THE IMPERIAL VALLEY IS BORN
The California Development Company was a water-selling company only, and had no proprietary interest in the lands to be irrigated. It was thought best to form another organization for the promotion of settlement --an activity Mr. Chaffey, had successfully pursued in the area east of Los Angeles and in Australia. In March 1901, the Imperial Land Company was incorporated for the purpose of attracting colonists, laying out town sites and bringing lands into cultivation. When Mr. Chaffey and the Land Company began an advertising campaign for the purpose of interesting the general public in the area, and in order not to scare off settlers and small investors by using the ominous words "desert" and "Sink", they changed the name of the basin that they proposed to irrigate, calling it "The Imperial Valley."
The name was evidently alluring because it attracted small investors from all over the East, and particularly in New England. The California Development Company's stock was bought, for example in Boston, Concord, Hopedale and Waverly, Massachusetts; in Barre and Montpelier, Vt.; in Portsmouth, N.H.; Elgin, Ill; Portland, Oregon and Toronto, Canada. Settlers soon began to come in, mutual water companies were organized, and before the 3rd of April 1902, four hundred miles of irrigation ditches had been dug, and water was available for 100,000 acres or more of irrigable land.
Chaffey had investigated the basin project with care, but not the financial and legal position of the California Development Company. Tension developed almost immediately between Chaffey and the original heads of the company, especially Rockwood. Chaffey had drawn up the contract himself, without legal advice. He had asked to see the company's books, but was told that they were at corporate headquarters in New Jersey. He accepted statements that the company owned the Mexican land required for the canal and had an option on the intake site. The company had only options, which had expired. There were major financial difficulties and after numerous disputes, seeing that he would lose control of the company with a further sale of stock, Chaffey sold out on April 3, 1902. What might have happened if Chaffey had stayed at the head of the company can only be conjectured. There might still have been trouble with that part of the engineering that Chaffey substantially took over from Rockwood and didn't basically change.
Silt is the toughest thing for engineers to deal with when irrigating from a turbid strewn. How do you get rid of silt? The Colorado River, until after it passes through the Grand Canyon is a swift, turbulent stream, with great eroding capability. It carries millions of tons of solid matter, or sediment, which, when finally dropped, not only creates bars at its mouth, but gradually fills up irrigation ditches and thus lessens their carrying capacity. Before the construction of Hoover Dam, a single day's supply of water for the Imperial Valley contained silt enough to make a levee twenty feet high, twenty feet wide and one mile long. (Imperial Valley Press, July 25, 1916). If this silt is not dredged out, or collected in settling basins, it eventually raises the beds of the canals, fills the ditches and chokes the whole irrigation system. The managers of the California Development Company had difficulty, almost from the first, in keeping their waterways open.
From the intake near Pilot Knob, the canal ran alongside the river for a little more than four miles, at the same gentle grade as the river itself--15 inches to the mile. There the old Alamo channel became the canal, at a gradient of 48 inches to the mile. The intake wasn't deep enough to take the intended canal capacity at the low stage of the river. Worse yet, the four miles alongside the river became impeded with silt. The clamoring settlers failed to get full water delivery. Mass meetings were held. The company was roundly denounced. Lawsuits were filed against it.
Meanwhile, the future of the Valley was seriously imperiled by unfavorable reports concerning its soil. In the early part of 1902, the Bureau of Soils of the US Agricultural Department published the results of a survey of the irrigable lands in the Colorado Desert. They reported that the lands were so impregnated with alkali that very few things could be successfully grown on them. The report said in part,
"One hundred and twenty-five thousand acres of land have already been taken up by prospective settlers, many of whom talk of planting crops which it will be absolutely impossible to grow. They must early find that it will be useless to attempt their growth .... No doubt the best thing to do is to raise such crops as sugar beet, sorghum and the date palm (if the climate will permit), that are suited to such alkali conditions, and abandon as worthless the lands which contain too much alkali to grow those crops."
This report was widely quoted and commented upon and was a real deterent to further colonization. If it had been issued two or three years earlier, it might have been fatal to the whole irrigation project. Fortunately, though, the crops raised by a few farmers who had already been cultivating this "alkali impregnated" land proved conclusively that the report of the analysis of the soil made by the Government experts was unduly pessimistic, if not wholly erroneous.
