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Salton Sea: CA's Overlooked Treasure

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Laflin, P., 1995. The Salton Sea: California's overlooked treasure. The Periscope, Coachella Valley Historical Society, Indio, California. 61 pp. (Reprinted in 1999)



Chapter 1


The story of the Salton begins with the formation of a great shallow depression, or basin which modem explorers have called the Salton Sink. Several million years ago a long arm of the Pacific Ocean extended from the Gulf of California though the present Imperial and Coachella valleys, then northwesterly through the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys. Mountain ranges rose on either side of this great inland sea, and the whole area came up out of the water. Oyster beds in the San Felipe Mountains, on the west side of Imperial Valley are located many hundreds of feet above present sea level. Slowly the land in the central portion settled, and the area south of San Gorgonio Pass sloped gradually down to the Gulf.

If it had not been affected by external forces, it would probably have kept its original contours, but it just so happened that on its eastern side there emptied one of the mightiest rivers of the North American continent the Colorado. The river built a delta across the upper part of the Gulf, turning that area into a great salt water lake. It covered almost 2100 square miles.

How could a river cut a gulf in two? The watershed of the Colorado River covers 260,000 square miles, from the southern edge of Yellowstone Park to the Gulf of California. It held in suspension and carried down to the sea millions of tons of solid matter as it scoured out such natural wonders as the Grand Canyon. It deposited this vast quantity of silt into the Gulf opposite its mouth and the deposits eventually reached clear to the opposite side, from Yuma to the rampart of the Cocopah Mountains. The delta was ten miles wide by thirty in length. The river then chose for itself a route on the southeastern slide of the delta plain, discharging its waters into the Gulf of California. Under the blazing sun, water in the upper Gulf evaporated, leaving an and basin incrusted with salt in its deeper parts. The depression was about one hundred miles in length by thirty-five in width. It had a maximum depth of 1,000 feet.

The Salton Sink, California 1905-1908

Emptying and Refilling the Basin

How long this ancient sea-bottom remained dry cannot be determined, but many thousands of years ago, probably in Middle Tertiary times, the Colorado River proceeded to refill the dry basin. The river, running over the raised delta plain which sloped both ways, could easily be diverted to either side. In one of its prehistoric floods it changed its course, leaving the Gulf and pouring its waters into the dry basin of the Salton Sink. When it had refilled the basin, and transformed it into a great fresh-water lake, it broke through its silt dam on the Cocopah Mountain side and found a new outlet the Gulf through what was later known as Hardy's Colorado. Probably for centuries, the Colorado made the Salton Sink a great fresh-water lake, depositing in the process 150,000,000 tons or more of silt every year. Artesian borings at Holtville in 1913 showed sedimentary deposits in that part of the Imperial Valley are more than 1,000 feet in depth. Then the river again changed course, cutting a channel to the Gulf through the eastern part of the delta plain. The lake in the Salton Sink dried up again, leaving a two hundred mile ellipse of fresh water shells to mark its former level. No one knows for sure, but in all probability the Colorado alternately flowed into the Salton Sink every four or five hundred years, swinging back and forth across its delta plain.

Explorers, Pathfinders and Surveyors Discover the Sink

For three centuries or more, from 1540 to 1902, the Salton Sink was a hot, and arid desert. Neither Melchior Diaz, a Spanish explorer in the service of Cortes who visited it in 1540, nor Juan Bautista de Anza, who crossed it in 1774, saw anything like a body of water. The only evidence that the Colorado River ran into the Sink within that fame span was a so called Roque map, now in the British Museum, which was compiled from all sources of information which were in existence in 1762. This map shows a considerable body of water in the Salton Sink, with the Colorado River flowing into it, but no written account accompanies the map. It could have just been overflow water at flood time, but the main flow of the current continued to flow into the Gulf. In 1900, the slope was 15 inches to the mile on the way to the Gulf and 48 inches to the mile toward the Salton Sink. The difference became a real problem in the first years of the diversion of the river to irrigate the Salton Basin.

In the latter part of the 18th and beginning of the 19th century, many Spanish and American pathfinders crossed the Sink on their way from Yuma to the California Missions, but none found anything like a lake. Col. W.H. Emory, who traversed it with General Kearny in the fall of 1846, described it as a hot, and desert a "stretch of ninety miles from water to water." Captain A.R. Johnson, who accompanied the Kearney Expedition, was the first to notice that this stretch of waterless desert was the dried-up bottom of an ancient lake, but neither he nor Col. Emory noticed that it was below the level of the sea. Gold seekers crossed it in 1849, but no scientific studies were done.

