The Salton Sea Catastrophe

Author: Doug Sharp
Subject: Geology
Date: 1/30/98

Once a barren wasteland in the middle of the Mojave Desert, the lowest point of California’s Imperial Valley is now occupied by the Salton Sea, a vast salty lake formed over the course of only two years. Those who doubt the destructive power of Noah’s flood and its ability in just a matter of a short period of time to lay down layers of rock and cut deep canyons need only to look at catastrophes such as what formed the Salton Sea. This disaster occurred in 1905, and continued until 1907, when a breach in the dam on the Colorado River was repaired. Some people argue that there just hasn’t been enough time for the salt in the Dead Sea to accumulate over the course of Biblical history. But here, in an flood event that lasted two years, a salty sea was formed right on the spot.

It is surprising to me that this disaster is rarely mentioned in the history books, though it was far more destructive than even the Johnstown flood, permanently scarring the landscape with canyons and creating a large lake. The story behind this event is relatively difficult to find, even for those who live in the Southern California area. The following account, from a historical novel written four years after the event, testifies to the terror of the forces that wreaked havoc on the settlers of that era.

An excerpt from “The Winning of Barbara Worth”by Harold Bell Wright.

The Book Supply Company Publishers, Chicago, 1911.

CHAPTER XXXIV.

BATTLING WITH THE RIVER.

SOME day, perhaps, the history of that River war will be written. It can only be suggested in my story.

It was a war of terrific forces waged for a great cause by men as brave as any who ever fought with weapons that kill.

The attacking force was the Rio Colorado that with power immeasurable had, through the ages past, carved mile-deep canyons on its course and with its mountains of silt had built the great delta dam across the ancient gulf, thus turning back the waters of the sea that sun and wind might lay bare the floor of the Basin and work the desolation of the desert.

Using the Seer’s open hand for his map of La Palma de la Manode Dios, Jose, the Indian, had traced the course of the river along the base of the fingers flowing toward the gulf which lies between the edge of the palm and the thumb-this same inner edge of the hand representing roughly the high ground that shuts out the waters of the sea. The thousands of acres of The King’s Basin lands lie from sea level to nearly three hundred feet below. The river at the point where the intake for the system of canals was located is, of course, higher than sea level, for the waters that pass the intake flow on southward to the gulf.

It was the river flowing thus on higher ground that made irrigation and reclamation of the desert possible. It was this also that made possible the disaster that was now upon the hardy pioneers, who had staked everything in their effort to realize the vast potential wealth of the ancient sea-bed. The grade from the river at the intake to the lowest point in the bottom of the Basin is much steeper than the established fall of the river from the in taketo the gulf. The water in the canals on this steeper grade was controlled by headings, spillways, gates and drops, while the structure at the intake, with gates to regulate the flow into the main canal, prevented the river from leaving its old channel altogether, pouring its entire volume into the Basin and in time converting it again into an inland sea.

The dangerously cheap and inadequate character of the vital parts, built by the Company upon the usual promoter’s estimates, had led Abe Lee to protest against the risk forced upon the settlers and had finally caused him to resign. Later, as the Company system of canals was extended and more and more water was needed to supply the rapidly increasing acreage of cultivated lands, Willard Holmes came to appreciate the desert-bred surveyor’s view of the danger and insistently urged his employers to supply him with funds to replace the temporary wooden structures with safe and lasting works of concrete and steel.

But the hunger of Capital for profits forbade. Some day the work would be done, the directors promised. In the meantime, without increasing the original investment by so much as a dollar but with the revenues derived from the sale of water rights, they were extending the system to supply the ever increasing fields of the settlers, thus shrewdly forcing the people, who were ignorant of the terrible risk they were carrying, to supply the funds to build the canals and ditches that belonged to the Company; while for the water carried to the ranches the farmers continued to pay the Company large rentals. The original investment of the Company was very small compared with the thousands invested by the pioneers who had been induced to settle in the new country. And yet from every dollar of the wealth taken from the land the Company would receive a share.

But the Rio Colorado gave no heed to the decree of the New York financiers. The forces that had made La Palma de la Mano de Dios are not ruled by Wall street.

Willard Holmes, who had come to understand that his work was not alone to safeguard the p property of his employers but to protect the interests of the pioneers as well, had been discharged because he would not deliver the people wholly into the hands of the Company. – A new engineer out of the East, as faithful to the interests of Capital as he was unfamiliar with conditions in the new country, was placed in charge.

It was as if the river, in the absence of the man whose constant readiness had held it in check, saw its opportunity. Swiftly it mustered its forces from mountain and plain. Hundreds of miles away it gathered its strength and hurried to the assault. The sources of information established by Holmes on the tributaries and headwaters wired their reports: a foot rise on the Gila; three feet coming down the Little Colorado; two feet rise in the Salt; five feet on the Grand. The New York office-engineer received the messages with mild interest. The daily reports from the weather bureau covering the countries drained by the Rio Colorado layon his desk unnoticed.

