WFLBC does America! Rob visits The Salton Sea

Say hello to Rob Wheeler, one of the awesome folks that make up the South Fraser Beer Club. Rob has been writing a beer tourism series for SFBC’s website but this isn’t about beer and it’s too cool not to share. Check it out! – Scott.

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Alright, something a little different today: The Salton Sea and Slab City. No beer review in this post, sorry. I wasn’t actually even planning on writing a post on this topic, we were just going on a sight-seeing drive, but once I saw these places, I knew I had to write about it. I was fascinated by what I saw, and while you may not agree, I thought it was amazingly interesting.

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Let me give you a little background first. The Salton Sea is the largest lake in California, and is also a salt water lake. It is located in the Coachella & Imperial Valleys of Southern California, and lies directly on top of the San Andreas fault. It currently sits 226ft BELOW sea level, and has a maximum depth of 52ft. But that’s the least interesting part about the Salton Sea.

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In 1900 the California Development Company started diverting water from the Colorado River into the Salton Sink (the area that is now the Salton Sea) in order to provide irrigation. However, within 2 years, the irrigation canals where clogged with silt, and despite attempts to clear them, they were unsuccessful at keeping them clear. In 1905, heavy rainfall and snow melts caused a flood which over-ran the canals and flood gates, creating the New River to the west, and the Alamo River to the east. Over the next couple years, the waters of the Colorado River flowed into the Salton Sink, creating the Salton Sea. As a result of its creation, the town of Salton (a Southern Pacific Railway town) and the Torres-Martinez Native American lands were submerged. The lake has higher salinity than the ocean, and it increases annually due to agriculture run off, which includes pesticides. As a result, the only thing that is able to live in the lake is Talapia. But you can stand on the shores and smell the rot and sulfur, and wonder how ANYTHING can live in there. It’s pretty gross.

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In the 1950s, land developers from LA decided to turn the area into a resort destination with the creation of Salton City, Salton Sea Beach and Desert Shores on the West Side of the lake, and Desert Beach, North Shore and Bombay Beach on the east shore. While large amounts of land were developed with roadways, very little was every actually built, and in the 1970s, most of it was abandoned. The west side of the lake is apparently still relatively “alive” as far as population goes, but the east side, where we visited, is nearly all abandoned.

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We started at the site of the North Shore Yacht Club, which was to be the highlight of the north shores “resort” area. Built in 1962, it was to be California’s largest marina, and during it’s heyday, it saw guest such as The Beach Boys, Jerry Lewis, and the Marx Brothers dock their boats there. Due to the increasing salinity of the lake, and the resulting loss of interest in the area, the yacht clubs grandure slowly diminished until in 1981 a major flood destroyed the docks. The club was completely closed and abandoned in 1984. It has since been restored by the State Government and turned into a community center, but for who, I have no idea. There are still some of the original buildings along the shore, and you can see the roads laid out for what was to have been a pretty prestigious neighborhood, but on which very few homes were built. It was actually quite eerie driving on streets overgrown with shrubs and covered in sand, seeing the curbs and lots were houses were supposed to be built. There are even a few abandoned buildings and an abandoned tennis court we found! Kinda felt like the world had ended. In fact, the Salton Sea area was used on the History Channels TV show, Life After People, as an example of what would happen to Palm Springs were people to leave it.

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There is also an area called Bombay Beach, which we did not drive through, but drove past, that is basically the only “major” population center left from the original Salton Sea resort developments. It’s basically the same as the other areas; abandoned buildings, dead fish, boat hulls dumped in random areas, etc. But the difference with this area is that there is still a decent sized population living there, intermixed with the abandoned buildings and burnt out hulks. It’s quite weird.
Our last stop was “Slab City”, which is located further south of the Salton Sea, about 4miles east of the City of Niland, CA. This is quite the area, but as with the Salton Sea, I’ll give you a little background first.

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Slab City is located on the grounds of the now closed WWII Marine training camp, Camp Dunlap. Camp Dunlap was opened in 1942 to prepare Marines for combat, and by 1949 operations were so reduced that only a skeleton crew remained. In 1956 the camp was closed and dismantled, leaving only the concrete slabs were the barracks and other buildings had been. In 1961 the land was conveyed back to the State of California. At some point between 1962 and 1965, a chemical company hired 20 men to harvest creosote leaves in the area. Some of these workers moved to trailers they parked on the concrete slabs in the now defunct base, and this was the start of “Slab City”.

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In 1965, Riverside County ordered residents of nearby Painted Canyon to leave their camping area. Most of these people moved to the abandoned marine base, which is now referred to as Slab City. From what I can tell (through word of mouth, so who knows how accurate it is) Slab City is inhabited by mostly hippies, some “not quite right in the head” folks, and people who just want to “get off the grid” for a while. There is no power or running water in the area, so people use generators and/or solar panels for electricity, and water is provided by a weekly water truck which comes through the area. Apparently there is also a weekly “honey wagon” that comes through to pump out the nastier “waste” from peoples motorhomes. The sadest part, however, is that nobody seems willing to pay for garbage removal, so while they have a “dump” in slab city, it’s basically a 2 block area where people throw their trash. No attempt to contain or control it, just dump it in the general area of the dump. Pretty pathetic.

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The weirdest thing of all about Slab City though was the sheer variety of residents. There was the expected hippies and religious wacko’s (one of whom built a massive “mountain” out of Styrofoam and concrete called “Salvation Mountain” or “East Jesus”, depending on who you ask. Apparently there are many rooms within this “mountain”, and one of which is a communal shower/bath area. Yeah, free love man. But in addition to that was the number of half million dollar or more RVs parked there. Clearly well off people who for some reason, wanted to hang out in filth. And I don’t mean that in a derogatory way, I mean it in a literal way. The area is all dirt and sand, so dust is everywhere, and as I mentioned earlier, trash just gets dumped everywhere. I dunno, maybe they just want to work on their pyramid power or something.

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Anyway, unless you’re into the hippie, off the grid lifestyle, I wouldn’t call either of these areas a “destination”, however, if you’re in the area, take a drive by and check it out. I found it fascinating, and probably could have driven around Slab City all day looking at things.

Till next time,

Rob.

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