“We exist on this planet by geologic consent,” wrote historian Will Durant. To the 12,000 new residents of the Imperial Valley, between 1905 and 1907, it looked as if nature rescinded the bargain.
Efforts to bend a portion of the Colorado River into the valley collapsed on August 9, 1905. The entire river burst through an irrigation intake, just inside the Mexican border, made a right turn, and rushed northwest for 50 miles, flooding the countryside and creating the Salton Sea.
The roiling waters gouged silty soil like a battering ram with teeth. Floodwaters packed with driftwood carved steep barrancas, wiped out farms, and threatened the small tent and thatched hut towns growing around the valley. The California Development Company promised a steady flow of water. Instead, settlers saw what Noah must have seen: a voracious deluge, determined to engulf.
William deBuys: “There was good reason to believe it might. [Settlers] saw little hope of resisting the Colorado. They also knew that if they stayed put, the floodwaters would cover their bones only after each of them first died of thirst: their sole source of water was the distribution of California Development Company canals, which the flood was eroding, breaching, destroying.”
Thousands became stranded. Homeless Mexican families huddled on small, temporary islands, praying for rescue. Near Brawley, farmers strung a cable across New River, one of the two major flood channels. They attached an undertaker’s basket. A mule towed the cable, pulling people, chickens, grain, and supplies on the “aerial tramway” at 25 cents per person. Others tried a flat-bottomed boat, also on cable, but it tore loose and disappeared downriver.
Eighty-year-old Nathan Lane lived three miles west of Calexico. When rescuers arrived, he refused help. Eight days later, the boat returned. Mud-brown water had risen to the roof of Lane’s shack, where he’d lashed his mattress. For three days and nights he fought off rattlesnakes desperate for a dry haven. One bit him.
The California Development Company got caught between too little and too much water for settlers. Though previous attempts failed, the CDC planned two control gates: a permanent fixture at Pilot Knob, across from Yuma; and a temporary, wooden headgate — called the “Rockwood Gate” — just north of the Mexican intake, where the runaway river turned west.
Begun in November 1906, the fifth attempt to close the gap, the Rockwood Gate, became more controversial than its predecessors. Many argued that an Aframe headgate couldn’t hold back the river, rushing through the half-mile-wide crevasse, especially if sunk into soft, alluvial soil. Plus, 160 laborers working day and night had to complete the job before the summer floods.
Workers finished the gate April 18, 1906, around noon. Earlier that morning, at 5:16 a.m., the earthquake of the century had demolished San Francisco. Fires spread everywhere. Much of the financial aid promised to Imperial Valley went north, though E.H. Harriman, owner of the flood-threatened Southern Pacific railroad, pledged continued support. (San Diego experienced a tremor at 4:29 that afternoon. Although it caused no serious damage, rumor spread through Los Angeles that a tidal wave had wiped out San Diego and Coronado.)
The next day, writes Margaret Romer, “The maddest flood of all came tearing down the Colorado. It was far beyond the capacity of the newly completed dam, washing it out as if it were so much kindling! The crevasse was ever widening, and the whole Colorado poured through it at the rate of 4,000,000,000 cubic feet per day.”
Another flood in June widened the gap to a half mile. No Colorado water flowed to the Gulf. Willows sprouted in the old riverbed. As floodwaters cascaded north, they grew eight to ten miles wide, washed away an estimated 10,000 acres, and culminated in the Salton Sea, which covered 400 square miles and rose seven inches a day.
A rare phenomenon began near the Salton shore. The force of the floods, heading downhill to the valley, eroded the silt at such a rapid rate that waterfalls formed. These merged into a large cataract, which soon spanned the entire width of New River. Churning the soil at its base, the cataract began to “cutback” — literally moved upstream — and grew steeper as it gouged soft strata.
Niagara Falls erodes a bit each year. Its rock base makes for gradual loss. But imagine Niagara Falls in reverse, back cutting a thousand feet per day, leaving an ever-widening swath in its wake. And imagine the threat. Helen Hosmer:“If the river cut back to Yuma, it would not only destroy the government’s new Laguna Dam then under construction, but it might well dredge a channel below sea level, making it all but impossible to return to its original channel toward the gulf.”
A more immediate problem: to reach Yuma and Laguna Dam, the cutback would carve through Calexico and Mexicali. The sister towns on the U.S./Mexico border, inundated by floods from the south, now became threatened from the north. Both stood on the eastern shore of New River, and sections of their riverbanks had already crumbled. By mid-June the cutback thundered toward the towns a mile a day, with an average drop of 28 feet.
People could hear the monster coming — a roar of plunging cataracts — and feel seismic trembles as great chunks of earth slammed into the torrent. Some said it sounded like faroff artillery fire. They also saw signs of its damage, as families from battered El Centro, Brawley, and nearby farms arrived in wagons piled high with their possessions.
Complete destruction could happen in weeks. The first threat to Calexico and Mexicali, however, came from the south. Rising floodwaters from the Colorado filled Volcano Lake, in Mexico, and a new wall of water headed north — literally a river inside the river — gave them two options: “Fight or drown.”