Mr. Burk warned him, but the thoughtful Manager of the Company was not an engineer. Willard Holmes tried to help him, but Holmes had been discharged by the Company and the words of discharged men have little weight with those who succeed to their positions.

The daily reports from the gauge at Rubio City showed an increase in the river’s volume of twenty thousand second feet; then thirty thousand more; and on top of that came another twenty thousand. The assistants of the new chief engineer tried to tell him what it meant, but the assistants were subordinates and friends ofWillard Holmes. The man from New York, who was privileged to write several letters after his name, was supposed to know his business.

Then 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.

Too late the Company’s forces were rushed to the scene. Before their very eyes the roaring waters, as if mad with destructive power, wrenched and tore at the Company’s property, twisting, ripping, smashing, until not a trestle, plank or stick was left in place and the terrific current, rushing with ever increasing volume and power through the opening, plowed into the soft, alluvial soil of the embankment, undermining and carrying it away until nearly the entire river was admitted.

As quickly as men and material could be assembled, the Company’s chief engineer began the battle to regain control of the mighty stream. The warfare thus begun meant life or death to the greatest reclamation project in the world. Millions already invested by the settlers in farms and towns and homes and business enterprises were at stake. Many more millions that were yet to be realized from the reclaimed lands depended upon the issue of the fight.

Against the efforts of the engineers and the army of laborers the river massed from its tributaries in the regions of heavy rains and melting snows the greatest strength it had assembled in many years. Five times, with piling and trestles and jettie sand embankments, the men who defended The King’s Basin were in sight of victory. Five times the river summoned fresh strength-twisted out the piling, wrecked the trestles, undermined the jetties and embankments and swept the nearly completed structures, smashing, grinding, crashing, away–a twisted, tangled ruin.

While the engineers and men of the Company were waging this war with the river, the situation of the pioneers in the Basin grew daily more perilous. Without a well-defined channel large enough to carry the incoming stream, the flood spread over a wide territory in the southern and western portions of the Basin, filling first the old channels and washes left by the waters ages ago, forming next in the areas of nearly level or slightly depressed sections shallow pools, lakes and seas, out of which the higher ground and hummocks rose like new-born islands, growing smaller and smaller as the rising tide submerged more and more of their sandy bases. Meanwhile the whole flood, eddying slowly with winding sluggish currents in the shallow places, moving more swiftly in the deeper washes and channels, swept always onward toward the north where, miles away, lay the deepest bottom of the great Basin.

Many of the settlers in the flooded districts were forced to abandon farms they had won with courage and toil, for the sweeping waters covered alike fields of alfalfa and grain and barren desert waste. The towns of Frontera and Kingston were protected from the inundation by earthen levees, in the building of which men and women toiled in desperate haste, and night and day these embankments were patrolled by watchful guards, who frequently summoned the weary, besieged citizens from their rest to protect or strengthen some threatened point in their fortifications.

The eastern side of the Basin being higher ground, the settlers in the South Central District and east of Republic, with the two towns built by Jefferson Worth, were in no immediate danger, but the old Dry River channel became a roaring torrent, bank-full; and it was only a question of time, if the river were not controlled, when every foot of the new country with its wealth of improvements and its vast possibilities would be buried deep beneath the surface of an inland sea.

The situation was appalling. The remarkable development of the new country, the marvelous richness of the reclaimed lands, with the immense possibilities of the reclamation work as demonstrated by The King’s Basin project had attracted the attention of the nation. The pioneers in Barbara’s Desert were in fact, leaders in a far greater work that would were, add immeasurably to the nation’s life–that would indeed, be world-wide in its influence. Because of this the attention of the nation was fixed with peculiar interest upon the disaster that had fallen upon The King’s Basin. Throughout the land civil engineers watched intently the efforts of the Company men to regain control of the river and to force it back into its old channel. Many declared that because of the alluvial character of the soil, the absence of anything like a rock floor to build upon and the great volume and terrific velocity of the current, the feat was an engineering impossibility. In the eyes of the engineering world The King’s Basin project was doomed. The settlers were advised to abandon the work they had accomplished and to move out. But those strong ones who had forced the desert to yield its wealth to their hands did not move. Those whose farms were in the flooded district were forced to go. There was the inevitable sifting of the timid-hearted and the weak, but the great majority stood fast.

Jefferson Worth, in the face of almost certain ruin, went steadily on with his work on the railroad and continued pushing his other enterprises toward completion-making improvements, erecting new buildings, planning further investments and developments with a confidence and conviction that was startling. Not once throughout that trying period was he heard to express the slightest doubt as to the ultimate triumph of the settlers. His business friends and associates outside urged him to stop-to wait at least until the issue was certain. He answered calmly that the issue was already certain and went on with his work.

His confidence and courage were the inspiration that fired the hearts of that threatened people. Had he given ground, had he weakened and drawn back it would have started a panic that nothing could have checked and that would have resulted inevitably in the abandonment of the cause forever. The King’s Basin lands with the wealth of effort that had already been expended would have been given over to the river, lost irretrievably to the race.

