved to Niland. They were left in abandonment utterly and completely as if a whole community just picked up and moved out. But some people live there still and I guarantee that they will never get dandruff.

Further north of the communities is the yacht club, lavishly designed with a Frank Sinatra kind of rat-pack-casino-Mafia look. The road to the yacht club off the highway is laced evenly on both sides with palm trees. The lavish club had all the amenities, an open walk around roof not to mention a lakeside pool and spa. Half under water, there is a small convenience store, not to mention the Texaco gas dock and its ancient sign. Who knows where to boats went? The dock was crushed and lies on the side of what seems to be a breakwater. This is a must for anyone that likes creepy things. The motel is adjacent to the yacht club. It’s two stories high and fully boarded up with yet another empty swimming pool in it with u-shaped boundaries. The motel is a Hitchcock movie just begging for attention. I shot two rolls of film here, and none of the pictures came out.
Legend says that there is an island that people refused to leave when services were no longer available to get them to and from the shore. The island in the Salton Sea was used for drinking, swindling, and being away from any rules. Local legend says from the shore late at night that you can hear a band playing from the island. This information was given to me via locals. This place you absolutely do not want to be caught at night. I wouldsuggest bringing a high caliber weapon if you are planning any extended stay. –Paintchips

 

 

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