Were There Spanish Pearls Before Brine in Salton Sea?

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.

Novelist Antonio de Fierro Blanco, in his 1933 book, “The Journey of the Flame,” tells the story of a young mule driver named Tiburcio Manquerna, who was supposedly working for Spanish explorer Juan Baptista de Anza in 1774 when he stumbled across a cache of pearls in a ship partially buried by the desert sands. He took what he could carry, deserted De Anza and walked out of the desert. Then he spent the rest of his life searching for the ship, or so he told his friend, Don Juan Obrigon, who was 104 when he told Blanco the story that he had not mentioned in decades.

The book concluded: “I have known, as a boy, natives from every tribe on the [Baja] Peninsula and they taught me much of great value, but never did one lie to me. Some of their stories I did not then believe, but each as tested proved to be true in all parts.”

In August 1949, the Los Angeles Times reported that three UCLA students, John English, Tom Fee and Bob Kildick, searched for a “Viking explorer blown off course.” Armed with the 1870 newspaper accounts, 1910 Imperial Irrigation District maps and a story from a Cahuilla Indian who said he had seen a “serpent-necked canoe” near the Salton Sea in 1917, the trio began their journey near Laguna Salada in Baja California, south of the Salton Sea. The article failed to say how the group traveled: by boat, two legs or four wheels. Nor did the paper say what happened to their expedition.

Four years later, in 1953, the legend of the lost ship resurfaced in the San Bernardino Sun-Telegram. Jim Fisk, a down-on-his-luck desert prospector, reportedly befriended a Cahuilla Indian named Harra or Harry Chee in 1892.

Chee told Fisk the story that his ancestors had passed down of a “great white bird whose wings fell down” and was smothered by the sands.

More than a decade later, when Chee’s story was repeated by another miner, Fisk rounded up Chee and headed to the southeastern end of the sink. But they were too late: The swollen Colorado River had by then swept into the basin.

The Salton Sea’s reputation as a graveyard for vessels grew in the 1940s, when at least 24 Navy planes crashed into the water during and after World War II. The Navy opened the Salton Sea Test Base to hone pilots’ skills in locating, illuminating and attacking water-borne targets.

More than three dozen men and their planes were lost here, helping to perpetuate the myth of the Salton Sea as a black hole -- like the Bermuda Triangle in the Caribbean -- into which unsuspecting travelers vanish.

In 1999, divers searched without success for a crashed Piper Cherokee, but in the process uncovered one of the sea’s relics: a World War II Avenger torpedo bomber.

They left it there. Not only would its recovery be expensive, but a plane that has been submerged in the Salton Sea -- which is 25% saltier than the ocean -- could immediately become rust-encrusted and brittle if exposed to the air.

Navy records indicate that four Wildcats, two Corsairs, two Hellcats, four patrol planes, two Helldivers and 10 Avengers crashed into the Salton Sea.

With all those vessels on the bottom, one thing is certain: The legendary Spanish galleon doesn’t lack for company.