Salton Sea California


salton sea

The Salton Sea in the far distance as seen from Joshua Tree National Park

If you’ve ever flown into either Los Angeles or San Diego from the east, chances are you’ve noticed a very large body of water in the middle of the desert. A very large lake seemingly out of nowhere. What you’re looking at is the Salton Sea in the Sonoran Desert. What’s even more surprising about this massive body of water is that prior to the first decade of the twentieth century the Salton Sea didn’t exist.

The Salton Sea, one of the world’s largest inland body of water, is located east of the Palm Springs California area. The Salton Sea is also located at one of the earth’s lowest spots at 227 feet below sea level.

How the Salton Sea Came About

Before the Salton Sea California formed the area was referred to as the Salton Sink. The very reason why the sea formed and stayed was nothing less than a man made engineering debacle.

shoreline salton sea

Abandoned structures along the Salton Sea shoreline

There is nothing more important to a desert area than water. Where’s there’s water there’s people. Without it there is no way for settlements and agriculture to survive. Many historians and archeologists will point to the absence of water as to the primary reason why many of the ancient North American Native tribes abandoned areas and resettled elsewhere.

When the 1900’s began southern California was growing rapidly. Los Angeles, in particular, and in large part due to the railroad, was growing at a very fast pace. The obvious source of fresh water for increased agriculture was the Colorado River. The plan was to divert water from the Colorado River into the Salton Sink for the purpose of agriculture. After canals were constructed the Salton Sink, for a time, became fertile. In fact, the Southern Pacific Railroad had a railroad siding settlement in the Salton Sink.

The Debacle

A few years into the project, the Imperial Canal which was built from the Colorado River to the Salton Sink became filled with river silt. As a result, new canals and levees were built on the river north of the clogged canal.

salton sea canal

Alamo Canal from the Colorado River, circa 1905

While you would assume that this measure would alleviate the problem, the year 1905 brought very heavy snows to the Rockies in addition to more than normal rainfall. The result was that the Colorado River roared down and breached levees along the new canals. Instead of diverting some of the Colorado River flow to the Salton Sink, for a few years until 1907, the entire Colorado River flowed on and off into the sink. The Southern Pacific Railroad settlement as well as others were submerged under the new sea. For it’s part the Southern Pacific Railroad hauled in rail car loads of dirt to try to stem the flooding at the head gates on the Colorado River.

Because the entire area of the Salton Sink was filled with salt deposits it didn’t take long for the fresh river water to turn into salt water. The river fish that flowed into the Salton Sink along with the fresh water eventually died off. The salinity of the water was deemed saltier than even ocean water. Over the years the 500 square mile Salton Sea (depending on rainfall the sea increases and decreases in size) became increasingly polluted with runoff water container fertilizers.

salton sea real estate

Early real estate promotion at the Salton Sea

In actuality, over hundreds and thousands of years, the Colorado River did at various times overflow into the Salton Sink and then eventually would evaporate. The Salton Sea this time hung around. This was due to the runoff of the salty, fertilizer and pesticide laden irrigation water from valley farms. The entire ecology of the area changed and unfortunately not for the better.

Efforts to Promote the New Inland Sea

Interestingly enough, eventually real estate promoters and some recreational enthusiasts touted the Salton Sea as being a southern California recreation playground. Indeed, at one time the real estate business along the Salton Sea boomed. Salton City on the seas west shore was the most populous settlement.

