by Harold O. Weight
Somewhere in the great Salton Basin, or the Laguna Salada or the delta of the Colorado River, lie the bones of an ancient ship stranded, abandoned and forgotten unknown centuries ago – the Lost Ship of the Desert. Now hidden, now exposed, subject to the sands and winds, the cloudbursts and the floods, it has been seen and reported by Indians and prospectors and travelers through more than 100 years. Seen – but almost always beyond reach. Reached – but only under circumstances that made investigation impossible. Found – but always lost again.
The legend seems immortal in the folklore of the far Southwest. But was there – is there – a Lost Desert Ship? You say yes? Prove it. You say no? Prove it. Impossible? Prove that!
One thing is certain: Through the long years there have been many and many a true believer. One of them, Charles Carroll Clusker, sought the Lost Ship so urgently that his name is now inseparable from its story.
Charley became involved in 1870, which turned out to be the Year of the Lost Ship. Much of the excitement and most of the ship’s wide fame evolved through newspaper stories published through the fall and winter of that year. Most of those stories dealt with Charley Clusker’s search for it.
The Los Angeles News printing the trigger story – or at least the first one widely circulated – in late August:
“INTERESTING DISCOVERY: By many it has been held as a theory that the Yuma Desert was once an ocean bed. At intervals, pools of salt water have stood for a while in the midst of the surrounding waste of sand, disappearing only to rise again in the same or other localities. A short time since, one of these saline lakes disappeared and a party of Indians reported the discovery of a ‘big ship’ left by the receding waters. A party of Americans at once proceeded to the spot and found embedded in the sands the wreck of a large vessel. Nearly one-third of the forward part of the ship, or barque, is plainly visible. The stump of the bowsprit remains and portions of the timbers of teak are perfect.
The wreck is located 40 miles north of the San Bernardino and Fort Yuma Road and 30 miles west of Dos Palmas, a well-known watering place on the desert. The road across the desert has been traveled for more than 100 years. The history of the ill-fated vessel can, of course, never be known, but the discovery of its decaying timbers in the midst of what has long been a desert will furnish savants the food for discussion and may perhaps furnish important aid in the elucidation of questions of science.”
There is detail in that story – teak timbers, broken bowsprit, a third of the ship showing. The reporter must have interviewed someone. Which makes it all the more curious that no member of that “party of Americans” was identified in the original story or, to my knowledge, in any that followed. But it was exactly the sort of story editors clip and reprint, and it spread swiftly from newspaper to newspaper. The San Bernardino Guardian carried it on September 10 and probably that is where Charley Clusker saw it. There is no indication that he was a member of that first Lost Ship expedition, but he led the second, third and fourth.
Clusker already had lived a life adventurous enough for a dozen men. He was born in Richmond, Kentucky March 10, 1810. In Cincinnati, when the Mexican War began, he enlisted in the First Regiment, Ohio Volunteers. Serving under General Zachery Taylor, he took part in the battles of Brownsville, Matamoras, Monterrey, Cerro Gordo, Vera Cruz and Buena Vista, and the storming of Chapultepec at Mexico City.
He had heard much about California in Mexico, and when mustered out proceeded, with five comrades, to visit it. Outfitting at Little Rock, they rode to Santa Fe and took the Gila Trail, which, in the time of the Gold Rush emigrants, would become famous as the dangerous Southern Route. Much of it threaded hot, thirsty and little known deserts. It crossed the heartland of the fierce Apaches. Along it there were no towns, no stations, no military posts. Charley and his small party crossed without mishap. Game was abundant, water sufficient, and though they saw many Indians, they were not challenged.
Clusker arrived in Los Angeles in the early spring of 1848, but apparently the easy-going little Mexican town was a disappointment. Two weeks later he was on the way back, safely recrossing the same dangerous wilderness – this time alone. When California gold started the East heading West, Charley followed the Overland Trail back to California, crossing the Sierra Nevada by the Truckee route. He staked his first claim at Coloma, where James Marshall had made the original strike. From there he worked his way through most of the Mother Lode camps and diggings, and for the rest of this life remained a prospector, miner, and seeker after lost mines.