Almost everything that was tried did grow, m spite of those expert predictions, and the practical experience of the farmers gradually revived public confidence and interest m the irrigated lands. The colonization and development of the valley proceeded rapidly There were two thousand settlers on the ground at the end of 1902. There were seven thousand in 1903 and ten thousand in 1904.
A branch of the Southern Pacific Railroad was built through the Valley from Imperial Junction to Calexico and Mexicali; town sites were laid out in six or seven different places; the water system was extended by the digging of nearly four hundred additional miles of irrigation ditches and canals, and before the first of January 1905, one hundred and twenty thousand acres of reclaimed land were actually under cultivation, while two hundred thousand acres more had been covered by water stock.
The observed fertility of the soil completely discredited the reports of the government experts and more than justified the prediction made by Professor Blake a half century before. Grapes, melons and garden vegetables matured in the Valley earlier than in any other part of California; barley was a profitable crop; alfalfa could be cut five or six times a year; and the finest quality of long-staple Egyptian cotton yielded more than a bale (500 pounds) to the acre. Experiments proved also that the climate and soil were well-adapted to the culture of grapes, grapefruit, oranges, lemons, olives, figs, dates, apricots, pomegranates, peaches and pears.
In a very famous novel by Harold Bell Wright, The Winning of Barbara Worth, published in 1911, a romanticized version of this great reclamation project includes this description of the countryside:
"On either hand as she rode, stretching away until all fixed lines and objects were lost in the shifting mirage and man-colored lights of the desert, the dun plain with its thin growth of thirsty vegetation was broken by the green cultivated fields, newly leveled acres, buildings and stacks of ranches, with canals, ditches and ponds filled with water that reflected the colors of the mornng. Everywhere, in what had been a land of death, life was stirring. In one field beside the road a herd of soft cattle, knee-deep in rich alfalfa, lifted their heads to greet her. In another a band of horses and colts scampered along with her as far as their fence would permit, as if good naturedly seeking her further acquaintance. Everywhere men with their team were at work in the fields newly won from the desert."
The fear that men would not be willing or able to do hard work in the hot climate of the valley proved to be wholly groundless. The valley heat was dry heat, much easier to bear than the very humid heat of much of the country in the summer time. Under these favorable conditions, it seemed almost certain, in 1904, that the Imperial Valley had a great and prosperous future.
Unfortunately, the Colorado River, which had created the Salton Sink, could also destroy it, and it showed that terrible possibility in the summer of 1904.
The Three Headings (or Intakes), in Spring of 1905
Last Break in Defences, December 1906
A RUNAWAY RIVER
The managers of the California Development Company had difficulty almost immediately keeping their waterways open. An attempt was made to relieve the silt problem by putting in a waste gate eight miles below the intake, for the purpose of sluicing out the channel in time of high water. According to Engineer Cory, "The idea was to divert a large quantity of water during the flood season, waste it through the Best waste gate, and in this way scour out the upper portion of the canal. At first, the action was as. expected, and some two feet of the bottom were carried away. When, however, the river reached its maximum height, and carried an excessive silt content, especially of the heavier and sandy type, this scouring action was entirely overcome, and the bottom of this stretch was raised approximately one foot higher than during the previous year."
In the late summer of 1904, it was obvious that something drastic had to be done. Hundreds of farmers in the Imperial Valley had put in claims for damage caused by the lack of adequate water. The financially strapped company did not have the resources to buy the dredges needed to quickly clean out the clogged canal, so they decided to cut a new intake from the river at a point four miles south of the international border. This would eliminate the clogged portion. Little did President Heber and Chief Engineer Rockwood know that the Colorado River was about to make one of its semi-millennial changes in course, with powerful floodwaters about to turn the valley into a great freshwater lake. Had they known, they would have fortified the west bank of the river, not cut through it!
In Engineer Rockwoods words, "We hesitated about making this cut, not so much because we believed we were incurring danger of the river's breaking through, as from the fact that we had been unable to obtain the consent of the Government of Mexico to make it, and we believed that we were jeopardizing our Mexican rights should the cut be made without the consent of the Government."
