The Great Flood

The mountain ranges surrounding the Salton Sea retain ghost-like traces of an ancient sea that rose hundreds of feet above its current level. These ephemeral bodies of water—the last of which dried up approximately 300 to 500 years ago—are collectively known as Lake Cahuilla, named by William P. Blake during the government railroad survey he led in 1853 for the Native American tribe that inhabited the area. The oral traditions of the Cahuilla mention the “sudden and dangerous appearance of a lake in the desert,” and in 1891 a small lake did appear briefly within the sink. [1] As these lakes formed and dried out over millennia, they left behind rich accumulations of salts and other soluble mineral deposits.

Extending into the Imperial and Coachella valleys, lakes formed when the Colorado River blocked by accumulated sediment was rerouted at the Gulf of California northward to the hinterland known as the Salton Sink or Salton Trough. Between 1824 and 1904, the Colorado River flooded the basin no fewer than eight times, using surrounding dry flood channels to fill the basin which sits just five feet higher than the lowest point in Death Valley. [2] A curious rumor purports that the remains of a Spanish galleon lie somewhere on the desert floor, trapped centuries ago by the ebb and flow of waters. [3]

By the late nineteenth century all that remained of Lake Cahuilla was a brine pool fed by saline hot spring within the center of the exceptionally dry and desolate Salton Sink.  George Durbrow, an entrepreneur from San Francisco took advantage of this briny deposit with a commercial salt mining operation opened in 1884 with labor provided by the local Cahuilla tribe and Japanese immigrants. Both William P. Blake and San Franciscan, Dr. Oliver Wozencraft recognized the region’s potential for agricultural development. Wozencraft became interested in the area as early as 1849 and lobbied Congress unsuccessfully in 1859 in his effort to bring water to the desert. His untimely death in 1887 delayed any plans for development until the turn of the twentieth century when Charles R. Rockwood and his California Development Company attempted to make Wozencraft's dream a reality. [4]

Rockwood, a former engineer with the U.S. Reclamation Service formed the private California Development Company (CDC) in 1896 with a plan to divert waters from the Colorado River into the Salton Sink to promote agricultural economic growth. His business model was based on creating a lucrative farming industry that would supply and deliver winter harvested crops and vegetables via the Southern Pacific Railroad to large population centers back east. For their effort, the CDC would control water rights and the sale of all diverted water.

Faced with financial difficulties Rockwood reluctantly formed a partnership with George Chaffey, a self-educated engineer from Canada who had already constructed several successful irrigation projects near Los Angeles and in Australia. [5] Plans for the CDC irrigation canal were realized in May 1901 after Chaffey, acting as head engineer, successfully constructed a cut and headgate at Pilot Knob near Yuma, Arizona. With the Algodones Sand Hills preventing the engineers from creating a canal entirely on U.S. soil, the partners were successful in negotiating an agreement with Mexican officials and brought the water first through Mexico and then across the border via a dry overflow channel known as the Alamo River wash.

The CDC christened its newly irrigated basin “Imperial Valley” and within a few short years over 400 miles of irrigation ditches were completed. Federal lands within the basin were opened up to settlement through the Homestead Act or Desert Land Act. With the guidance of the Imperial Land Company (a subsidiary of the CDC) the settler filed his/her claim. To fulfill the improvement requirement to gain immediate title to the land the settler simply had to purchase water stock from the CDC (often on credit with the land serving as collateral) plus the cost of their irrigation water. If a settler defaulted on their loan—as they often did—their property fell conveniently into the hands of the CDC. [6]

Within eight months of its construction, the CDC's irrigation project spawned two towns and by the end of 1904, two thousand settlers were farming the desert—now productive land. [7] Unfortunately, the initial success of the company soon turned to failure. By 1904, sediment deposits began to strangle the canal now supplying 100,000 acres under irrigation. After two additional bypass attempts failed with nearly half a million dollars in lawsuits were pending, a third diversion known as the “Mexican Cut” was made in desperation. But as bad luck would have it, a succession of heavy rains occurring during 1905’s early El Niño season transformed this hasty solution into disaster. Unprecedented flooding of the Colorado River and its tributaries obliterated the temporary headgate in early February and before long the entire flow of the Colorado had breached the Mexican Cut thus overwhelming the Alamo River canal and other dry overflow channels such as the New River. The terminus of the flooding ended in the Salton Sink.

During the Great Flood onlookers described a raging torrent of huge waterfalls—as high as twenty, forty, even eighty feet high and 1,000 feet wide were recorded as the river gushed unrestrained. [8] “Even as their fields were being eaten and as their homes swam away, the valley people came out by the hundreds to see this apparition.” [9] The soft, loamy soil eroded at a stunning rate of one foot per second. Henry Thomas Cory, the engineer largely responsible for finally containing the flood estimated that the volume of earth washed down into the Salton Sink during nine months of flooding equaled four times the amount excavated during construction of the Panama Canal. [10]

After two years of successive flooding the Imperial Valley was completely ravaged with much of it underwater. Unable to control the river’s endless flow, the floundering CDC sought the help of Edward H. Harriman, president of the Southern Pacific Railroad whose main line had to be moved three times to avoid being swallowed by the rapidly growing lake. Harriman and the Southern Pacific took over the CDC pouring nearly $3 million in an effort to stop the flooding. Under Cory's direction, a workforce of nearly 2,000 men recruited from six local tribes, area settlers and Mexican laborers built a pair of trestles that enabled the workers to move the equivalent of more than 3,000 railroad cars of timber, rock, gravel, and clay in a Sisyphean struggle to end the torrent. [11] After three attempts, Cory and his crew finally closed the break in early 1907 thereby coaxing the river back to its former southern course towards the Gulf of California. On February 10th, 1907 the deluge was officially over. [12] The Great Flood lived on in fiction inspiring the popular 1911 book, The Winning of Barbara Worth by Harold Bell Wright that was made into a film in 1926, starring Gary Cooper in his silent motion picture debut.


[1] William deBuys and Joan Myers, Salt Dreams: Land and Water in Low-Down California, (Albuqueque: University of New Mexico Press), 65. The Salton Trough is considered to be the northern extension of the Gulf of California.
[2] Salton Sea Authority, Salton Sea Restoration: Draft Preferred Project Report (April 2004), 2.
[3] Pat Laflin, “Lost Ships of the Desert,” The Salton Sea: California's overlooked treasure, (Indio, CA: Coachella Valley Historical Society, 1995).
[4] Laflin, 6.
[5] On page 7 of Greetings from the Salton Sea (Chicago: Center for American Places, 2011) the author inacurrately lists William Chaffey as CDC's head engineer. This text correctly lists his brother, George. Both brothers together developed large areas of Southern Calfiornia.
[6] DeBuys and Meyers, 270, note #23.
[7] Marc Reisner, Cadillac Desert: The American West and its Disappearing Water, (New York:Penguin,1986), 123.
[8] DeBuys and Myers, 112.
[9] Reisner, 123.
[10] DeBuys and Myers, 114.
[11] Robert H. Boyle, "Life-or-death for the Salton Sea?" Smithsonian Magazine, June 1996, 94.
[12] The date when the flooding officially ceased varies; DeBuys and Myers state February 10th, 1907 and Laflin lists January 27, 2007.