In 1843, Jefferson Davis, who was then Secretary of War, prevailed upon Congress to authorize a series of explorations for the discovery of a practical railroad route to the Pacific Coast. Lt. K S. Williamson, of the US Topographic Engineers, was selected to lead the southern expedition. With him, as a geologist, went Professor William R. Blake of New York, a young graduate of the Yale Scientific School. He afterwards went on to distinguish himself as a geologist, explorer and mining engineer in Alaska, Arizona and Japan. Professor Blake was the first to explain the origin of the Salton Sink, to trace its ancient history, and to give a name to the great fresh-water lake it had once held. Moving from Mormon Mill in San Bernardino on Nov. 2,1883, the Williamson/Blake Party went down through the San Gorgonio Pass to the Coachella Valley. Along the base of the Santa Rosa Mountains, about where the present Lake Cahuilla is located, Blake noticed the mark of the ancient sea which once filled the basin. The ancient water-line mark, measured at 42 feet above sea level, is visible at many places in 1995, especially on the small mountain called Coral Reef near the present Lake Cahuilla. Today's Lake Cahuilla is a terminal reservoir of the All-American Canal. What was deposited on the rocks is not coral, but tufa-solids left behind on the rocks as the water evaporated. Considering this, plus the thousands of shells of old sea organisms, plus the slope of the land toward what is now the Salton Sea, plus the reading of his barometer, led Blake to make the assertion that this was indeed an ancient sea bottom and that it was below sea level, actually 271 feet below at its lowest point.

There appears to be a discrepancy concerning the level reached by ancient Lake Cahuilla. Although the marks at Coral Reef and Travertine Point have been measured at 42 feet above sea level, the low point on the delta near Cerro Prieto, south of the international border has been found by survey to be only slightly more than 20 feet above sea level. This could be explained by earth movement since the entire Salton Basin and the Gulf of California is in an active fault zone. Blake was aided in his findings by the Cahuilla Indians who told him that their ancestors had once lived in the canyons above the sea and came to the sea to catch fish, ducks and other small animals. The sea had receded "poco a poco" (little by little). Once, they said, it came back in a rush, suggesting that they had experienced an overflow of the Colorado River through the New River or other channels, overflows that were still taking place in years when the river was high.

Ideas of Reclamation

Professor Blake noticed that the Cahuilla Indians raised crops of corn, barley and vegetables, using ditch irrigation to bring water from springs around the valley. He suggested in his report the possibility of irrigating this "Death Valley" possibly with water brought in channels from the Colorado River. He said, "With water, it is probable that the greater part of the desert could be made to yield crops of almost any kind." Reclamation of a desert was a bold and original idea in 1857. His accurate scientific mind could see that the sedimentary deposits needed only water to make them fertile. Blake's engineer, Ebenezer Hadley, recommended a canal location practically identical with that which was adopted 40 years later. It is estimated that between 1849 and 1860 eight thousand emigrants crossed the Colorado Desert on their way to California, avoiding the snow and high mountains of the northern routes.

The Wozencraft Plan

Of all these travelers, Dr. Oliver M. Wozencraft, a prominent San Francisco physician, seemed most impressed with the agricultural possibilities of the Salton Sink. In 1957 he moved to San Bernardino and launched a campaign to irrigate the desert. he had seen evidence, when he crossed the Sink in 1849, that the Colorado River occasionally over-flowed into the basin and even formed a series of temporary lakes along what is now the New River. Wozencraft secured the complete cooperation of the California Legislature. On April 12, 1859, by joint resolution, it asked Congress to give the state approximately six million acres, including the entire Salton Basin and more. Three days later, the Legislature conveyed to Wozencraft all rights that it had, or might later acquire to that vast tract, conditional on his developing an irrigation system to water it. Wozencraft had explained that his title to all that land was necessary to secure financing for the project.

