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The Lost Ship of the Desert (Coleman)

Los Angeles Times April 8th, 1928

“You never heard about the Lost Ship of the Desert? It was that ole buzzard, “Quartz” Warner, that swore by all the howling bobcats that he had seen it. That’s a long time ago. The poor old man’s been dead now some fifty years. he got the name “Quartz” ’cause of his trumped-up tales of rich ore that never showed up, but that old story of the Lost Ship of the Desert jes’ made folks think he was plum’ loco. He told me about it when I was a kid. That’s better’n sixty years ago. Since that time the Colorado River overflowed and dumped the water on the desert and made that Salton Sea you see ‘way down yonder. The spot’s underwater now. Under the Salton sea, so you can’t tell whether that ole yappin’ coyote’s tale is true or jes’ plain lyin’.”

We were seated on a rickety old bench in front of the little general store at Indian Wells, a mere excuse for a town, on the edge of the Colorado Desert. It was Chuck Wagner, a well known character of that arid country, who volunteered to answer our inquiry about the legend of the Lost Ship of the Desert. Far in the distance, to the south, the beautiful blue waters of the Salton Sea glistened in the desert sun, mysterious, romantic, pictorial. To the west, the saw-toothed ridges of the Santa Rosa Mountains stood clear cut in the evening sky. The sun had already begun to cast long shadows, driving away the carmine and deep purple hues and replacing them with light and dark gray tones. The weather-beaten general store and the few scattered shacks that made up the settlement harmonized perfectly with the rocks that were jumbled fantastically about the wasteland. As darkness crept upon us, the night wrapped the desert as if in a black mantle and it seemed unreal, weird and uncanny, yet beautiful and fascinating. Chuck Wagner seemed touched by the mystery of the surroundings as he began the story with the explanation that “anything could happen on the desert” Here is the story:

“Quartz” Warner being an adventurous nature, decided to strike to the southward in an endeavor to reach San Felipe and the Carrizo Creeks, situated in the desert of the Colorado, with the strong hope that he might find mineral deposits that would compensate him for his ill luck so far experienced.

Laying in a supply of provisions from the stage station keeper at Indian Wells and filling his canteens with water enough to last several days, he mounted upon his faithful burro, an animal well used to hardships.

Saltorn at bottom of Salton Sink in the Cahuilla Basin. Courtesy of Popular Science Monthly.

At the bottom of Salton Sink in the Cahuilla Basin. Courtesy of Popular Science Monthly.

For some time the daring prospector climbed the hills and traversed valleys where no signs of human presence were to be encountered. Finally after working his way southward for many miles, he climbed to the crest of a ridge at the foot of which lay a perfectly level valley. As far as the eye could see, it stretched, without lift or change, to the place where it merged into the horizon. Its surface was seemingly as level as the floor, while its appearance was of a most peculiar nature, being of an ashy whiteness in color. It was without rock or projection of any kind to break the monotony of the dead level.

As “Quartz” stood gazing from the top of the ridge looking at the strange valley at his feet, a singular object, a mile or more from the base of the hill attracted his attention. He shaded his eyes with his hat brim and looked again at it. If that was the ocean instead of the desert down yonder, he would surely say that a vessel lay at anchor. Certainly, no rock ever existed that so much resembled the handiwork of man. What could it be?

Slowly he rode down the hillside, determined to get a closer view of the strange object. At last the level was reached. Less than a mile away, there lay what was unquestionably the worn and battered hulk of an ancient vessel. The stumps of the masts still remained, while the high stern and peculiar shape of the entire hulk bespoke its unmistakably ancient origin. The bulwarks seemed to have partially carried away, probably by the falling of the masts, the stumps of which projected ten or fifteen feet above the deck. But otherwise all of the contour of the old hulk was perfect. The design was vastly different from any that had ever been seen by the astonished adventurer.

“Quartz” urged his burro forward, with all his faculties bent upon a closer examination of this strange apparition in the desert. When he reached the valley, the ground broke beneath the combined weight of burro and rider. He then saw that the entire surface was but an inch or two in thickness. Underneath this saline crust was a dark-colored mixture of mud ans water.

The determined prospector urged his burro onward, but the animal broke through at every step, to sunk deeper and deeper into the soft ooze. It was apparent that it would be impossible to advance farther in the direction of the vessel without becoming hopelessly and dangerously bogged. “Quartz” hated to give up the attempt, especially as the vessel now seemed so near, but his good judgement indicated that further efforts were likely to prove disastrous. He reluctantly turned his animal’s head toward the shore, which was finally reached after a hard struggle.

Upon dismounting “Quartz” essayed to walk over the unbroken crust himself, fancying that it might not give way beneath his lighter weight, but soon found that this was not feasible. Unable to devise any means for satisfying his curiosity in reaching the long deserted wreck that lay so temptingly near, he concluded to make haste to the nearest settlement in order to organize an expedition equipped with appliances necessary to reach and make a thorough search of the abandoned vessel. He turned to mount his animal and a most pitiable sight met his eyes. The poor burro’s legs were raw and bleeding. that part of his limbs that had come in contact with the strange saline-encrusted muddy deposit were now denuded of skin and hair. The highly impregnated alkaline deposit had eaten the animal’s legs almost to the bone. The only thing to be done was to put the poor beast out of his suffering as mercifully and expeditiously as possible.

