The Salton Sea: Desert Miracle to Haunting Wasteland

levitra cialis viagra which is betterMovies, television, and even video games try to give us a taste of what would become of our civilization were an apocalyptic event to diminish our population and break down the communities that we currently take for granted.   But one doesn’t need to escape to fantasy realms to witness such wastelands.  There are a few places on Earth where humanity can catch a glimpse at what the World would look like after we’re gone.

In 1905, heavy rainfall and snow melt caused the Colorado River to swell, flooding the headgates of the Alamo canal.   A massive error in engineering diverted these waters into one of the lowest land basins in the United States. Eventually, the water breached dikes, flooded golf courses, and joined with the waters of the New River and Alamo River.

Over the course of two years, workers tried to stop the flow of these newly formed rivers, but were unsuccessful.  The water continued to flow, and ended up carrying the entire volume of the Colorado River into the Salton Sink (former site of a major salt mining operation).  The town of Salton and Torres-Martinez Indian land were utterly submerged.  The confluence of water filled the entirety of the basin, forming what became known as the Salton Sea.  The 1929 construction of the Hoover Dam finally stopped the flooding of the valley, but the newly formed Sea remained.  It is California’s largest inland body of water, which is even visible from Space.

While the Sea had caused many problems for the area, it also created many opportunities.  Having such a lush body of water in the middle of the desert sparked ideas for contractors and entrepreneurs.   In the 1950’s communities were developed all around the beaches of the Sea, and lavish resorts were constructed.   What was the result of human error became a living paradise for vacationers, tourists, and residents.

Vintage Postcard from the Salton Sea

The most ambitious development was Salton City.  250,000 lots, 250 miles of roads, swimming pools, hotels, churches, schools, golf courses, yacht clubs, and more were designed for the area, and it became an instant success.  Bus loads of people came in to view this new Mecca in the desert, and by 1964, some 15,000 lots were sold.  The city eventually planned for an airport, parks, fancy hotels and more.

Movie stars and Pop music idols frequented the resorts of the Salton Sea.  Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, The Beach Boys, and scores of other famous faces could regularly be seen sunning themselves on the Salton beaches or dining in one of the Salton’s lavish restaurants.

Sadly, the revelry would soon come to an end.  Salt levels began to rise higher and higher in the Sea, eventually surpassing that of ocean water.  The rising salt levels lead to algae blooms and bacteria growth.  Fish started to die and the water became unsafe.  Agricultural run-off further polluted the Salton Sea… and the grand era of  the “miracle in the desert” ground to a halt.  What was left behind became a ghost town unlike anything else in the United States.  Actually, it was more like a ghost sea… homes, hotels, diners, and tourist attractions all died out just like the fish that now littered the beaches.

North Shore Yacht Club – Before and After

(A vintage advertisement for the decadent Club, and a tour of its remains)


So, what was once an oasis created from one of mankind’s largest mistakes, now lies as a barren wasteland.  It is a testament to our ability to exploit something until it ceases to make us feel good, and then utterly abandon it.  But, all is not lost.  The Salton Sea remains a birding wonderland, and Federal stimulus money has begun to restore some of the ruins that lie on the shores.I came upon this short and wonderful documentary about the Salton Sea.  It highlights the heyday of the Sea, and the resultant desolation of the once thriving community.  This documentary is filled with haunting images of what man left behind, and offers a taste of hope.