In Congress, the House Public Lands Committee took a least a conditionally favorable view of the project, although it ruled out almost half of the requested land, pointing out that land in the San Bernardino, Orocopia, Chocolate and other mountains were far too high to be irrigated by Colorado River water and might have mineral value. As for the remaining 3,000,000 acres, the committee asked advice from knowledgeable witnesses. Most agreed that the land was not only worthless without irrigation, but was an impediment to travel. A commissioner form the US Land Office felt that such a huge land grant to a single individual would essentially extend the system of land grants inherited from Mexico and was not in accordance with the general policy of the country. Newspapers wrote that they saw no obstacle to the success of the plan except for porous nature of the sand. "By removing the sand from the desert, success would be insured," they wrote. But many saw the Wozencraft plan as a means of accomplishing what neither state nor nation was likely to do on its own. Wozencraft believed Congress was ready to make the grant when the Civil War turned attention elsewhere.

Wozencraft continued to advocate his proposal in the West and in Washington, where in 1887, confident that he was on the verge of success, he died unexpectedly, and the proposal was again shelved. He was buried in San Bernardino's Pioneer Cemetery. Only in 1891, twenty-nine years after his bill failed in Congress, was a serious attempt made to realize the "dream" of turning water into the Salton Sink and creating a fertile oasis in the heard of the Colorado Desert.

The Widney Sea

In 1873 a proposal was made to turn the Colorado River deliberately into the Salton Basin and re-create Lake Cahuilla. Dr. Joseph Pomeroy Widney wrote an article in the January issue of the Overland Monthly, presenting tentatively perhaps, a plan for creating a great fresh water lake.

Dr. Widney was an Army doctor who had spent two years in Arizona and had observed the canals of the vanished Indian civilization there. He had crossed the Salton Basin several time and had noted the chain of dry lakes and connecting channels leading clear to Death Valley, reasoning that they too, might have once been filled by the Colorado River before it had dug itself to greater depth through the Grand and other canyons. From this he concluded that when the desert had large bodies of water, the rainfall was greater, and the weather was cooler because of evaporation and the effect of prevailing winds. If the basin were filled again, he reasoned, the evaporation would be comparable to that of the Bay of Bengal which had been computed at 16 feet annually. It would be enough, he thought, "to supply 12 inches of rain to the 86,400 square miles," and would change a vase amount of head from an active to a latent condition and this would lower the temperature of all the adjacent territory.

Incidentally, in suggesting how and where the river might be diverted to forma new Lake Cahuilla, Widney added considerably to the evidence that the river was, without help from man, approaching a condition where it might soon turn itself back into the basis. Widney observed an overflow in 1868, reporting that, "At first it has no definite channel, but after a few miles follows a well-marked river bet...If left to itself, probably a large portion of the flood of the Colorado would hardly refill the old basin; yet even now at flood season, a shallow lake is formed many miles in extent, but quickly dries up." So, reasoned Widney, the restoration of water to Lake Cahuilla would involve only a little assistance to nature. Of course, the refilling of old Lake Cahuilla would flood most of the basin lands now being irrigated, but Widney believed that his proposal would aid irrigated agriculture. Increased rainfall in Southern California would enhance streams already used for irrigation and some land south of the of the desert could be irrigated by the diverted stream.

Supporters and detractors of the plan surfaced almost at once. congress took an interest and through its Public Lands committee engaged a civil engineer to evaluate it. He mis-read the plan and thought it sought to let sea water into the basin, which he said was possible and would probably affect the weather. His report was not very helpful -- Mr. Widney had proposed letting the river in, not the ocean. the second consultant, Richard Stretch reported that the weather change issue needed further study, but he felt it was "evidently wiser policy to retain the land than to destroy it by submersion." Stretch's report, dated February 8 1874, struck Congress as good thinking. So far as Congress was concerned, that was the last formal action on the Widney Sea proposal, although the press continued to argue its merits. Widney had really just asked that his idea of changing the weather be investigated and investigation showed that it wasn't likely. The eventual procedure, irrigation, didn't change the weather to any large extent either.

Chapter 2


Is there an ancient sailing craft lying half-concealed in the sands of the Colorado Desert? Such a ship has been reported by emigrants, prospectors and other travelers who claim that she lies with her bow buried deep and her richly carved stem raised high above the sands. The usual theory is that it is a mirage-like most of the exciting tales that come out of the desert-always a few miles away, but when a mirage really gets down to business, the results can be startling!