“Quartz” was now left on foot to content with the multitudinous and almost insurmountable difficulties that confronted him. His burro was dead. He was left alone in a pathless wilderness. His remaining supply of food and water was scant. However, he knew the general in which the old Butterfield stage road ran across the desert. Three days later “Quartz” staggered into one of the stations, nearer dead than alive. He had been without water for more than a day, so that his tongue hung black and swollen from his  mouth, which made articulation impossible. Indeed, it was doubted by those at the station whether he was in a condition to realize what he had gone through or how near death he had been.

He babbled, in his delirium, of the strange discovery he had made, but the desert who attended him paid no attention to his ravings. They believed them to be the frenzied expression of the visions that had passed through his tortured brain while suffering from thirst. Such delusions were familiar to those long experienced on the desert.

Chief Cabazon 1883, courtesy of museumsyndicate.com

Chief Cabazon 1883, courtesy of museumsyndicate.com

At Agua Caliente, now known as Palm Springs, Cal., lived old Cabazon, hereditary chief of all the Banning tribe of Indians. This aged chief often related a story about the Salton sea which has no doubt come down from generation to generation from the early traditions of aborigines of the desert of Colorado.

The Bannings were a powerful tribe of Indians that dwelt in the Salton sea region long before the entry of the white man into the western country.

It is related that the band of these Indians were encamped in the lowlands of the desert. There came upon them, from the east, without warning and with the swiftness of the wind, a wall of water as high as mesquite trees. This huge wave came so unexpectedly and with such rapidity that those encamped in the lower part of the basin were unable to escape and were engulfed and drowned. The others made their way to the highlands.

The whole of the lower portion of the desert filled with water as far as the eye could see. This water remained a long long time. Then to the great amazement of the Indians, there appeared upon it’s surface three great birds, so they thought. The strange birds came from the direction in which the water had come. The newcomers swam about upon the water until they were tired and then came to rest at a point, described by the Indians, as being near Torres within a bowshot of the sea. The mysterious birds had great black bodies and large white spreading wings. The Indians were much too frightened. The Medicine Man made gestures and incantations in an attempt to appease the gods so as to stay the great strangers, for they were big enough to destroy the whole tribe. Of all the braves, there was not one in the whole tribe who had the strong heart or long bow to do them battle.

When the monsters lowered their wings and landed, the Indians stood aghast. Were these gods angry? More fearsome yet was the fact of beholding white men coming from among their feathers. these same men began to feed the birds upon logs which they obtained from the canyons not far from the shore.

The Indians were much afraid and held many councils of war. The Medicine Man kept up his incantations many hours and used all his charms in the endeavor to overcome the supposed evil. All the actions of the three great monsters were keenly watched.

After many days, two of the birds spread their wings and swam away in the direction from which they had come, leaving the one other bird.

The above Indian legend is said to have been given full credence by Ehrenburg, miner, prospector, scientist, and who was the founder of the German town that bears his name. Ehrenburg is located five miles from the present town of Blythe Cal., on the Colorado River.

Far back in the fourteenth century, it appeared that the band of political outcasts were assigned to three ships. They were commanded to sail away and never return. This according to German history as related by Ehrenburg. After they launched upon this objectiveless destination, they were never heard of again.

The old German pioneer stated that he believed that the ships had found their way to the Pacific Coast, and then sailed northward along the Mexican coast. They feared to venture too far from land, on unknown seas, therefore, they hugged the shore, being afraid to sail out of sight of the rugged mountains that bordered it. When the Gulf of California was reached, they entered that body of water, not knowing that it was not an open sea, since they were unable to see the shore on the opposite side of the strait. It is here that they must they must have been caught in a tidal wave that swept them inland to leave them upon what is now the Salton sea. The must have followed the crest of the wall of water which at the time filled the sink of the desert and greeted the great inland sea.

Hopi girl, 1922, photo by Edward S. Curtis

Hopi girl, 1922, photo by Edward S. Curtis

Ehrenburg stated that the two ships sailed into the mouth of the Gila River and that men tried to form a settlement there, but the Moqui (now Hopi) Indians killed all the men and took the women for wives. It was assumed that the ships must have been damaged by the tidal wave, and that they had been repaired with logs gathered by the men upon the first landing.

The first white men, coming from the east, into the land of the Moqui found many of the Indians light, almost white in color. Some of them were said to be freckled. In a study of their language many German words were found by Ehrenburg.

The story also tells that the Indians made use of the signs there were known to be used by Masons.




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Comments (1)

  1. Linda Kruse Crandell says:

    Wow, good stuff !

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