Fishing in the Salton Sea was quite popular in the 1950s. The average depth of the body of water is about thirty feet. The Salton Sea was stocked with various species of salt water ocean fish. Unfortunately, in regards to Salton Sea fishing, the only fish of any real quantity that appears to have adapted to the extremely salty inland sea is the tilapia which was imported from Africa. Tilapia fishing is quite active today. Gone are the yacht clubs and the plans for massive recreational development. The primary reason for the decline was the sea itself. Because of the chemical pollution and the ever increasing salinity, the smell above the water can be unpleasant. The smell of decayed algae blooms each spring and early summer keep many away. In addition, the smell of dead fish seems to be a year round problem.

salton sea recreation

Early Salton Sea real estate promotional sign

Birding at one time was quite healthy. However since the mid 1990’s more and more birds have died off. It has been said that at one time more than 600 dead birds per day were collected. The exact reason for the die off of birds has not been determined. Avian botulism was initially considered the reason but there is some disagreement on this. Still today, birdwatching does go on at the Salton Sea.

Desert Development

What eventually happened to the hoped for shangra-la of the southern California Sonoran Desert can be experienced today. All you need to do is visit Palm Springs, Rancho Mirage and Indian Wells in the Coachella Valley and that’s where the real recreational and resort development took place.

When you see today’s lavish golf courses and resorts along the entire line of towns in the Palm Springs area, remember that this area was nothing but arid desert scrub land when the Salton Sea  occurred by accident in 1905. Big resort development occurred in the desert, it just occurred about sixty miles west of the Salton Sea.

Links to two additional articles on our Western Trips site you’ll find interesting is a Visit to Joshua Tree National Park and the famous Scotty’s Castlein Death Valley California.


salton sea photos

Salton Sea shoreline

Visiting the Salton Sea Area

The Salton Sea is bordered on the south by the fertile Imperial Valley.  West of the Salton Sea is the Anzo-Borrego Desert State Park. The Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge as well as the Salton Sea State Recreation Area are on it’s shores. The Salton Sea State Recreation Area offers more than a thousand campsites, picnic sites, trails and a Visitor Center. This recreation area runs from the town of North Shore to Bombay Beach.

While there have been several efforts to address the ecological problems of the Salton Sea, and efforts continue to this day, the area does receive an estimated 100,000 plus visitors each year. The recreational activities include boating, water skiing, sailboarding, hiking and fishing (mostly tilapia) and birdwatching.

To reach the Salton Sea State Recreational area from the city of Palm Springs, drive eastbound for about 18 miles on Interstate 10 and exit to the right at the Brawley / El Centro 865 Expy. After 12 miles turn left at CA 195/66th Ave and continue on CA 195 for just under a mile. Turn right on CA 111 and drive about 21.5 miles.


The Trans-Atlantic Cable

There are several very interesting historic sites which commemorate what was arguably the most ambitious and world changing project of the mid 1800’s. By the same token, this daunting project is one of the most under publicized feats of the entire nineteenth century.

first atlantic telegraph cable route

Route of first Trans-Atlantic telegraph cable

Must See Trans-Atlantic Cable Museums

A visit to the Hearts Content Cable Station at the town of Hearts Content Newfoundland has all the information and exhibits you need to fully understand the significance of the first submarine transportation cable laid across the Atlantic Ocean. This was the cable that was responsible for the joining of the New World with the Old World. The town of Hearts Content, at the time a small fishing village, became the western terminus of the first trans-Atlantic telegraph cable.

The Porthcurno Telegraph Museum is located in the small coastal village of Porthcurno Cornwall, United Kingdom. It was at this location that many of the trans-Atlantic cables came onshore on the eastern side of the Atlantic. Among the exhibits found at the Portcurno Telegraph Museum are displays showing the history of submarine cable laying ships and telegraphy. You’ll also see a variety of cable designs. You’ll be amazed at the engineering involved during the mid 1800’s in not only designing an undersea cable that could carry an electric pulse over thousands of miles but also the designs of cable laying equipment that made the entire project possible.

cyrus field

Cyrus Field

 A Determined Man

By the mid 1850’s telegraph lines stretched across much of the United States and England. This certainly allowed people in those countries to quickly communicate with one another. The questions was…how can these same people communicate quickly between countries.? The fact was they couldn’t. The only option was through the mails via ocean vessels and this certainly was not quick communications.