Continuing his explanation in the Calexico Chronicle of May 1909, Rockwood said that cutting from the river to the main canal at this point meant dredging only 3300 feet, through easy material, while an attempt to dredge out the main canal above would have meant going through four miles of very difficult material. The cut was completed in three weeks, by the middle of October, 1904, and elaborate plans for a controlling gate were immediately forwarded to the City of Mexico for approval without which they had no right or authority to construct such a gate. Approval finally came in December 1905-more than a year later. Meanwhile serious trouble had begun. Because rod readings kept at Yuma for a period of twenty seven years showed only three winter floods during that time, and never two winter floods in the same year, Rockwood felt there would be plenty of time to close the cut before the approach of a summer flood, using the same means they had used for three successive years around the Chaffey gate at the canal.
"During this winter of 1905, however, we had more than one winter flood. The first two, arriving in February, did not enlarge the lower intake. In fact, it was necessary to dredge out the channel to allow sufficient water to come into the valley for the use of the people. Rockwood was not alarmed by these floods because it was still very early in the season. However, a third flood came in March, and it was obvious that they were up against a very unusual season, unknown in the history of the river as far back as they were able to reach. Realizing that the river's elevation was now high enough to deliver needed water to the farmers through the upper intake, they decided to close the lower intake.
So much for good intentions! At the time the first attempt to close the lower intake was made, the cut was about 60 feet wide. A dam of pilings, brush and sandbags was thrown across it in March, but it had scarcely been completed when another flood came down the Colorado and swept it away. A second dam of the same kind, built a few weeks later was also destroyed by the river. By the middle of June, the river was discharging 90,000 cubic feet of water per second; the width of the lower intake had widened from sixty feet to one hundred and sixty; water was overflowing the banks of the main canal, rolling across the rich Imperial Valley farmland and accumulating in the deepest part of the Sink. A new Salton Sea was forming.
During the next two years a gigantic battle was waged between man and nature, with man desperately trying to return the river to its original channel, and the river stubbornly refusing to do so. Five attempts were made to close the break in 1905, and all of them failed. Settlers and investors in Imperial Valley watched with increasing alarm as the flood waters continued to wash away valuable farm land. In 1906 another flood widened the gap and sent a wall of water 10 miles wide into Imperial Valley, threatening the cities of Calexico and Mexicali and carrying away a part of the Inter-California Railroad, a branch line extending down into the Imperial Valley. When its mainline from Los Angeles to Yuma and the east coast was threatened, the Southern Pacific Railroad entered the fight. Tons of brush, rock and dirt were dumped into the break, but the swirling waters washed the materials away. Tune and again the SP was forced to move its mainline tracks to higher ground.
The story of the commitment of Mr. E. H. Harriman, president of the Southern Pacific Railroad Company, to saving the Imperial Valley is told in a book entitled, The Salton Sea, An Account of Harriman's Fight with the Colorado River, by George Keenan, and published by The Machlfflan Company in 1917. The California Development Co. did not have the funds to fight the river, and they applied to the Southern Pacific for a loan, on the grounds that the Imperial Valley was furnishing a great deal of traffic to the railroad. Mr. Harriman was a man of imagination and vision, according to Mr. Keenan, and he was in sympathy with the bold attempt to irrigate and reclaim the and lands of the Colorado Desert. Against the advice of SP counselors, he authorized a loan of $200,000, with the stipulation that the Southern Pacific should have the right to select three directors of the California Development Company, one of whom should be president, and that fifty-one per cent of its stock should be placed in the hands of a trustee as collateral security for the loan. Mr. Harriman appointed Mr. Epes Randolph of Tucson as its president.
Mr. Randolph was regarded as one of the ablest civil engineers in the United States and he had already had much experience m dealing with river-control problems the South. He found the situation far more serious than the Development Company had represented it to be. He told Harriman that the cost "might easily run into three quarters of a million dollars." Harriman could have backed out then, but he telegraphed President Randolph, "Are you certain you can put the river back into the old channel ?"W. Randolph replied, "I am certain that it can be done." Then Mr. Harriman wired, "Go ahead and do it."
