By Luann Pfost
Editors note: I recently asked Luann Pfost if she wouldn’t mind telling us about the history of her Dad, Bill Pfost, and his connection with the Lost Ship of the Desert. Bill was the first person to write a book about his theory on the Lost Ship, a book I have enjoyed reading from cover to cover many times over.
It all begins with family, and this family, along with brothers, the in-laws and Cousins, were ranching up on the central coast area of California by the 1890’s. About ten years later William R. Pfost, Great Grandfather, “Riley” to his friends, moved his family to pioneer a homestead along the Colorado River, near where the city of Blythe is today. When not ranching, Riley drove the mule team hauling freight along both sides of the river, and out into the desert wherever the customer needed their goods delivered. Because of this, the Pfosts knew many of the surviving old timers in the region and heard their stories.
Grandpa Floyd and his brothers growing up along the Colorado riverbanks also witnessed first hand what happens when its wild raging floodwaters met head-on with a high rising tidal bore coming up river from the gulf of California. They were also eye witnesses to the forming of the current Salton Sea. By 1930 Floyd Pfost and his wife Lula along with their small son Bill moved the Oasis area of the Coachella Valley, to operate a store. Oasis being one of the larger towns in the valley at that time the Pfosts again exchanged stories with many of the old timers, ranchers and colorful characters that lived in the area. people like Desert Steve Ragsdale founder of Desert Center, Old Dad the Russian Hermit , John Hilton the desert painter just to name a few. Bill’s Uncle John at that time lived with the family. Uncle John was 15 years older than Floyd and in poor health, but he had the gold fever and when his health and the weather permitted, he went out treasure hunting. Often taking young Bill with him on a weekend.
Although it was talked about, they did not go looking for the ship as John was more interested in finding a gold mine. Interesting enough, twenty years after Johns death, Bill went to a place where John’s health had stopped them from going, and found a gold miner doing very well in the place John wanted to search.
Jumping forward to the new century when National Geographic magazine came out with all of their back issues on CD. Dad bought the set and I started reading all the articles on the Salton Sea, and the Colorado Desert. One of the articles mentioned and dismissed the Legend of the Lost ship in the desert. I laughed at it as I read Dad the article. His reply was there really is a ship out there and proceeded to tell me all he had heard and read about it. I said “Wow Dad you should write a book.” He apparently took that as a challenge, and he began to write his book.
Dad had heard rumors, that he believed, about an acquaintance of his, a former Imperial County rancher, having seen the pearl ship. In one idle conversation he asked the man about it, but he man never denied nor confirmed it. Instead that conversation evolved into a discussion about the weather and the ancient lake. After Dad’s book was written a rancher who was member of a local jeep club came forward naming the acquaintance (who had died years before) as one of the people who led the group to the ship, and the rancher also confirmed that dad’s location was pretty close. The pearl ship of the Elmer Carver story is the one Dad believed was there.
Pearl ships, unlike Galleons and other ocean going vessels, were built smaller with shallow drafts to enable working around the rocky shores oysters loved. Dad believed the route the ship took into the valley was important to finding the ships final resting place. He thought the ship did not come up the Colorado as we know it. The Colorado would have been flowing into the ancient lake Cahuilla. Since all evidence shows it was a fresh water lake, water had to have a way out. He believed there was a rocky passage by Mexico’s Signal Mountain where the outflow of the ancient lake made its way to the ocean. Dad’s proposed outflow passage is now much higher than the lakes recorded average level. He believed that earth movement, upthrust from earthquake faults such as the east west Laguna Salada fault would account for that.
This rocky outflow channel, if it existed, would have shortened the distance between ocean and lake making a ships passage easier on the tidal bore. While researching for his book, Dad, just for fun, started making plans for a trip to look at, study and photograph this passage. Dad changed his mind when found out how unsafe the area was due to drug smugglers robbing and killing people near their routes. He went about three times to look at the areas where he believed the ship’s remains rested. These were to be short trips of just an hour or two looking before he drove home again. Dad knew he would never get close enough to find the ship as his hiking days were long over. But Dad thought he could get near enough to take a photo of a general location and then give a younger friend directions and ask him to search.
He never actually said it, but I think some of his directions came from uncle John’s stories. On the first trip, he had the misfortune of a flat tire before he got anywhere, so he just came home. On the second trip he came back a bit disgruntled, but did not say anything other than he’d had a nice day out. The third trip, he had a topographical map, and I went out with him. He was looking for a spot west of El Centro that when the lake bed had water would have been a natural bay or harbor, perhaps protected from prevailing winds. It would have to be a sandy spot in the early 1900’s and somewhere around 15 feet below the old lake shore line. He got as far as the end of a road west of El Centro, and was prevented from getting any nearer to his proposed site as the off road trail went into a military bombing range. Dad never went looking again.
Bill Pfost passed away on July 1st 2014, only five years after his last search…
Editors note: I had the pleasure of talking to Bill a couple of times before he passed, and all I can say is that the conversation was always enjoyable, he was always courteous and held an incredible wealth of knowledge. I wish he was still here so we could sit by a campfire and talk about our favorite subject, the Lost Ship of the Desert….