There were many people responsible for the success of the first undersea telegraph cable and the names are too numerous to detail in one article. The name of Cyrus Field however stands out from the rest. For those really desiring to explore this fascinating story and the story of Cyrus Field further, one very good book is A Thread Across the Ocean by author John Steele Gordon.

It was Cyrus Field who, beginning in 1854, began work to sell his idea and obtain the enormous financing required. It was also Cyrus Field who persevered with the project after several costly cable laying failures and when others suggested abandoning the effort altogether.

More Than One Attempt

If there’s one thing that can be noted about the laying of the first telegraph cable across the Atlantic Ocean, it’s that there were several attempts. The initial failures of course made it even harder to obtain further financing. During the year prior to the successful completion, another failure occurred when the cable snapped and fell to the ocean floor. Interestingly enough, grappling equipment was used to snare the broken cable and bring it up for repair. Sometimes this worked, other times it didn’t and often it took quite a while to complete.

After the successful attempt in 1866, the ships went back to the area of the 1865 failure and did indeed pull up the broken cable, made the necessary repairs and in so doing completed the second transAtlantic telegraph cable. Now two Atlantic cables could theoretically carry twice as much traffic.

telegraph ticker tape machine

Early 1900’s telegraph ticker tape instrument

To Solve Everything That Could Go Wrong

If you think laying an undersea telegraph cable off the back of a ship was relatively easy…think again. Of all the tasks involved in doing this job successfully, probably the most important was to prevent the Trans Atlantic cables from snapping due to strain. When a ship bobs in the ocean while extending a cable off it’s aft end the chances of it’s snapping from the sudden increase in pull pressure was quite real. Engineering had to solve this problem and they did.

There were a few different pieces of equipment that were designed to let out cable from behind an ocean vessel. The most successful apparatus was designed by chief engineer William Everett in London. Everett’s “paying-out machine” as it was called was designed with brakes that some would say acted as if it were human. The brakes could be set with maximum pressure and they would automatically release if the pressure exceeded that limit. Everett’s design kept the cable from snapping and being lost to the bottom of the sea. To give you an idea of just how successful William Everett’s paying-out machine was, cable laying ships to this day still use much of his original design.

atlantic telegraph cable postage stamp

Atlantic cable centenary U.S. Postage Stamp

How about the cable itself? When you consider just how long the trans-Atlantic cable was, you can appreciate the work done to actually make it work. Remember, this was mid 1800’s technology and unlike the cross country telegraph system in the United States, the electrical pulse had to be carried within a cable strung along the ocean’s floor. The cable that was developed for the successful attempt in 1866 was manufactured at a rate of  twenty miles per day. This cable had galvanized iron armoring that was rustproof and the wires were coated with a zinc-iron alloy which allowed the cable to take a half ton more strain before snapping. Amazingly, all of this 1800’s technology was developed at a time when America itself was going through a Civil War.


great eastern atlantic cable ship

Great Eastern cable laying ship

The Historic Ship Great Eastern

The “Great Eastern“, was first a passenger ship and in addition to that was the largest man made vessel afloat during the 1860’s. Because of her enormous size, the ship was ideal for laying a telegraph cable clear across the Atlantic Ocean. It was also the vessel that used the paying-out equipment developed by William Everett.

It was the Great Eastern that had the distinction of being the first vessel to successfully lay the trans-Atlantic telegraph cable in 1866. It was the ship, along with her escort vessels, that steamed into Hearts Content Newfoundland on July 28, 1866.

Links to three additional Trips Into History articles you’ll find interesting is the story of Marconi’s Trans-Atlantic Wireless SuccessBuilding of America’s Transcontinental Telegraph and a Visit to the Historic Paul Revere House in Boston MA

undersea cable maps

Undersea cable links as of 1901

Learn More About This Amazing 1800’s Accomplishment

The history of the 1800’s is filled with various wars both in North America and in Europe. The American westward migration beginning in the 1840’s onward was another significant event. The successful laying of the trans-Atlantic telegraph cable may indeed have eclipsed all other events in regards to the impact it had on people from both sides of the ocean. The very fact that messages could be transmitted in a matter of minutes as opposed to the time it took a ship to cross the ocean changed many lives.

