Loyal reader "Lyn" contacted Twelve Mile Circle a few weeks ago with a stack of digital images from a recent road trip to California’s Salton Sea. This has long been on my list of places I’d love to see some day, and I still hope that will happen, so I was pleased to receive the photos. These pictures plus the text I’ve created around them will have to keep me content until the day I can visit the Salton Sea in person.
This wasn’t the first time Lyn contributed to 12MC either. I mentioned receiving a web hit from Cameroon awhile ago. Yes, that was Lyn who happened to be in Douala at the time and knew I’d appreciate the ping.
I’m fortunate to add Lyn to the very selective list of 12MC readers who have provided material that became full articles. All photographs belong to Lyn and are used with permission.
According to the Salton Sea History Museum, this geographic feature was actually an extension of the Gulf of California until about four million years ago. The Colorado River washed enough silt downstream over numerous millennia to cut the tip off from the Gulf. This left behind a large, deep depression now known as the Salton Sink. The floor of the empty sink extended far below sea level, down to -226 feet (-69 metres). By comparison Death Valley — the lowest spot in North America — measured -282 ft (-86 m) so the Salton Sink compared rather favorably as the second lowest spot on the continent.
The Salton Sea was an artificial creation and an accident. People diverted the Colorado River to irrigate parts of the sink, and for a time around the turn of the previous century the area blossomed with cropland. The river busted from its man-made diversion in 1905 after it ran higher than usual, and flooded uncontrollably into the sink. Engineers couldn’t completely halt the breach for two years and by then the spill grew to 35 miles long and 15 miles wide (56 km X 24 km) within the depression, and formed the Salton Sea.
However it was an endorheic basin without an outlet to the ocean. The salinity increased over time, and continues to increase, making it difficult for the few fish species that survived there to thrive in ever worsening conditions.
That naturally brought up a legitimate point. Why would 12MC, or anyone for that matter, want to experience the Salton Sea in person? I supposed it had to be because every description I’ve ever seen of the few settlements still clinging to its shores undoubtedly referenced the phrase "post-apocalyptic" (e.g., Salton Sea: From Relaxing Resort to Skeleton-Filled Wasteland).
It wasn’t supposed to be that way. The Salton Sea held so much promise after its accidental creation while the water remained fresh, before salt built up and poisonous farm runoff added to the disaster. Bombay Beach was envisioned as an inland resort, a beachfront paradise, and was constructed in such a manner. Now it’s mostly a ruin, a desolate place strewn with graffiti and abandoned belongings in the searing Sonoran Desert by a fetid saline lake, a photographer’s paradise and an oddball’s dream. A handful of outcasts still live among the detritus adding character to the scene. Now does it make sense?
Harsh conditions created strange situations out there on the fringes of society. Slab City started as a marine corps training facility during the Second World War: Camp Dunlap they called it. The marines had no need for remote camps in the middle of the desert after the war so Camp Dunlap closed and the government dismantled it, leaving behind only the cement foundations of various buildings.
Seasonal campers in large recreational vehicles learned about the wide selection of perfectly level concrete slabs and figured that a favorable wintertime climate made this an attractive spot to park for a few months every year. Slab City came without amenities, however people remained there as long as they wanted for free. "And now thousands of visitors return to ‘The Slabs’ each winter."
I couldn’t be sure if the isolation created unique behaviors or if people with those traits saw the Salton Sea as a beacon and arrived there from elsewhere, or a little bit of both. No matter the case, this location provided a perfect backdrop for something as wonderful as Salvation Mountain by Leonard Knight (1931–2014).
Leonard’s passion has lovingly created this brilliant “outsider art” masterpiece resplendent with not only biblical and religious scripture such as the Lord’s Prayer, John 3:16, and the Sinner’s Prayer, but also including flowers, trees, waterfalls, suns, bluebirds, and many other fascinating and colorful objects… Its 50 foot height and 150 foot breadth is made totally of local adobe clay and donated paint and is truly unique in the United States and probably the world.
I barely scratched the surface of the Salton Sea’s weirdness or Lyn’s collection of photographs. I need to save a few surprises for later in case I ever make it out there.
I received an email message the other day from a first-time reader who happened to stumble across 12MC randomly through a search engine, hoping to learn the answer to a burning question. I’d never covered the topic on the site before so I didn’t have a ready answer. It fascinated me though and of course I dropped all of my other research topics underway to pursue it further because I have a short attention span and I love to follow tangents. I put as much effort into the question as I’ve done for any article I’d post ordinarily so I might as well share the results with the rest of you.
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The reader who went by "James" recalled an anecdote from the not-too-distant past. He was traveling through Yuma, Arizona and wanted a bite to eat. Sometimes it’s tough finding a decent meal on the road and we all have our own ways to deal with that. I like to go to brewpubs under the theory if the food falls short at least the beer will be decent. James homes-in on casinos for the buffets. I hadn’t thought of that option before so I’ll have to add that to my travel tip list.