The difficulty of dealing with this menacing situation was greatly increased by the necessity of furnishing an uninterrupted supply of water to the farmers of Imperial Valley while the engineering operations were in progress. The Colorado must be controlled but not wholly excluded. A plan to install a new steel and concrete head-gate near Pilot Knob, and to re excavate and enlarge the silted channel with a specially built dredge moved ahead The earthquake and fire in San Francisco on April 18, 1906 meant that the 850 ton floating dredge, the "Delta," was not ready until the following November. With the ruins of San Francisco still smoldering around the temporary Southern Pacific office, and with no clear knowledge of the losses his railroad had sustained, Mr. Harriman still was deeply concerned with the desperate situation in the Imperial Valley, and he consented to another loan of $250,000.
On April 19, 1906, the day after the earthquake and fire, Mr. Rockwood resigned, and all subsequent defensive work was planned and executed by SP engineers. Their task was daunting. Thousands of acres of land, covered with growing crops was underwater. Thousands more were so eroded and furrowed by the torrential streams that they would never be cultivated again. The works of the New Liverpool Salt Company were buried under 60 feet of water. Mr Keenan describes the problem in these words:
"The most dangerous and alarming feature of the situation was the "cutting back" of the torrents as they rushed down the delta slope toward the Salton Sea. The fine silt of which the soil was composed washed out like powdered sugar, and wherever there happened to be a strong current, the flow soon produced a rapid. The rapid then became a cascade, the cascade grew into a fall, and the fall finally developed into a roaring cataract, which 'cut back', upstream, at the rate sometimes of four thousand feet a day, widening as it receded, and leaving below it a deep gorge with almost perpendicular walls. Some of the gorges were fifty to eighty feet deep and more than a thousand feet across. It was estimated that the channels thus formed during the floods of 1906 had an aggregate length of more than forty miles, and that the solid matter scoured out of them and came down into the Salton Sea was nearly four times as great as the whole amount excavated in the digging of the Panama Canal. The total of 400,000,000 to 450,000,000 cubic yards were moved. Mr Cory stated, 'Very rarely, if ever before, has it been possible to see a geological agency effect in a few months a change which usually requires centuries.' "
Finally, in November of 1906, the breach was closed when the SP dumped tons of earth and rock into it. But the relief was short-lived. On December 5, 1906, a severe flood rushed down the Gila River into the Colorado near Yuma, and new breaks occurred in the levee. Within a matter of hours, the river was once again flowing entirely into the Salton Sea.
This last flood was a heartbreaker. The Southern Pacific had already spent more than one million dollars trying to turn the river, and the farmers and citizens of Imperial Valley had lost millions. In order to provide lasting protection to the Imperial Valley, it would be necessary to build a stronger, higher and more massive levee along the west bank of the river for a distance of at least twenty miles. The interests chiefly at risk were those of the national government. It owned all of the irrigable land along the lower Colorado. It was constructing the Laguna Dam above Yuma, upon which it had already expended about $ 1,000,000. The water it impounded, was expected to irrigate and reclaim about 90,000 fertile acres in Arizona and California. Left unchecked, the river might eventually cut back upstream and take out the Laguna Dam and irrigation works, rendering valueless more than two thousand square miles of potentially fertile land.
Imperial Valley settlers would have been willing to help the SP in the fight accorcding to Maxwell Evarts, but because the original survey of this part of California had been found inaccurate, the government could not issue patents to the farmers who had made homestead entries on the land and were actually in possession of it. The settlers could not raise money by mortgaging their farms because legal title still rested with the government.
The Southern Pacific was already moving its mainline well out of the flooded area of the Salton Sink in 1906. President Randolph informed Mr. Harriman that the additional work needed to close the breach and reinforce the west bank of the river below the border might well cost the SP at least $1,500.000 more, over and above the $2,000,000. it had already spent. It was time to ask for government help, and Mr. Harriman turned first to the governor of California. He was told that the state had no funds to do this, but the governor did contact President Theodore Roosevelt to ask for federal intervention. Then Harriman himself sent word to the President on December 13, 1906 that he did not doubt that the Colorado could ultimately be controlled, but he did not feel that the SP, which was not responsible for the current disaster, was morally bound to do the work alone. Interesting telegraphic correspondence ensued. President Roosevelt's first telegram to E.H. Harriman, on December 15, simply said that he assumed Harriman was planning to immediately continue work to close the break. "Keep me informed," he said. The following telegrams were exchanged:
"New York, December 19,1906 THE PRESIDENT, Washington Further referring to your telegram of the 15th inst. our engineers advise that closing the break and restoring the levees can be most quickly and cheaply done, if the work is undertaken immediately, at a cost of $300,000. to $350,000. The Southern Pacific Company, having been at an expense of about $2,000,000. already does not feel warranted in assuming this responsibility and the additional expenditure which is likely to follow to make the work permanent, besides the expenditure which the company is already undergoing to put its tracks above danger line. We are willing to cooperate with the Government, contributing train service, use of tracks and switches, use of rock quarries, train crews etc., and the California Development Company will contribute its engineers and organization, the whole work to be done under the Reclamation Service. Can you bring this about?