Either the La Paz rush of 1862 or the Weaver-Walker discoveries the next year must have stampeded him to Southern California and on into Arizona, where he remained for years. In 1864 he was in Wickenburg milling the ore from the rich Vulture Mine, some dozen miles to the southwest, apparently first in an arrastra on the Hassayampa and later in the company’s 40-stamp mill.
In 1870, he was back in San Bernardino, and prospecting. In June that year, according to the Guardian, he rediscovered the “long-lost Jesuit mine,” a legendary bonanza from which “the old padres in times past” had extracted fabulous amounts of silver. Prospecting for the source of rich silver float, in the mountains some 40 miles easterly from San Bernardino, Clusker had struck a well-defined trail, followed it to a well graded road built of large stones and followed that to the remains of an old shaft. Clearing the debris from that half-filled shaft, the party found ore which, the newspaper said, assayed from $600 to $1,000 a ton.
There were, of course, no Jesuits in the California Missions. And, if old padres of any brotherhood possessed a mine with such rich ore, it must not have been the one Charley found. There is no further mention of his connection with it, and when the Lost Ship appeared upon the horizon only months later, Charley was ready to go. And what more ideal leader could there have been to track down a phantom ship in the desert sands than a seasoned and experienced visionary like Charles C. Clusker?
Charlie and two companions, men named Caldwell and Johnson, left San Bernardino on that quest about October 1, 1870. They following the old Bradshaw Road through San Gorgonio Pass and down the Coachella Valley to Martinez, still a Desert Cahuilla Indian center today, south of Indio and west of Mecca. Here, since the ship was supposed to be stranded “just southward of the point of the mountain southeast of Martinez,” they left the only traveled road – that to Dos Palmas – and headed into the trackless Salton Sink.
At that time, the present Salton Sea, created by a breakthrough of the Colorado River early in this century, did not exist. Instead, the sink was an enormous playa, hard and smooth in some areas, vast quagmires with a thin salt crust in others. Here would be found great stretches of rough “self-rising” ground, there salt marshes or evanescent lakes, elsewhere boiling mudpots or shining salt beds.
With no roads or trails, Charley and his party headed directly across the playa toward their destination. But looking back, they suddenly decided that was not the way to do it. Behind them their footprints and the deep wagon tracks were already filled with water. Fighting the clutching clay, they hastily returned to a more firma terra.
On their return to San Bernardino, the Guardian of October 15 reported:
“All the members of the expedition are highly pleased with the result. Though they found no ship nor any sign thereof, yet they seem fully persuaded of the existence of some vessel. That it will finally be found and the whole mystery solved admits of no doubt whatever. It is only a question of time, and a portion of the same party will start out in a few days to make another effort.
The Guardian speculated on whether the vessel would prove to be a buccaneer ship (in which case there would be rich booty aboard) or perhaps one sent out exploring by a Viceroy of Mexico (in which case pickings would probably be poor). “But after all,” it concluded, “it may be that what we call a ship may be a corral, as it has borne the appearance of one to one of the only two white men who have ever seen it.”
It might seem that a corral in the soggy midst of a great salt marsh which had once been a lake would be harder to explain than a wrecked ship in the same spot. But most interesting is that the Guardian, speaking apparently from unpublished information, says that only two white men had ever seen the ship. What has happened to that “party of Americans’ in the News, a story the Guardian had published without question? And who were the fortunate two?
Charley calculated he had been within 10 or 15 miles of the ship on his first search, when he “made the wrong chute and got mired.” So on his second expedition, starting November 5, he took along a good wagon and pack saddles, and planks to cross any miry ground. He also had new partners: KD. S. Ferster, F.J. West, and a man named Hubble.
“RETURN OF THE SHIP PROSPECTORS!!! Charley Clusker and his party returned from the desert just as we were going to press. They had a hard time of it but they have succeeded in their efforts. THE SHIP HAS BEEN FOUND! Charley returns to the desert today to reap the fruition of his efforts. He was without food or water, under a hot broiling sun for over 24 hours, and came near perishing. We have not space to report in full the adventures of the party, but are promised a full account in our next.”