Tales of a Spanish galleon lost in the sands of the Colorado Desert keep recurring, from an amazing variety of sources. One of the most persistent made the pages of the Los Angeles Star in 1870. It seems that hundreds of years ago, when the waters of the Gulf of California came up into the desert, a pirate ship sailed up the Gulf. It was caught in some cross currents and went aground on a sand bar. The crew died, and the ship was left stranded there with almost a million doubloons and pieces of eight in her hulk. It's only when the wind blows and the sand clears that you can get a good look at her, and then the same wind comes along and covers her up again. The Star locates the wreck about ten miles from Dos Palmas. The newspaper gives a graphic description of the time when the Gulf occupied the entire valley, and, in fact, connected up with the Pacific Ocean through San Gorgonio Pass and Los Angeles. The Star did a series of articles speculating that the ship might have been one of the units of King Solomon's navy, or the craft that carried the ten lost tribes of Israel to America; and for the latter offered proof that the tribes never reached America but died of diptheria in the Sandwich Islands! Another idea advanced was that a war-like people from the Indian Sea took a tempestuous voyage to the Gulf of California. Here their ship, Bully Boy, sank in treacherous quicksands. Her hull was made of teakwood and did not rot. The Digger Indians of California are descendants of this Shoo-fly tribe.

The Los Angeles Star continued to keep its readers buying papers by reporting a search for the ship in its edition of November 12, 1870. It wrote, "Charley Clusker and a party started out again this morning to find the mythical ship upon the desert this side of Dos Palmas . Charley made the trip three or four weeks ago, but made the wrong chute and mired his wagon fifteen miles from Dos Palmas. He is satisfied from information he has received from the Indians that the ship is no myth. He is prepared with a good wagon, pack saddles, and planks to cross the sandy ground." On December 1 the Star printed this story from the San Bernardino Guardian, "Charley Clusker and party returned from the desert yesterday, just as we were going to press. They had a hard time of it, but they have succeeded in their effort. The ship has been found! Charley returns to the desert today, to reap the fruition of his labors. He was without food or water, under a hot broiling sun for over twenty-four hours, and came near perishing." Charley had found a great Spanish galleon, with ornate carvings, crosses and broken masts, sunk in the desert sands several miles from any water. The Star readers waited in vain for further news of the galleon. Historical novelist, Antonio de Fierro Blanco, in his book The Journey of the Flame, tells of a party that left Mazatlan in 1615 on a pearl-hunting and trading expedition into the northern end of the Vermilion Sea - the Gulf of California. After they passed Point San Felipe, homeward bound, they began to look for the Straits of Anian that would carry them from the Pacific to the Atlantic. Instead they found a narrow entrance leading to an inland sea (presumably the area now occupied by the Salton Sea). While they were exploring the shores of this body of water, a great cloud burst occurred in the adjacent mountains, sending quantities of debris into the sea. This landslide choked the narrow inlet through which they had come. They spent weeks trying to find another outlet, until the water began to recede as if by enchantment, and their ship was finally grounded. They were obliged to leave it in the desert with its vast treasure of pearls aboard.

Subsequently, a boy named Manquerna, from Sinaloa, said dig in 1774 he was taken by Captain Juan Bautista de Anza as a mule-driver on the exploring trip from Sonora to the California coast. When they started crossing the desert westward from the Colorado River, he was sent out to the right of the course traveled by the main body of explorers, to seek a different route. While he was traveling at night to avoid the heat, he stumbled upon an ancient ship, and in its hold were so many pearls that they were beyond imagination. He took what he could carry, deserted de Anza, and finally reached the Mission of San Luis Rey. Later, he spent many years trying to find the ship again.

The desert actually has had several ships sailing its sands. Before the present Salton Sea was formed, the Liverpool Salt Works, operating in the bottom of the dry sink, built a three wheeled sand yacht similar to an ice boat, and used it on the packed bottom of the old salt bed. In the late 1890s an inventor came to the desert with a wagonload of lumber and the necessary ironwork for building a ship. He pitched his tent in the vicinity of Kane Springs and proceeded to build a contraption in the general shape of a boat, with mast and sail and four broad-tired wheels. But the wheels were not big enough and the craft made only about a hundred feet before it wobbled into an eroded cut, shook the one-man crew overboard, and staggered unguided across the sand. it finally bumped into a weed hill and toppled over, breaking the mast off about four feet above the one-piece cross-board deck.

