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Were There Spanish Pearls Before Brine in Salton Sea?

June 08, 2003|Cecilia Rasmussen | Times Staff Writer

At least one of the myths about the Salton Sea is true:

The lost city of Salton has been underwater for nearly 100 years -- not as long as Atlantis, but a long time for California.

Fifty feet below the surface, the old wooden buildings of a saltworks factory, a few homes, telephone poles and miles of railroad tracks have been gathering moss, snagging fishing lines and providing a hiding place for corvina, croaker and tilapia.

But another myth, perhaps because it remains a myth, is the one that engages the imagination.

A 16th century Spanish galleon, laden with pearls, is said to have sailed up the Gulf of California into what is now the Salton Sea. A landslide or sandbar apparently blocked its escape, forcing the crew to abandon the ship and its precious cargo and walk out of the desert. As the water dried up, the hulk gradually sank beneath the shifting sands.

And there's another mystery about the Salton Sea -- its environment.

The landlocked, super-salty desert sinkhole, 35 miles long and 15 miles wide, survives on agricultural runoff but is a fish and wildlife sanctuary and boating spot.

The lake came about by accident in 1905, when two men, a land developer and an engineer, cut a small channel from the Colorado River into a northbound canal just south of the Mexican border, intending to steal water. Their plan must have seemed simple. But nearly as soon as the cut was finished, the mighty Colorado punched its way through 100 square miles of sediment and ran amok. Water rushed into a salt-covered ancient lakebed 265 feet below sea level, flooding a Cahuilla (pronounced ku-WEE-yah) Indian reservation and the little town of Salton.

It took 16 months for farmers, with the help of the Southern Pacific Railroad, to restore the river to its banks. (The railroad had an investment there; it had laid tracks across the sink.)

The Salton Sea is only the most recent of a series of much larger lakes that have dried up and been reincarnated in that spot. Collectively called prehistoric Lake Cahuilla, it was named for a tribe whose members have lived in the area for thousands of years.

In the early 16th century, Lake Cahuilla was larger than the state of Delaware, ranging from what is now Indio down 115 miles into Mexico. It was navigable from the Sea of Cortez, known today in the U.S. as the Gulf of California.

That same century, the lake's feeder river, the Colorado, changed course, moving back to the Gulf of California. The lake disappeared, leaving behind a salt marsh and a still visible water line, like a bathtub ring, along the base of the San Jacinto Mountains. The lake also, quite possibly, abandoned the storied Spanish galleon to the desert.

Like the mud pots in the southeast area of the sea that still hiss and pop in the hot soil, the lake's history has bubbled up through the ages, providing the template for generations of legends and myths.

Some of those legends came from the Cahuilla, who thrived in the area, fishing in Lake Cahuilla, gathering acorns and other seeds and hunting on the steep slopes of the San Bernardino Mountains.

Spanish conquistador Hernando de Alarcon reputedly discovered the Colorado River Delta in 1540, lusting after another myth -- the gold- and gem-encrusted Seven Cities of Cibola. Before then -- no one is sure when -- a Spanish ship is said to have slipped past English and Dutch pirates who lurked at the entrance of the gulf to plunder treasure-laden Spanish galleons.

Amid the tangle of tales surrounding this mystery ship, one thing is definite: It was possible to sail this sea route north, beyond where the Salton Sea is now. And reports of an ancient ship in the desert, successively buried and uncovered by the shifting sands, have persisted for centuries.

On Nov. 12, 1870, the Los Angeles Star newspaper claimed that prospector Charley Clusker had hit the mother lode in the desert about 10 miles from Dos Palmas. Clusker, the newspaper said, had found an "ornately carved Spanish galleon with crosses and a broken mast."

Less than three weeks later, the Star continued to sell papers by reporting that Clusker had returned to the desert where the wreck lay in the "midst of boiling springs, where the animals sunk to their knees in alkaline mud, which removed the hair from their legs."

Ten years later, the San Bernardino Daily Times reported that Clusker had never found the "Lost Ship," but had returned to town "with new visions of wealth floating before his eyes." The gist of the story was how good Clusker was at finding someone to bankroll his treasure hunts.

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