One man, E. H. Harriman, held the key to the survival of the Imperial Valley, the Laguna Dam and 1,600,000 acres of government land. If he chose to order a continuance of the work, he would put at risk a million and a half dollars of his own money, or the money of the Southern Pacific stockholders, in addition to the almost two million already spent. He would be doing this without any assurance of reimbursement or compensation and without any certainty of success. Mr. Harriman was being prosecuted by the Interstate Commerce Commission , presumably as a malefactor, and President Roosevelt, only a few weeks before, had called him an "undesirable citizen", but he showed courage and public spiritness, above personal feelings. On December 20, 1906, the same day he received the President's telegram, he replied in the following words:
"You seem to be under the impression that the California Development Company is a Southern Pacific enterprise. This is erroneous. It had nothing to do with its work, or the opening of the canal. We are not interested in its stock and in no way control i. t We have loaned it some money to assist in dealing with the situation. What the Southern Pacific has done was for the protection of the settlers as well as of its own tracks, but we have determined to move the tracks onto high ground anyway. However, in view of your message, I am giving authority to the Southern Pacific officers in the West to proceed at once with efforts to repair the break, trusting that the Government, as soon as you can procure the necessary Congressional action, will assist us with the burden.E.H. HARRIMAN
When President Roosevelt received Mr. Harriman's telegram of December 20, saying that orders had been given to proceed with the work, he replied as follows:
"Am delighted to receive your telegram. Have at once directed the Reclamation Service to get into touch with you, so that as soon as Congress reassembles I can recommend legislation which will provide against a repetition of the chsaster and make provision for the equitable distribution of the burden.THEODORE ROOSEVELT
Not until 1923 was any kind of a settlement made, and then only for a portion of the real cost. Congress would argue that payment to a large company like the Southern Pacific would constitute a gift of taxpayers' money .
Ole Nordland, Editor of the Indio Daily News for many years, described the effort of the Southern Pacific in these words: "The gargantuan effort of stemming the flood tied up a network of 1,200 miles of main lines for three weeks while the SP fought to bring the river under control. The work started the very day of the exchange of telegrams, December 20, 1906. Dispatchers sidetracked crack passenger trains to let rock trains through while amazed passengers looked on. Surplus engines stood by to aid in the massive haul of rock and gravel. The rock trains came from as far away as 480 miles to hurtle 2,057 carloads of rock, 221 carloads of gravel, and 203 carloads of clay into the break in 15 days. The loads were dumped from two trestles built across the river break and were literally dumped faster than the water could wash them away. The Colorado River put up a stubborn fight. Three times it ripped away the trestle piles. Finally, on January 27, 1907, the breach was closed and the valley's farms and cities were saved. The Colorado River was returned to its former path but it left in its wake today's Salton Sea."
Among the papers in the Nordland Collection at the Coachella Valley Museum is a letter from Wiley Magruder to Ole Nordland. Written in the 1960s, he says, in part: "I wish as a matter of accuracy, the newspapers would quit printing that the Salton Sea was formed because the Colorado River broke its banks. The Salton Sea lies there a shining shimmering monument to man's carelessness. In my day in the Imperial Valley, to divulge this information would have been heretic. Mark Rose, dreamer and diinker-upper of the Hoover Dam and the All-American Canal, stood daily in front of Clements Drug Store, one thumb, in the armhole of his vest, the other hand gesticulating with a cigar, regaling a crowd of farmers wearing faded and patched overalls. Mark knew how to sway his crowds, and he had my respect and my sympathy... I remember the anxious days after each of the June risings of the river, when the water flow had dropped and the bottom of the channel had been scoured so deep that water could not have leaped into the headgates if it had wings ... All of us kept our mouths shut about man's big mistake in letting the whole river in, when we listened to Mark Rose and his big vision of a dam that would hold back the floods and let them pass into the canals as needed. 'If we ever get the money for that dam we've got to make 'em think that the river broke in', we said to each other....