In 1862, according to the Desert Magazine of El Centro, California, when the gold rush to La Paz, Arizona was in full swing, a boat twenty-one feet long was built by the Los Angeles firm of Perry and Woodworth for a band of gold-seekers. They expected to use it crossing the Colorado River. The boat had a mast and sail and four wheels. They loaded the amphibian with provisions, hitched two teams to it, and started out on the two hundred fifty mile journey. Somewhere between Whitewater and Dos Palmas the teams gave out and the craft was abandoned.

But back to those legendary ships. The very real navigational hazard of the Colorado River's immense tidal bore might well have caught an unsuspecting sailing ship, carried it inland and dumped it there. Persistence of such legends in both Indian and frontiersmen lore make it hard to completely discount them. The sands tell no tale.

Chapter 3


Indian legends persisted of a lake forming every 50 to 100 years in the bottom of the Salton Sink. The source was a fickle river that in other floods flowed into the Gulf of California. The Indians knew about, and used the salt deposits, too. A pre-Columbian trail, used by Indians making the trek for salt, leads from the Colorado River to the now Salton Sea. The northern Diegueno Indians from the coast called the deposits "esily" meaning salt, and they, too made the journey for this precious commodity. As early as the spring of 1815, ox-drawn carretas from Los Angeles made yearly month-long expeditions for salt. The trip was called, "jornada para sal"...journey for salt. The Indians were right about the source of the recurring lake, too.

George Durbrow, a San Francisco businessman, didn't quite believe the recurring part. He found through analyses that the salt at the bottom of the sink was of remarkable purity. It was so pure that his projected salt industry would require none of the equipment of ordinary salt works. The mill he planned needed only machinery for grinding and bagging the salt for shipment from Salton Station, twelve miles below Mecca, utilizing the nearby Southern Pacific Railway.

Durbrow was granted Articles of Incorporation for the New Liverpool Salt Company on January 15, 1885. He actually had begun work on the salt beds in 1884, when he shipped over 1,500 tons of this "white gold" to San Francisco. The vast salt deposits, comprising over 1,000 acres of unusually pure rock salt, were considered one of the largest in the country. During the company's active years, Cahuilla Indians provided the labor force. Historian George Wharton James described the operation in these words: "They moved across the brilliant, glaring white fields, tilling the deposits. The salt was plowed by means of plows attached to bands that traveled across the salt bed from one engine to another. The furrows cut were eight feet wide and six inches deep and each plow was capable of harvesting over 700 tons per day."

After the salt was smashed by the plows, it was piled in conical mounds and then conveyed by tram railway to the salt works. There Japanese and Indian workers ground the salt and sacked it and shipped it to various markets. The crop was priced at from $6 to $34 per ton. Low grade salt was sold for hide salt and the finer crystals were sold as bath salts. The richness of the field was such that it is doubtful whether the company ever worked more than one hundredth of the area. Interestingly, the salt beds were seemingly inexhaustible. As fast as one crop was worked, a new deposit flowed in from nearby saline springs, and, as evaporation was rapid, a layer of pure salt, from 10 to 20 inches thick would be formed. Near the salt fields there existed a hot salt springs in the midst of bubbling quicksand and mud. It hissed and roared so as to be heard for a long distance. Historian James said, "The steam rushed out in large volume ... Connected with the bowl was a small lake or pond of greenish looking water. On tasting it I found it so salty that it surprised me into swallowing a mouthful, to my intense disgust."

The New Liverpool Salt Company operated its works for almost 20 years, without competition. In 1901 a rival concern, the Standard Salt Company, discovered that title to the land was vested in the US government, and the New Liverpool Company had no rights to harvest the salt . A hastily passed congressional bill required companies to file claims on saline lands. Both Liverpool and Standard had representatives m Washington DC ready to telegraph the news that President McKinley had signed the bill and the land was up for grabs. Word arrived at the Mecca telegraph station and the Liverpool men took off down their railroad tracks in a pumphand car, intending to race to the most choice locations to file their claims. The Standard men took off in a horse and buggy in a great cloud of dust, "knowing smiles" on their faces. When the perspiring Liverpool boys got to the salty area, they found that the Standard men had rigged up a series of mirrors to flash the message, and, in fact, the word had arrived at their camp before the racers were out of Mecca! Ultimately the two companies worked together, but salt mining was doomed to a very short future. When the full flow of the Colorado River moved north through Imperial Valley and into the Salton Sink in 1905, it soon covered the plant. By 1907 nothing remained above the surface of the newly formed Salton Sea.

