Lost Ships of the Desert
photo by Bill Boyd
“…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 bark, is plainly visible. The stump of the bowsprit remains, and portions of the timbers of teak are perfect. The wreck is located forty miles north of the San Bernardino and Fort Yuma road, and thirty miles west of Dos Palmos (probably should read Dos Palmas), a well-known watering place in the desert…”
The hulk of this mysterious vessel rested at a prominent point where it could be viewed by travelers “on the high mesa between Dos Palmas and Bitter Springs.” Unfortunately no details were given concerning the name of the boat, its type, size or make, or its exact location. While we must wonder how big a “big boat” might be, we can assume that it would certainly be larger than any small craft, such as a canoe or rowboat. Dos Palmas and Bitter Springs cannot be pinpointed precisely. Six miles east of Salton, a point on the Southern Pacific Transcontinental Line, Dos Palmas was a well-known watering point for early travelers. Old maps locate another Dos Palmas 14 miles southwest of Indio, but the only Bitter Springs mentioned is in San Bernardino County, several miles north of Afton, and apparently too far north.
Now that we can verify that a boat existed on the desert, we can consider how it got there and why. It is only natural to assume that it once sailed the ancient Lake Cahuilla, which once filled the Coachella and Imperial valleys. The name for this ancient body of water was proposed by Prof. William P. Blake, after his visit in 1853 when he described the past and then-present conditions of that region.
Blake learned that the Indians of the Coachella Valley had a distinct legend concerning a great body of water. This lake teemed with fish which formed a substantial portion of the Cahuilla Indians diet. Asked when this lake existed, the Indians put the event “as far back as the lives of four or five very old men,” say four or five centuries prior to 1853. While the time element of the Indian’s tradition might be questioned, we can find no fault with the legend itself. That ancient shoreline has been preserved in many places, rimming the desert from Indio to Cerro Prieto. At numerous spots, ancient beaches and wave-cut cliffs remain as clear-cut evidence.
Cahuilla was a fresh-water lake, although at times its waters may have been brackish. Myriads of shells can be found on the fossil beaches and over the floor of the desert, once overlain by the lake. These shells are fresh-or brackish-water mollusks, which are definitely associated with those living in permanent streams in the desert region.
Blake and subsequent geologists have agreed that the water for the ancient lake came from the Colorado River. Walter Mendenhall described the events in U.S. Geological Survey Water Supply Paper 225. In times past, the mouth of the Colorado was at Yuma, about 60 miles north of its present site. Tremendous quantities of material carried by the stream built up a wide-spread delta and, during flood periods, the Colorado would occasionally “jump” its regular channel, wandering here and there in a haphazard, braided pattern. At certain times the stream channel would be built up until it was actually higher than the land adjacent to it. In this manner the delta gradually grew to a positive area. During years of heavy floods, Big Red would alternately dump its waters into the Gulf of California and the Salton Sink. Filling of the sink and evaporation probably went through numerous cycles, for numerous shorelines can be observed.
But water running into the Salton Sink isn’t entirely ancient history. Several bad floods between 1904 and 1907 defied control and on occasions the Colorado dumped its entire load into the Salton Sink via two old channels, the Alamo and New rivers. The Southern Pacific Co. expended nearly $3,000,000 in bringing the river under control. During this episode, the lake in the Salton depression grew rapidly and the S.P. had to build a succession of “shoo-fly” tracks, each higher than the last, in order to stay above the encroaching waters and prevent the interruption of traffic on its main line.
A river raging unchecked is a fearsome monster. The Colorado rampaged often, carving great channels in the land. It undercut great cliffs, dropping infinite tons of rock in its path. In its fury it carried house-sized boulders toward the sea and giant trees bobbing like corks on its surface.
We can easily picture Big Red (Colorado River) jerking some boat free of its moorings, washing it downstream. If the fickle river suddenly changed its course and flowed into the Salton Sink, it would finally deposit the craft, partially filled with mud and debris, along some ancient beach. Here the boat might remain submerged for centuries, or until evaporation finally exposed it to view. Dozens of steamboats and ferry boats operated along the Colorado.
By stretching one’s imagination, it is conceivable that an unknown ship, in the past, sailed up the Colorado and into the Gila. Possibly waiting out a flood period on the Colorado, the boat then starts down the Colorado only to find it entirely diverted into the Salton Sink. Before the boat could retreat toward the Gila, Big Red may have again changed its course, running into the gulf, leaving the boat landlocked. You may not believe that, yet you’ll have to admit that a boat got out into the desert of California somehow.
All attempts to track down the legendary lost ship have failed, except that a second ship turned up, and it is a greater mystery than the first. This story appeared in the Golden Globe of August 18, 1894, sandwiched in between articles on cranberry crops, female suffrage, a man falling off his horse, the horrors of women wearing slacks, and the formation of a weed-extermination society to stamp out the Russian thistle. The story is related by E.C. Traver, supposedly a well-known prospector and civil engineer.
“One of the queerest and most surprising sights I ever saw in all my wanderings over the wilds of this country,” Traver said, “was a newly constructed brig lying on the floor of Death Valley. And it is there yet, so that anybody can see it.”
Traver had been prospecting on the eastern side of the “Ground-on-Fire” Valley for several weeks without success. He decided to move to the vicinity of Mount Darwin, crossing the valley at the upper end, at a point about 200 feet below sea level. Suddenly he came upon a boat. He didn’t quite believe what he saw. A boat? Out there in the middle of the desert? Great balls of mud, he thought, surely I’ve been sun-struck. He couldn’t believe it, yet there it sat, high and dry, all ready for a shakedown cruise.
Somewhat of a sailor himself, Traver knew something of boats, or so he said. This boat was constructed along modern lines, and the timbers looked fresh. Travers estimated it to be a brig of about 400 tons. He climbed aboard and found everything shipshape.
With night coming on, the prospector decided to make camp near the boat. As he prepared his meal, a man came up and hello-ed him, introducing himself as Frederick Evans. Traver invited him to eat. He described Evans as “good looking with gray hair and beard.” The fellow seemed sane enough. Evans lived in a cave nearby. Naturally they talked about the ship, which, as anyone can understand, would make a dandy conversation piece, situated, as it was, out there in the middle of the desert.
Evans, he said, was a shipbuilder by trade, and a California ‘49er. He had given up his trade to prospect, lured on by the fabulous tales of yellow metal. Some years before, possibly in the ‘80s, he was prospecting in the mountains of the desert, when the Salton Sea began to rise, undoubtedly one of the times when the Colorado changed its course. Fred had heard the stories about the large inland lake, and he decided the waters would eventually reach Death Valley.
Since he had resources, he hired two men to help in building the boat. When the waters in the Salton Sea began to recede again, he worked alone. Year after year, he stayed in the vicinity, prospecting, waiting for the water to reach him.
When Traver left, Evans said, “When the water rises I will be ready for it.”
It would seem that either Evans was ready for the booby hatch, or that Traver, in his stint on the desert, spent a heat-struck afternoon out there and the shimmering heat waves got to him.
In trying to solve the mystery of the lost ship of the desert, I find that every year or so, like flat worms, new lost ship legends spring from old and always new testimony is turning up. Probably if anyone did find it, they’d keep both the news and the loot to themselves, but if ever one is found, there will still be the others to stimulate the never-ending search.