The commercial impact where commodity prices alone could be merged in both the London and New York markets might be called the start of globalization. From 1866 onward, these telegraph cables would go on to connect nearly all parts of the world. This 1866 event had the effect of making the world a smaller place. Soon wireless telegraphy would emerge as well as telephony. Today we have the internet. The laying of the trans-Atlantic telegraph cable and the drive and imagination of Cyrus Field to make it a reality ushered in an entirely new era that continues to be improved upon to this day.

As mentioned earlier in this story, the museums in both Hearts Content Newfoundland and the one located in the small coastal village of Porthcurno Cornwall, United Kingdom are great places to start. If you have the opportunity to be near either location I’m confident you’ll be fascinated.

Yet another interesting site to visit is Valentia Island Ireland which was the eastern terminus of the first Atlantic cable. Valentia Island made it the ideal spot for the first cable to land in the United Kingdom. Today some of the buildings of the old Valentia Cable Station can still be viewed from the outside along the main street of Knightstown. You’ll also see a plaque commemorating the event. Original items from the cable station are on exhibit at the Valentia Heritage Centre. Valentia Island is located just off the coast of County Kerry, Ireland.

More interesting information on the Trans Atlantic cable story can be found in the book mentioned earlier, A Thread Across the Ocean by author John Steele Gordon and also in The First TransAtlantic Cable by author Adele Gutman Nathan.

(Telegraph ticker tape photo from author’s collection. Remaining photos and images from the public domain)

Musee Mecanique / San Francisco


The Old Game Arcades

San Francisco tourist sites are aplenty and there’s never a shortage of unique things to see. One of these is located right at the San Francisco pier 45, Fishermans Wharf.

Musee Mecanique in San Francisco

It’s the world famous Musee Mecanique and it’s an enjoyable and fun trip to San Francisco’s past. It is one of the finest collections of old arcade games and devices that take you back to the 1920’s and before. The museum features hundreds of quarter operated games and exhibits from the turn of the century. Penny arcades were very common at venues like county fairs but by but by the 1950’s many of these arcades were replaced by modern machines. Back in the time of the penny arcade the video games played today of course were not in existence.

Many of the early games included pinball and fortune telling devices. Others were elaborate models of frontier towns, Ferris Wheels, a pinball version of an old baseball game and many other quite interesting novelties. Another popular machine found in old penny arcades were the peep show devices. where d the viewer could see views of various objects and later to actually see moving pictures. In the 19th century and very early 20th century this type of machine was one of the most popular.

Old time arcade game

You will experience the shooting galleries of the pre-video era. There are other great games of skill dating back to the 1920’s.

When you have a chance to view or play these antique games at Musee Mecanique you will probably marvel at the engineering that made them operate. In a way the technology involved with these devices is quite simple compared to the electronics of today, but this is what makes the machines so charming in the first place.The name penny arcade was derived from the fact that the penny was the common coin used to play them.

The Old Time Arcade Equipment

One of the most popular of the Musee Mecanique old machines is Laffing Sal. She and others like her were built in Pennsylvania during the 1920’s and shipped to amusement parks around the country. To give you an idea of the cost of these machines, when built Laffing Sal would have cost around $360. In 1940 the machine would have cost around $5,700. Laffing Sal was seen in the 1950 movie “Woman On The Run” and in the 1953 movie “Man In The Dark“.

Laffing Sal from the early arcade era

Other fully working exhibits at Musee Mecanique include a fortune teller, sex appeal meter, Regina Sublima original music box, Wurlitzer Orchestrion and an ancient Chinese royal courtyard.