A news dispatch put on the wire from Los Angeles next day was briefer, but much more exciting: “Clusker reports he has found the desert ship 45 miles southwest of Dos Palmas station in the Cavassone (Cabezon) Lake. He described her at 200 feet long, bow, bowsprit and stern above the sand. Clusker returns today to the ship to take possession.”
Two hundred feet! That’s a lot of ship. It’s long enough, in fact, to stretch the Lost Ship legend beyond the breaking point. But where did the figure come from? Not from the Guardian, so probably not from Charley. It may be the wire reporter talked to an expedition member who went directly to Los Angeles, or that he picked up an embroidered rumor, or that he adds the embroidery himself.
Possibly the source was the same as that for a November 29 story in the Los Angeles News, which declared 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. That story reported the ship to be of some 200 tons but then, maybe tons were switched to feet.
Reporters were still embroidering Charley’s story 50 years later. A San Diego newspaper in 1937 said:
“According to Charley, he had found a great Spanish galleon, ornate crosses and even broken masts.”
I have found no evidence Charley ever said he had found a Spanish galleon, or claimed his ship was 200 feet long. But then, neither have I found evidence that Charley ever found a ship, or even actually saw one.
The complete account of Charley’s discovery was not, as promised, in the December 3 issue of the Guardian. “It is now a fixed fact,” the paper said, “for there can be no doubt that the ship is there lying high and dry, 100 or 200 miles from water.”
Then it went on with the details of the new expedition. This time, in addition to Ferster and West, Josh Talbott, one of the Guardian editors, was going along.
“They are well fitted out with all the necessary tools and implements for thoroughly exploring the vessel, such as shovels, picks, block, chains, rope, and 300 or 400 feet of boards. At Carrizo Creek Station, on the San Diego road, they intend making a depot for supplies. We expect to receive some interesting news from the party, for publication, in a week or two.”
But for almost a month, the Guardian made no mention of the ship or its seekers. The break is so long that later writers about the Lost Ship commonly assert that no report on the expedition was ever made, and that the ship hunters sneaked back into San Bernardino, unwilling to talk.
Talbot’s report – the most complete account of Charley’s operations ever published – did finally appear in the Guardian on December 31. In it, Talbot first summarized the earlier searches, and explained what had caused the excitement on the one before. The party, he said, had gone again to Martinez; and then more to the south, crossing almost to the Fort Yuma road. Their animals having gone without water for 48 hours, they were compelled to turn back – but not before Charley “became convinced” that he saw the ship far out in the dry lake.
Of his own experiences Talbot wrote, in part: “We had water capacity for 108 gallons, provisions for two months and four good horses and wagon. We left San Bernardino on November 30th, and barring three severe nights rain, our trip was without incident. We came this time by a difficult route – that of the old Fort Yuma road via Warner’s Ranch and Carrizo Creek station. On the route we discovered a rich tin mine, about 30 feet wide, which will deserve our attention hereafter. Here (Carrizo Creek), filling up our casks with water we boldly plunged out into the desert, intending to go as far as our water would permit and sending the wagon back for a fresh supply if we failed to find it. Passing out upon the desert about 18 miles we made cap and the next day commenced to prospect for the ship.
“Carrizo Creek becomes dry about a mile from the station, and is a hard, firm wash except in places for at least 40 miles, where it empties into the lake. The next day, Charley, Ferster and West went across a low ridge of sand hills to a mountain far out into the desert – the only one near the lake for miles – and returned without success. The ground near the lake is covered with shells and exhibits every evidence of being at one time an inland sea. The next day we took another course, going more in a northeasterly direction. On this trip we found a laguna covered with young cane. The water was brackish, but we thought good enough for horses, so sending the wagon for fresh water we continued our explorations, edging nearer each day to Dos Palmas, evidently some 70 or 80 miles distant.
