History of the Salton Sea
For centuries, the Colorado River periodically emptied into a body of water known as Lake Cahuilla on the northern reaches of the Gulf of California. The Salton Sea was created there in 1905 when the river breached a dike and flooded for two years, bringing farm settlers to the Imperial Valley in California’s southeast corner.
California’s largest lake by surface area soon became a desert playground.
More than 2,000 spectators witnessed five world speedboat records set in 1929, according to the University of Redlands’ Salton Sea Atlas. High salinity made boats more buoyant and, at more than 200 feet below sea level, barometric pressure improved performance. A 1951 regatta boasted 21 world records.
In the 1950s, the California Department of Fish and Game stocked the lake with sargo, corvina, croaker and other fish in a successful effort to draw anglers. Water skiing flourished.
The North Shore Beach and Yacht Club opened as the largest marina in Southern California. Celebrities including Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, the Beach Boys, Jerry Lewis, the Marx Brothers and Desi Arnaz flocked to the lake.
The “Salton Riviera” rivaled nearby Palm Springs and attracted more tourists than Yosemite National Park.
Developer Penn Phillips led a speculative boom in the late 1950s, buying and selling thousands of acres on the lake’s western shores. He abandoned Salton City without explanation in 1960, leaving behind only a few houses, sewers, a serpentine layout of empty roads and street signs with names like Sea View Avenue and Sea Mist Place.
Tropical storms in 1976 and 1977 destroyed marinas and resorts, triggering a prolonged economic decline. Environmental catastrophes, rising salinity and a receding shoreline caused tourism to plummet.
The economy rode the last housing boom and bust. New houses with red tile roofs that sold for up to $270,000 in Salton City when they were built in the mid-2000s fetched as little as $50,000 after the bubble burst and now cost in the low $100,000s.
Bombay Beach, a community that doubles to about 500 people during winter, has an apocalyptic feel. Utility poles and trailer debris that were flooded a few years ago are now exposed because the lake shrank.
The main tourist draw today is the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge on the lake’s southeastern shores, which has about 25,000 visitors a year. Nearly all are bird watchers.