Hundreds went to him when they felt their courage failing and their spirits weakening under the strain. And always they returned to their farms or to their business with renewed strength to go on. As one, who passed through that ordeal, long afterwards expressed it: “In those times we all just lived on his nerve. ”

Through all the Company’s war with the river and its repeated defeats Willard Holmes was forced to stand a mere observer, an idle looker-on. Foreseeing the catastrophe that was now upon them, he had prepared himself by careful study of every factor in the problem and by thorough knowledge of the situation to meet the crisis when it came. With every means at his command he had planned and worked that he might be ready and so far as possible equipped for the struggle and now, when war was declared and the battle being waged, he could only watch the ruin of the work he loved while a stranger, who ignored his preparatory efforts, took the place that should have been his.

But the great man of the S. & C., with whom the engineer had many a counsel in those days, warned him always to be ready for the time when–as the western man put it–“The Company should throw up its hands.”

The waters moving northward reached the lowest point in the Basin and, there formed an inland sea that, without an outlet and receiving the full volume of the river, grew ever larger and larger. Flowing towards the sea the flood developed swift currents in the depressions and washes that led in the general direction of its course, seeking thus to make for itself a well-defined channel. The largest of these ancient washes, scarcely noticeable in the desert, led from the south to Kingston, passing through the edge of the town, curved slightly to the west and extended on northward, becoming deeper and more clearly defined with higher ground on either side as it neared the lowest point of the Basin. The. general lay of the land drew the flood toward this channel and developed a current that moved with increasing velocity as the waters, nearing the sea, were concentrated more and more by the greater depth of the old channel and the steeper grade of the land on both sides.

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 mighty cataract from fifty to sixty feet in height and a full quarter of a mile wide, moving at the rate of from one to three miles a day and leaving as it went 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. Acres upon acres of the soft fertile land fell, melted an were swept away down the gorge as banks of snow fall and melt in the spring freshets. Day and night, night and day, the immeasurable power of the canyon-cutting river drove the cataract southward toward the break at the intake through which, by this time, the entire Colorado at its highest flood stage was turned.

The imminent danger that threatened the Basin was not the danger from the ever-rising sea. Long before the waters could fill the old sea-bed, the mighty cataract, moving ever upstream, would pass the intake; and with the floor of the river lowered thus some fifty feet it would be impossible to take the water out for irrigation. The lands reclaimed by the pioneers would go back to desert years before they would be buried once more under the surface of the sea.

The complete destruction of all that the settlers had gained and the utter desolation of the land was now a question of weeks.

The Company town of Kingston was directly in the path of that moving Niagara. While the Company’s men were making a last desperate effort to close the break, the great falls were eating their way nearer and nearer the little city. When the roar of the water and the crashing and booming of the falling banks could be heard on the streets and in the offices of the Company, the people left their homes, their stores and their shops; the town realizing that no human power now could avert the disaster.

Heroic efforts were made to direct the course of the new river away from the little city, but the waters with savage, resistless power chose their own way. The pioneers, who built the first town in the heart of The King’s Basin Desert, saw that mighty, thundering cataract move upon the work of their hands and felt the earth trembling under their feet as they watched homes, business blocks, the hotel, the opera house, the bank and finally the Company building undermined and tumbled, crashing into the deep canyon.

In a few short hours it was over. The falls moved on and where Kingston had once stood was that great gorge, with a few scattered houses only remaining on each side.

That same day the last attempt of the Company men to close the break failed.

With every hour the awful ruin drew nearer the point which, if reached, would place The King’s Basin forever beyond the reclaiming power of men. Frantic appeals for help were made to the government, but before the ponderous machinery of state, with its intricate and complicated wheels within wheels, could unwind a sufficient quantity of red tape the work of the pioneer citizens would be past saving.

It was at this time that a telegram from Jefferson Worth to the great man of the Southwestern and Continental brought a special train of private cars into the Basin. At Deep Well Junction Jefferson Worth, Abe Lee, the Seer and Willard Holmes boarded the train and entered the car of the general manager, where the officials representing the highest authority in the great trans-continental system had gathered to meet them in consultation.

At Republic the president of The King’s Basin Land and Irrigation Company with his manager and chief engineer joined them, and the train moved on until, at a word from Holmes, the conductor gave the signal to stop. From the windows and platform of the car the party could see the water extending to the south and west mile after mile, and nearer the huge plunging cataracts with leaping columns of spray, while the roar of the falls, the crashing and booming of the caving banks shook the air with heavy vibrations and the earth trembled with the shock of the plunging waters and the falling masses of earth. Just ahead, where Kingston had stood, the track ended on the bank of the deep gorge. From here the party was driven in comfortable spring wagons to the scene of the Company’s defeat.

Save for the camps of the laborers, the boats, pile drivers, implements and materials of their warfare and the debris of their wrecked structures, not a sign of their work remained, while through the breach–widened now to nearly a quarter of a mile–the great river poured its hundred and fifty thousand second feet of muddy water with terrific velocity and solemn, awful power.