These exhibits are still putting out music nearly 100 years later. While you’re there don’t miss the movie machines featuring footage from the aftermath of the Great 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire. Another one of a kind machine is the one to test your strength. It’s a mechanical hand whereby you set it to a certain level and essentially arm wrestle with it. Unfortunately I lost each time I tried.

What other arcade can you have a Wild West scene play out before your eyes for only a quarter. After this, spend a quarter to listen to the unique player piano with it’s own drums and mandolin. You may also enjoy the handmade carnival scene with actual moving parts. This museum is probably the best old arcade exhibit under one roof and is the product of a lifetime of collecting. Where else can you have this much fun playing with arcade machines that are almost a hundred years old and only spend a quarter on each. This opportunity at Musee Mecanique beats the modern day arcades where many games will cost you one dollar each time you play. Where else in such a scenic locale as San Francisco Pier 45 at Fishermans Wharf can you play such unique antique games and enjoy hours there for only ten to twenty dollars total.


Steam Flyer motorcycle on display at Musee Mecanique

Links to two additional nearby attractions in San Francisco that we’ve highlighted on our Western Trips site are the Cable Car Museum and the U.S.S. Pampanito World War Two submarine. You will also enjoy our photo article on the historic Santa Cruz California Boardwalk.

The History of Musee Mecanique

There’s a lot of history with Musee Mecanique and the arcade industry in San Francisco. This venue alone features a world class collection of over 200 antique arcade games all under one roof. Game historians who frown on today’s digital presence look at the total display of these old machines as the evolution of arcade entertainment.

Most of the machines at Musee Mecanique were scavenged from the old “Playland at the Beach“, a venue that was located for years near San Francisco’s Cliff House on the Pacific Ocean. When the Cliff House was being remodeled the collection needed to find a new home. Indeed, the San Francisco public wanted these machines kept on display.and this led the museum to its current location in the Fisherman’s Wharf area at Pier 45.

The Musee Mecanique is truly one of San Francisco’s treasures.The collection was owned by Edward Zelinsky who actually started his collection at eleven years of age. The collection just grew and grew with acquisitions being made throughout Zelinsky’s lifetime. He collected the old games prior to World War Two and continued when he arrived back home after the war. One of the most unique displays at the museum is the “Steam Flyer” which is not a game but a fully and beautifully restored red steam motorcycle built in the 1920’s by a man in Sacramento California.

Liberty Ship Jeremiah O'Brien exhibit outside of Musee Mecanique

There was a lot of experimenting with steam motorcycles during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s and this exhibit is one you don’t want to miss. This particular motorcycle, which could be the only one of its kind in the world, and it’s still in working condition, is estimated to be worth over $250,000.

All of the machines on display were collected over a long period of time by Edward Zelinsky who recognized their historic value at the time. To amass such a collection today would take an astronomical amount of money.

A Lifetime Collection

Dan Zelinsky, the son of the original owner, now operates the museum. As you can imagine, these antique machines require constant maintenance.and several have had major restorations. Old San Franciscan’s may miss the fun atmosphere of the old Playland on the Beach location, but the larger Pier 45 location is ideal for introducing the tourist crowds to this unique display.

Inside San Francisco Cable Car Museum

When your travels include a San Francisco vacation I would highly recommend a stop at Musee Mecanique. It’s right at Fishermans Wharf, near many other popular attractions, and it’s free to enter. Musee Mecanique is open 365 days a year, from 10 am to 7 pm weekdays and 10 am to 8 pm weekends and holidays From 1930 colorful marionettes to penny stretcher machines to fortune tellers, Musee Mecanique is a vintage arcade museum second to none.

Also, adjacent to Musee Mecanique on Pier 45 are two restored World War II vessels. One is, the submarine USS Pampanito and the Liberty Ship Jeremiah O’Brien. Both vessels are open for tours. I have toured both vessels and Musee Mecanique and I would recommend all of them.

(Photos are from author’s private collection)