By: Douglas Love, President, Napa Parlor #62
In 1962, John and Michelle Phillips were living in New York City, trying to start a career in music. Together, they wrote a song, California Dreamin’, which expressed their homesickness and longing for their previous home in Los Angeles. In late 1965, the song was released as a single by the newly formed The Mamas and The Papas. By March of 1966, the song peaked at #4 in the nation and became one of the anthems for the nascent counter-culture movement. By the end of the year it was the #1 song in the nation, tied with Ballad of The Green Berets. But the song is more than just a wistful longing for home; in some way it encapsulates the very essence of California, the dream of it. For centuries, California has been a place of dreams, from its naming after a mythical Amazon queen, to the high tech hub of Silicon Valley, people have come here to dream, scheme, succeed, and fail spectacularly.
One of these dreamers and schemers was Dr. Oliver M. Wozencraft. Wozencraft emigrated to California via the Colorado Desert, after a cholera epidemic swept through his home of Brownsville, Texas. Once in California, he became a delegate to the Constitutional Convention in Monterey. In 1850, he was appointed an Indian Agent, negotiated treaties with 18 different tribes, all of which were rejected by the Senate and was, in 1852, no longer an Indian agent. Eighteen Fifty Four found him in the Colorado Desert again, in the Salton Sink, now the Imperial Valley, in the company of Ebenezer Hadley, to survey a route for a canal to irrigate the desert and turn it into farmland which would, “yield crops of almost any kind.” In 1859, Wozencraft, tried to lobby Congress for a grant of 300,000 acres to begin his dream of making the desert bloom. He died of a heart attack on November 22, 1887, in Washington D.C. while trying unsuccessfully to lobby Congress for the grant. His dream went unfulfilled, but it had not died.
In 1891, John C. Beatty incorporated “The California Irrigation Company” for the purposes of irrigating the Colorado Desert with water from the Colorado River. His plan was to begin a canal twelve miles north of Yuma, Arizona, connect it with one of the dry arroyos in Mexico and then into the Salton Sink. The Panic of 1893 forced this company into bankruptcy. In 1896, Mr. C. R. Rookwood, a partner in the failed California Irrigation Company, created the “California Development Company” to try to bring water to the Colorado Desert yet again. The Company tried for two years to win a concession from the government of Mexico. This was only achieved after the Company formed a Mexican subsidiary. Work on the canal began in 1900 and on May 14, 1901, the first water began to flow into the Alamo Canal.
In 1901, the “Imperial Land Company” was formed to attract settlers, sell land and lay out towns in the Imperial Valley. Despite reports that the soil was too alkaline for cultivation, the Imperial Valley became one of the richest farming areas in California. By January 1, 1905, 120,000 acres were under cultivation and over ten thousand settlers lived in the former desert. But disaster loomed on the horizon.
The problem was that the natural forces which created the Colorado Desert were still at work. Once, the entire Imperial Valley had been part of a vast inland sea, connected to the Gulf of California. Over thousands of years, the silt of the Colorado River cut the northern part of the Gulf off from the southern and the river had filled the Salton Sink with fresh water. The river would change course and the lake would evaporate, leaving a desert. Then the Colorado would change course again, refilling the lake. Eventually, the silt that the river carried clogged the irrigation canal, reducing flow, and the Imperial Valley was in danger of becoming a desert again. Crops withered and died and settlers who depended upon irrigation water from the Colorado began to abandon the Valley.
There was a solution. Cut a new canal from the Colorado, bypassing the most heavily silted parts of the Alamo Canal and restore water flow to the valley. In December of 1904, such a new canal was cut, restoring water flow into the valley. By March of 1905, the Colorado had flooded three times and the entire river was beginning to empty into the Imperial Valley. By June, the Colorado was flowing, not to the Gulf of California, but into the valley, threatening to flood the entire area. Back in January, the California Development Company had secured a loan from the Southern Pacific and now most of that capital was used to try to stop the flooding. The Southern Pacific’s tracks were inundated as was the town of Salton and the New Liverpool Salt Company’s salt works and the towns of Calexico and Mexicali were partially flooded. After four failed attempts to stem the flooding, the Southern Pacific, urged on by President Theodore Roosevelt and its President, Edward H. Harriman, finally built a rock dam and returned the Colorado to its natural course.
The result was the creation of the Salton Sea, a large shallow freshwater lake in the deepest portion of the Imperial Valley. Fed by inflows from the Alamo, New, and Whitewater Rivers, the lake became a resort area in the 1950’s and attracted investors and Hollywood stars. Bob Hope had a vacation house on the shores of the lake. The towns of Salton City, Bombay Beach, Salton Sea Beach, Desert Shores, Desert Beach, and North Shore all became vacation resorts in the 1950’s. The completion of the All-American Canal in 1940 began the diversion of water from the lake and the lake began to evaporate.
Today, the Salton Sea is a fraction of its former size, highly saline and polluted from agricultural runoff. All of the resort communities and facilities have been largely abandoned, although there are still a few residents. There have been plans to restore or conserve the lake, due to worries concerning the toxic dust blown from the dry lake bed, but none have come to fruition. The Imperial Valley is still one of the richest agricultural areas in the state, but the Salton Sea is a reminder that dreams can fail.
GETTING THERE: From 414 Mason Street, take I-580 East toward Livermore and then merge onto I-5 South toward Los Angeles. Take Exit 161A onto I-210 East toward Pasadena. Take Exit 85B into I-10 East toward Indio. Keep right onto CA-85S toward Brawley and El Centro. Turn left onto Sunrise Drive. Salton City is about an eight hour drive from San Francisco.