"Those were desperate days for Imperial Valley and the Water Problem had the attention of everyone ... Scotty Russell, Ira Aten, Otis Tout, Edgar Howe, Charley Collins, Mobley Meadows, and Mark Rose, who figgered out a way. He wanted the dam built first in one canyon and then another, finally settling on Boulder. It was a fantastic dream. It was such a costly proposition that few beheved it would ever come about .... Phil Swing got himself elected to Congress just by promising he would try to do something. With the aid of his fatherly friend, Hiram Johnson, he did influence into both the Congress and the Senate the Swing-Johnson Bin. ...It passed both houses and it appropriated money for surveys that would look toward control of the meandering Colorado River, with clauses committing the government to do something about it if possible. Amidst all the confusion, lots of people got to blaming The River ... Traveling many, many miles, it did then and does yet bring the water we need. Insofar as I know it never did intentionally do us any harm. Unless you count the accidental Salton Sea, and by goilies, I believe that was a pocketfull of money. The sea has been there smiling at us for nearly five decades."
A smiling sea it was, but it disrupted the life of Figtree John, one of the most famous and colorful of the Cahuilla Indians, whose home was flooded when the sea came in. For years his wattled "jacal", a home made of arrow weed and mud, and surrounded by Black Mission fig trees, stood beside a spring in the northwest corner of the old lakebed, near the present Riverside/Imperial County line. The spot was identified on the US Geological Survey of 1904, Indio Special Map, as surveyed in 1901. The spring was called "Paltukwic Kaikaiawit', meaning "blue water," by the Cahullas, but it was Figtree John Spring on US maps. When the sea flooded his home he moved two and a half miles north to Agua Dulce Spring, planted more fig trees, and soon Agua Dulce Spring's name was changed to Fig Tree John Spring. The tale of this early day resident of the shores of Salton Sea is part of the folklore of the Coachella Valley.
At the height of the filling in 1907 the Salton Sea reached the level of 195 feet below sea level, 76 feet above the pre-flood level of the Salton Sink. The deepened Alamo and New River channels acquired a beneficial function as drainage channels for the irrigated Imperial Valley on both sides of the border. Drainage waters kept the Salton Sea alive.
By 1925 it had subsided to 250 feet below sea level. Increased irrigation plus industrial and sanitation wastes from the region south of the border had brought the water level up to 228 feet below sea level as of July 1987.
The Imperial Irrigation District, with power to tax, was formed in 1911. In 1912, it bought the California Development Company from receivership and took over the responsibility of diversion and distribution of water within the Imperial Valley. Not until Hoover Dam was built were the problems of levee maintenance and silting overcome.
George Keenan, in his book, The Salton Sea, reminds us of the lack of suitable thanks given to E. H. Harriman for the courageous role he played in this saga. Keenan speculates: "Perhaps Mr. Harriman was not entitled to credit, for the reason that the work in the field was done by the Southern Pacific Company and its engineers. this was not the view taken by the company and the engineers themselves. If Mr. Harriman, personally, had been asked who finally controlled the Colorado River and saved the Imperial Valley, he undoubtedly would have replied: 'Epes Randolph, H.T. Cory, Thomas J. Hind, C.K. Clarke and their associates.' But these gentlemen have publicly said that the driving power behind their work &emdash; the one thing that made it successful, was the invincible determination of their chief...C.K. Clarke said, 'The writer desires to put on record the fact that the accomplishment of the work was due primarily and exclusively to the independent judgment and courage of Mr. Harriman, who persisted in his belief that the breaks could be closed, and his determination to close them, in the face of opposition and regardless of the positive assertions of a host of eminent engineers that the closure was a physical impossibility.'"
Cutback in the New River Near Calexico. Drop, 23 feet. June, 1906.
The Southern Railroad Tressle
Sailing the Salton Sea
Photo labeled "The 1906 Rise of the
Salton Sea - Mrs. E.C. Moore"
From the Archives of the Coachella Valley Historical Society
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