As a boy, in 1906, Otho Moore and his young friend, Dean Redfield, hopped a local freight and rode to Salton, from where they could see the big red buildings and smoke stacks of the New Liverpool Salt Company sticking out of the rising water. Said Moore in a newspaper clipping of May 7, 1955, "At Salton were the houses of the housing project for the salt company's employees, all of them surrounded by four feet of water." The article goes on to say that the boys found a little boat, paddled out into the rising sea, were caught in a swift current and found themselves carried about three miles west. It took until evening to paddle back to Salton, sunburned, thirsty and tired.

In 1908, on a trip to Niland by passenger train, with his mother, Otho remembers that the train tracks were inundated and that swift waters were flowing over the tracks. When he looked out to where the buildings and smoke stacks had been, there was nothing to see but the rising waters of the future Salton Sea.

Mr. Durbrow suffered mightily in those years. Not only did he lose his salt mine and all of its buildings and equipment, but his home and holdings in San Francisco were destroyed in the earthquake and fire of 1906. A subdivision he planned for the town of Arabia, located on the present Hwy 111 between Avenue 60 and Avenue 61 (now a part of Oasis Date Gardens) still shows on Riverside County tax bills as lot such and such of Durbrow. Imperial Irrigation Company ultimately paid a damage claim for loss of the salt works, although it was said that the mining operation had not been very profitable m its last years. According to Harry Lawton, in later years sportsmen skimming the sea in motorboats, on a clear day, could look down on the submerged buildings and machinery of one of Riverside County's earliest industries.

Chapter 4


So why is there a Salton Sea in 1995? In a few words, the Salton Sea was a man-made accident, brought about by a strange set of seemingly unrelated natural disasters, and economic and political events in the late 1890s and early 1900s which combined to create the Salton Sea. It's a fascinating real-life story!

Charles R. Rockwood and the California Development Company

In 1891, John C. Beatty of California, another man of imagination and foresight, became interested in the agricultural possibilities of the Colorado Desert and formed a corporation under the name of "The California Irrigation Company", for the purpose of carrying water into the Salton Sink from the Colorado River. He engaged as his technical advisor Mr. C. R. Rockwood who had been employed by the U.S. Reclamation Service, and who was regarded as a "shrewd and clever man and engineer," words used to describe him by Mr. H. T. Cory, Chief Engineer of the California Development Company.

Charles R. Rockwood, born in 1860, studied engineering at the University of Michigan and worked for several major railroad and irrigation projects. In 1892, he was hired to study the feasibility of the irrigation of the Sonora Mesa, below the Mexican border . He found it to be non-feasible, but he became interested in the Salton Basin and Mr. Wozencraft's lost cause. He noted that there was a natural obstacle in the shape of a range of sand hills, which extended southward to the Mexican border and that all natural overflows of the Colorado River, in prehistoric times, had been south of this barrier. Mr. Rockwood thought that it would be easier and more economical to follow the river's ancient track than to put a conduit through these hills on the American side of the boundary.

Rockwood proposed to take water from the Colorado at Potholes, 12 miles above Yuma, carry it southward into Mexico, thence westward around the promontory of sand hills, and finally northward, across the line again, into Southern California. This plan would involve the digging of a curving canal forty or fifty miles in length, through Mexican territory, but it would remove the necessity of cutting through the sand hills and would perhaps enable the diggers to utilize, on the Mexican side, one of the ancient overflow channels through which the Colorado had discharged into the Salton Sink in the past.

Owing to a lack of public confidence in reclamation experiments, Mr. Beatty and his associates were unable to secure enough capital for the proposal and in the monetary panic of 1893, they were forced into bankruptcy. The company's maps, records and engineering data were turned over to Mr. Rockwood in satisfaction of a judgment he obtained in a suit for his unpaid salary of $3,500.