“On the return of the wagon we started for the laguna, and as we went further into the desert roads become terrible – the ground filled with rabbit holes and the soil loose and porous, the walkers plunging over shoe tops at every step. A little after dark we arrived at the laguna, the horses completely fagged out. Next day we resumed our explorations. We were not yet within 30 or 40 miles of where the ship is said to be but Charley was determined to thoroughly prospect the lake as he went. The boys were out two or three days more, surmounting obstacles that would deter most men, but the weather being clear and cold they wandered over a vast expanse of ground – on foot, as we had to spare our animals as much as possible.”
After 20 days, Josh decided business required his return to San Bernardino. With Ferster he rode northerly a distance he estimated at about 60 miles, to Martinez station. Ferster returned to the prospectors with the horses. Talbott came home to San Bernardino in one of station Keeper Gus Knight’s wagons. He had left the boys in good spirits, he said, confident they would yet find their ship. But as for himself:
“We have not lost any ships, we do not feel inclined to undertake another expedition to find one.”
Clusker had told Talbot that he would prospect another month, but he was back in San Bernardino two weeks later. As usual, he headed for the Guardian office. The January 14, 1871 issued updated the Lost Ship saga:
“RETURN OF THE SHIP PROSPECTORS. On Tuesday evening last, Charley Clusker and party returned to town, we are sorry to say, unsuccessful. Their animals were completely worn out – scarcely able to bring the wagon home. The indomitable Charley is not discouraged, and will make another effort to find the ship, this time via Dos Palmas.”
In from Dos Palmas was about the only direction that Charley, the indomitable and indefatigable, had not tried. It also was the logical route to have been tried in the first place, considering the supposed position of the ship. But if Charles did make the effort, I have been unable to find any record of it.
If Charley Clusker did abandon his quest for the Lost Ship, I suspect the reason was not any weakening of his enthusiasm but a shortage of proper expedition members. Members, that is, who would foot the bill for food, tools, supplies and animals necessary. Through some experience with the old prospector breed, I even have a suspicion as to why each of Charley’s expeditions took a different direction and covered different country. Why, particularly after he claimed to have sighted the ship on one try, his next search took an enormous detour to approach the area from much farther off and an almost opposite compass direction.
Talbott’s account makes it clear that Charley was not simply hunting a stranded ship, which in that dry lake sink could have been seen from afar. He was prospecting the country. To put it bluntly, it appears that Charley Clusker found the story of the Lost Ship the most superb bait for catching grubstakers that he had ever encountered. He would probably have keep looking for it as long as he could raise a grubstake for the purpose.
That is not to doubt that Charley believed in the Lost Ship and really hunted for it. He just didn’t hunt it exclusively. He wanted to make certain that he didn’t miss anything good enroute. And the fact that he did not find the ship on the arduous expeditions, or any ledge, vein or placer either, in no way shook his prospector’s optimism.
The next year he was up in Death Valley, hunting the Lost Gunsight mine with companions Frink and Curtis. He didn’t find that either, and the reason, explained in the March 9, 1872 Guardian, was that they had started too early. Caught in the mountains in a snow storm, they had been forced to retreat. But come spring, they were going back again.
Early in 1873 there was an excitement in the Ord Mountains, and Charley was leading a party of prospectors there. Later the same year he had something big “beyond the mountains” in the Twentynine Palms region. In 1879 he was amalgamator in the mill at Resting Springs, “one of the best skilled mining men on the Slope.” In 1880, the San Bernardino Daily Times, identifying him as “the veteran prospector of the country,” reported that Charley was in town “with new visions of wealth floating before his eyes.”
Charley finally did give up prospecting. At age 81, in 1891, he opened and successfully operated a store in San Timoteo Canyon, which is just northwest of San Gorgonio Pass, beside the old road he had followed so often into the desert. In 1904, age 94, he was living in San Bernardino, “with health and mental faculties unimpaired.”
The biographer who recorded these facts for Ingersoll’s Century Annals of San Bernardino County, did not even mention his most famous adventure – the quest for the Lost Ship.
But he did sum Charley up rather well: “For 30 years Mr. Clusker was a typical prospector and miner. He made fortunes – and lost them with equal fortitude. Sometimes he had wealth in hand, always he possessed wealth in prospect.