The Glory Days   Leave a comment

I found another wonderful quote in DeBuy’s books Salt Dreams that I would say sums up my feelings on the creation of the Salton Sea:

One need not forgive the Colorado River Development Company in its greed and incompetence to say that it did not cause the great Diversion, it simply released a flood whose hydrologic causes were embedded in the sediments of millennia.

There is a lot to cover when discussing the history of the Salton Sea–a task more involved than I originally anticipated. Even until know, I’ve glossed over a lot of interesting history, both social and geological, of the Sea. Needless to say, this history shows how our relationship with the sea has been ever-changing.  But, let’s get on with it! There is so much more to talk about! I plan to skip over a few years in its history to bring you the most alluring era of its past: the Salton Sea as resort. But first, I’ll do a brief rundown of important developments at the Salton Sea leading up to the 1950s.

In 1911, residents of the Imperial Valley supported the creation of Imperial Irrigation District to replace the Colorado River Development Company in bringing water to residents. This is the same company that my family pays electricity bills to today. During World War I, and later during World War 2, cultivation of mullet in the sea becomes a profitable industry–mainly because of the wartime dangers in open fishing waters. In 1924, President Coolidge set aside the sea as an agricultural drainage site. This action would indeed prove to have tremendous consequences to the ecology of the lake. It would also secure the lake’s existence far into the furture, since agricultural runoff is its primary water input. But, more on that later. Southern Pacific was finally compensated by Congress in 1930 for its fight against the “Great Diversion.” In 1955, The Salton Sea State Park was established.

In 1927, attempts to drill for geothermal energy were made on the muddy shores of the Salton Sea. According to many scientists, the Imperial Valley has high geothermal potential. Attempts of the twenties did not succeed, due to the impurities in the steam rising from the earth, which damaged equipment. Many people today still believe in this use of the land that may even help save the Sea.

In teh 1940s, both during and after the war, a Navy base operated at the Salton Sea. After the war the focus was on rocket and missile technology. Little is known about the actual activities of the base. But, it is in an interesting instance of the many uses people have found for the area. Unfortunately, sea levels began to rise in the 1950s, putting the base at risk.

But the sea did continue to rise, and today, in 1995, only vandalized buildings remain to remind us of the Salton Sea’s part in developing the rocket technology which made our space program possible, and many of the spin-off benefits we enjoy in everyday life. (Laflin)

The first visionary to see the Salton Sea as a “resort area” was Gus Eilers. Eilers secured the land of Date Palm Shore in 1926, but the stock market crash and Great Depression prevented the optimum development of his entertainment and relaxation haven. The land was sold to Roy Hunter in 1946, who then dubbed it Desert Beach.

The Regatta at Eiler's Date Palm Beach

Desert Beach, North Shore Beach, Bombay Beach, Desert Shores, and Salton City were all similar dreams with similar fates. Many optimistic developers looked at the empty shorefront land and saw opportunity for housing and recreational development. These partially constructed and wholly imagined resort towns would all succumb to rising water levels and foul odors from algal blooms and fish die-offs in the sea. There was a period in the late fifties and early sixties when the potential of these areas seemed wholly certain. They were buzzing hotspots–alive with boaters, skiers, fishers, investors, and famous movie stars. The Salton Sea was the new Palm Springs, and many people thought it would only continue to grow.

The $2 million North Shore Yacht Club, completed in 1962 by developers Ray Ryan and Trav Rodgers, was the area’s hottest haven for young people and celebrities. It was home to one of the largest marinas in Southern California, and received visits from such prominent celebrities as the Beach Boys. The Salton Sea was where Sunny Bono learned how to waterski.

Waterskiing on the Salton Sea, with the North Shore Yacht Club in the background

The Salton Sea of these days was glamorous, hailed to be the new “Riviera.” It is no wonder that residents near the Salton Sea and even of greater Southern California look back on the lost potential of these glory days with longing and nostalgia. My mom recently mailed me an issue of Desert Magazine, a local publication of the Coachella Valley. It contains a short article on the “Sunny Days” of the Salton Sea, which is why she sent it. I believe this article perfectly captures the nostalgia many older Valley residents must feel:

Even with a striking yacht club building in place, the Salton Sea was an everyman’s destination. As such, it was decidedly fun, and egalitarian paradise peopled by locals, tourists, and movie stars alike. The waterfront and parties were shared by the guy-next-door and Rat Pack pals like Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra, along with Jerry Lewis, the Marx Brothers, and the Beach Boys…abundant sunbathing, waterskiing, boating–even racing complete with regattas–fishing and befitting of the good times, plenty of cocktail parties…But look at what we’ve lost. Still, the sea’s potential for delight, though diminished, beckons. (Conrad)

Others, like DeBuys, characterize the entire vision of a resort Salton Sea as a giant real estate scam. He reviews Penn Phillips, already a renowned developer for other projects in the west, and his attempts to create Salton City. Phillips claimed, “Without any question, Salton Riviera is the most important development in our history.” His plans included a marina, country club, and golf courses, as well as middle class housing. He appealed to buyers and investors with the allure that even the average Joe could own a piece of this luxury paradise. He originally bought the land for 3-5 dollars an acre and sold 1/2 acre plots for $3,500. DeBuys insists that Phillips, as well as other developers, created the illusion of value on property where there was none. In 1960, Salton City development was taken over by the Holly Coorporation, who soon built the first golf course. by 1968 plans for Salton City had stopped. There was not enough commerce in the area, the installed sewage system was inadequate, and not even a school existed. More importantly, the sea was rising and creating harsh odors form algal blooms and fish die-offs. Residents and developers blamed Valley farmers and irrigation districts for the seas problems. Alas, this was the typical demise of a Salton Sea resort city.

“The shoreline of the Salton Sea lacked the attributes of a good place for a city, let alone a resort. It was too hot, too foul, too isolated, too vulnerable, too hostile.” (DeBuys)

As for whether the developments there were ever feasible in the first place, I tend to side with DeBuys. The glitz and glamour of the Salton Sea was swell while it lasted, but I am skeptical that building a resort community on the shores of an agricultural sump was a great idea.

Some current residents of these abandoned dream cities would love to see things booming again. Others would prefer to remain in the isolated peace and quiet living near the Salton Sea brings.

Abandoned Resort at Bombay Beach

Abandoned Motel at the Salton Sea

Personally, I don’t think we can go back to the resort days. There are many who point to the 60s as an example of the unfulfilled economic and recreational potential of the Salton Sea.  Yet knowing what we know about the contents of the Salton Sea (chiefly pesticides, which I will cover in detail later on, don’t worry!), I doubt many people would want to go waterskiing in those waters.

So why should we maintain the sea if not to turn it into this economic paradise? Let’s keep investigating and see what value lies in protecting the Salton Sea.


DeBuys, William Eno., and Joan Myers. Salt Dreams: Land & Water in Low-down California. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico, 1999. Print.


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

I highly recommend Googling some images of abandoned Salton Sea resorts. They’re very eerie in a post-apocaplyptic kind of way. But, oddly beautiful in their abandonment.


Posted December 4, 2011 by jacqueline2014 in History

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