This seemed likely to put an end to the Salton Sink project, but Mr. Rockwood, whose observations and work in the Colorado delta had given him faith in the ultimate success of the scheme, decided to promote it himself. After several years he formed another organization which was incorporated in New Jersey on April 21, 1896, under the name of 'The California Development Company." The maps, records and engineering data and Rockwood's claim for $3,500 appear to have been his total personal monetary investment, but he became indefatigably busy as a promoter. For two years or more, the corporation tried to get permission from the Mexican government to hold land, acquire rights, and dig an irrigation canal south of the boundary line, but the Mexican authorities refused to make any concessions and it was finally necessary to organize a subsidiary Mexican company. This corporation, which had a nominal capital of $62,000, was wholly owned and controlled by the California Development Company, but it operated under a Mexican charter.

The financial resources of both companies were largely on paper so it was necessary to secure real capital to do the work, and Mr. Rockwood found this extremely difficult. The proposed reclamation of an and desert, where the thermometer went to 120 degrees in the shade in the summer, and where only two or three inches of rain fell in the course of the whole year, did not strike Eastern capitalists as a very promising venture, and few were inclined to go along with it. At last, however, in 1898, Mr. Rockwood secured a promise from certain capitalists in New York that they would advance the necessary funds, but two days before the papers were to have been signed, the American battleship "Maine" was blown up in the harbor of Havana, and this catastrophe, together with the war that followed it, put an end to negotiations. Rockwood had been able to secure options on the Mexican land needed for the canal, and on an intake site, the so-called Hanlon Heading, near Pilot Knob, west of Yuma, but the options had expired and the state of New Jersey had started proceedings to revoke the company's charter for non-payment of its fees. 

Charles R. Rockwood

George Chaffey Jr          

       William B. Chaffey

George Chaffey Enters the Picture

But, the plan for the irrigation of the Salton Sink was not destined to fail. Among the men with whom Dr. Wozencraft had discussed it in the early eighties was George Chaffey, a civil engineer and irrigation expert, of Los Angeles. He had already successfully established irrigation systems in other parts of California and throughout the world. The successful projects of the Chaffey brothers at Ontario and Etiwanda were well known. George had gone to Australia with his brother, William, to develop irrigation and colonization along the Murray River. After considerable conflict with the Australian government, George came back to the United States and was looking for another big project. He remembered Dr. Wozencraft's solicitation, which he had declined not because he was afraid of the engineering difficulties involved, but because he thought that the torrid climate of the Sink would prevent colonization of it, even if the colonists were promised plenty of water. Most men, he reasoned, would be frightened by the prospect of having to do hard agricultural labor in shade temperatures of 110 to 120 degrees, and sun temperatures of perhaps 140 to 150 degrees. They simply would not go to a place where they would be subjected to such heat.

After his experience in the interior of Australia, however, where the temperature in the shade often reached a maximum of 125 degrees, but where men worked without danger or serious inconvenience, he changed his view of irrigation in the Colorado Desert. He sent word to Rockwood that he was interested in the project and he offered to finance it. On April 3, 1900, Chaffey signed a contract that made him president and, chief engineer of the California Development Company. The contract bound him to construct canals, at a cost of not more than $150,000, which would carry to the Imperial Valley 400,000 acre-feet of water per annum.

Mr. Chaffey and his associates modified the plan of Mr. Rockwood by taking water from the Colorado at Pilot Knob, nearly opposite Yuma, instead of at Potholes, twelve miles above. Putting in a head gate there, they carried their main canal southward across the Mexican boundary, in a course nearly parallel with the river, until they reached the dry overflow channel known as the Alamo. As this ancient watercourse meandered westward in the direction of the Salton Sink, they were able to clear it out, enlarge it, and utilize most of it as a part of their irrigation system. Then, at a point about forty miles west of the Colorado, they carried their canal northward, across the boundary line again, into California. The work throughout was pushed with great energy, and on the 14th of May, 1901, a little more than a year after Mr. Chaffey assumed direction of affairs, water was turned into the Pilot Knob head gate, and the irrigation of the Salton Sink became a certainty, if not a fully accomplished fact.

A SEA IN THE MAKING IN THE SOUTHLAND. When the Colorado River broke through its levees during the great floods of 1905, the Salton Sink became the Salton Sea and the town of Salton here shown, had to move. Note the sign which reads "265 feet below sea level." The old salt works, a larger view of which is shown below, is inundated in the background in this 1906 view.

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