Amid stifling summer heat, and under lanterns at night, they erected a sixfoot-high sandbag levee with shovels, mules, and every available hand. DeBuys: “When they ran out of shovels, they used saucepans. When the waters sucked away part of the levee, they dragged mattresses out of their lean-tos and tents…and shoved them into the breach or tethered them against the sides of the channel.” They hacked down a handsome row of cottonwoods and heaved them onto the barricade. “Most of them being ardent Christians, they sang hymns against the roar of the water.”
Charles Perry, a CDC engineer, had an idea: the cutback was 16 miles north of Calexico. At its current rate of speed, it wouldn’t reach town for two weeks. If they could accelerate the process with dynamite and divert New River to the west, the canyon it was digging might draw off the floodwaters. One natural disaster might avert another.
They tested the idea near town. Any debris, any impediment lodged in the friable soil created a whirlpool effect that could alter the cutback’s direction. A mass of tree trunks, brush, and pilings had gathered near Calexico. If someone didn’t blast it away, when the cutback hit the pile it might change course and knife through the heart of town.
One man volunteered. Mobley Meadows was Imperial County’s first sheriff in 1907.He owned a livery stable in Calexico. A crack shot, famous throughout the Southwest as a lawman, Meadows was the model for The Plainsman by Harold Bell Wright. His statue, on the courthouse grounds, was the first erected in Calexico.
Dynamite strapped to his back, Meadows dogpaddled downstream, dodging everything from angry rapids and tree trunks to dead animals. He planted the charge and swam to safety.
The blast splintered the pile. Inspired by his success, Perry, Meadows, and 11 volunteers headed down New River to where the cutback raged. Meadows and another, unnamed man got in a boat. A long rope, tied to the craft and held by volunteers onshore, floated the rocking boat downstream. No more than five feet from the edge, Meadows lit a long fuse and lowered a box of dynamite over the falls. Volunteers towed the boat upstream. No explosion. A second attempt: same result. Was the fuse too long? Did the massive swirls of mist and spray, rising hundreds of feet in the air, extinguish it?
Perry tried. He used a shorter fuse wrapped in rags. As the men onshore towed him upriver, the dynamite exploded. His boat flew into the air, and 50 feet of the cliff fell away.
The tow rope pulled Perry to safety. Even though they had an estimated 50-50 chance of coming back alive, volunteers went to work in twos. One craft tilted on the rim at a 45-degree angle. Another man fell over the falls but swam to safety. The “dynamite wagon” traveled from Calexico to the site and back many times, as the volunteers made “liberal use” of its contents.
The blasting accelerated the cutback’s speed, causing the floodwaters from Mexico to subside. From the top of Calexico’s two-story hotel, in every direction one saw a “vast expanse of flooded lands.”
The cutback kept coming, however. On the outskirts of Calexico, as a southern gale lashed tall waves, the volunteers strung a cable across the river. The aim was to divert the cutback to an old channel west of town. One by one, slapped by wind and spray, Meadows and others inched along the slippery metal. They lit fuses, dropped hissing dynamite and gunpowder sacks into the seething rapids, then clung to the cable for dear life as the charge went off.
Townspeople removed many frame buildings beforehand, but on the first night a water tower fell. Soon the cutback struck the edges of Calexico, shearing cliffs. Structures tipped, then tumbled into the current. Most of the town survived the assault; dynamiting proved a partial success. But 80 percent of Mexicali’s adobe sheds and shacks vanished in the roar — “no doubt,” writes deBuys,“sacrificed to the very currents that had been deflected from Calexico.”
Perry, Meadows, and a crew of volunteers chased the cutback into Mexico and, after several failed attempts, made a stand near Cerro Prieto (Black Butte). They erected brush weirs in the water. Dynamiting steamy, volcanic mud — often crawling across it to set the charges — the crew forced the cutback to circle into itself. The whirlpool unwound into mini-waterfalls; then disappeared.
The Alamo Canal, ten miles east of New River, also had a cutback that dug a steep barranca before it expired. Out of the havoc came a geological irony. Edgar F. Howe: “The hundreds of acres of farming land lost…were the greatest single gain ever made in the physical condition of the Valley. For the sacrifice of these made possible the development of two drainage channels that answered the last question concerning the future of this Valley as an irrigated district.”
Nature had dug two deep, 40-mile-long ditches for the Imperial Valley. They carried to the Salton Sea four times the sediment excavated for the Panama Canal. But the California Development Company and the remaining settlers of the valley still had a problem: the Colorado River flowed unchecked. Romer: “There was little in recorded history to help the engineers in their gigantic task…Three hundred million cubic feet of water every hour were rushing down a 400-foot slope, through easily eroded soil into a basin about the size of Long Island Sound.”
- Cory, H.T.,The Imperial Valley and the Salton Sink (Newbegin, 1915)
- deBuys, William, Salt Dreams: Land & Water in Low-Down California (University of New Mexico Press, 1999).
- Hosmer, Helen, “Triumph and Failure in the Imperial Valley,” The Grand Colorado: The Story of a River and Its Canyons, Thomas H. Watkins, Ed. (American West, 1969), pp. 205–221.
- Howe, Edgar F., and Howe, Wilbur J., The Story of the First Decade (Imperial,1910).
- Romer, Margaret, “A History of Calexico,” Historical Society of Southern California, 1922.
- Sperry, Robert L., “When the Imperial Valley Fought for Its Life,” Journal of San Diego History,XXI (winter, 1975), pp. 1–25.