Anyway, he crossed the Colorado River — the border between California and Arizona — only to discover a small chunk of Arizona on the "wrong" side of the river with the state line running through the casino parking lot. It’s the Paradise Casino owned by the Quechan Tribe (formerly known as the Yuma Indians). I don’t believe it was an issue of legality since there are Native American casinos in California, too. However it’s not particularly germane to the anecdote so I’ll leave the question of this particular state-hugging casino alone. The more important aspect was the sliver of Arizona within territory one would ordinarily expect to belong to California.
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One is able to appreciate the full extent of the anomaly by zooming out the map a little further. Rivers don’t normally flow at right angles so it’s not like the current state border followed an old riverbed that changed over time. Why, James wondered, did this artifact exist?
I had no idea. I thought it might trace back to old Fort Yuma, constructed in the 1850’s on the California side of the river to protect the new settlement on what was then the New Mexico Territory. That was an interesting bit of history, however, it didn’t provide an explanation.
The answer turned out to be much more recent: March 12, 1963. It seemed crazy that two long-standing states (California since 1850 and Arizona since 1912) were still arguing over their common border as recently 1963 since it was supposed to be the Colorado River, and yet that was indeed the case. That’s when the two finally agreed upon an "Interstate Compact Defining the Boundary Between the States of Arizona and California." The United States Congress approved the Compact in 1966, thereby enshrining the odd jog in the border permanently. The Compact explained its logic:
The boundary between the State of Arizona and California on the Colorado River has become indefinite and uncertain because of the meanderings in the main channel of the Colorado River with the result that a state of confusion exists as to the true and correct location of the boundary, and the enforcement and administration of the laws of the two states and the United States have been rendered difficult.
It also provided, in excruciating detail, 34 points forming the new border in perpetuity (e.g., "700 feet to Point No. 28, which lies on the easterly shoulder line of said north-south road due east of the northeast corner of the stone retaining wall around the Indian School Hospital…"), along with requirements for another 234 subpoints not monumented.
This was elaborated upon further in a U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper published by the Government Printing Office, "Boundaries of the United States and the several States." The key reference can be found on Page 153.
Because determination of the position midchannel at the time California entered the Union would be difficult now, it was decided to place the boundary line in a position that would provide an equitable distribution of the land that had been affected by the movement of the riverbed.
A map found on the following page (Page 154) clearly showed the jog.
How the two states agreed that this particular block should become part of Arizona may never be known except to those involved in the 1963 negotiations. Was it because it was close to Yuma? Was it because it was easy to reach from the rest of Arizona? That remains unanswered. However it was clearly intended to compensate Arizona for changes in the course of the Colorado River that had not been well-documented over the prior century. It was an approximation so straight lines and right angles were appropriate and probably easier to survey.
Thanks James, and I hope you become a regular reader.
Nobody lives in Aurora today although upwards of five thousand people called it home immediately after its founding in 1860. No less a luminary than Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) called Aurora his home for several months during his mining days. It was a vibrant, successful town along the Nevada / California border claimed by both states desiring the gold and silver reserves just below the surface, worth millions of dollars. That’s often the case when valuable natural resources are at stake. Everyone wants it for themselves and most of the time a condominium arrangement simply won’t work.
The border between the two states was a little iffy, which seems rather odd when one considers that it’s formed by two straight lines: One running north-south from the Oregon border directly down the 120th meridian to the 39th parallel; and the other extending from there, heading in a southeastern direction to a point where the Colorado River intersects the 35th parallel. Easy, right?
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Well, not so fast. Surveying techniques were not entirely precise as we’ve noted a number of times in Twelve Mile Circle. It didn’t help that 39°N 120°W happens to fall right in the middle of Lake Tahoe, and on the other end the Colorado River tends to shift from time-to-time, thus complicating the measurement of the oblique line in particular. Several different surveys took place and each one produced a slightly different result.
Consequently the town of Aurora, located along the oblique border, was claimed by both states. That’s perhaps understandable given the imprecise boundary, but what’s truly strange is that it became the county seat for Mono County, California and what was then a larger Esmeralda County, Nevada than the present version at the same time! A single courthouse served both purposes. Aurora held local elections in 1862 to determine representation for both counties and states. The same townspeople could vote in both elections. According to the State of Nevada Department of Cultural Affairs:
During that year, many Aurora citizens participated in the politics of both counties and both states. Dr. John W. Pugh was elected to the Nevada Territorial Legislature and became the President of the Council (similar to the current State Senate). Timothy N. Machin was Mono County’s choice for the California Assembly, of which he became Speaker. Both elected officials were residents of Aurora.
A more precise survey the next year placed Aurora about three miles inside of the Nevada Territory in what today is Mineral County. Even so, some California officials continued to conduct government business in Aurora until 1864 when the Mono County seat officially moved to Bridgeport.
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California may have gotten the better end of the bargain. While Aurora may have been the second largest town in the Nevada when the border dispute was resolved in 1865 (Virginia City being larger), its heyday lasted only about a decade and it faded away once the gold and silver ran out. The county seat moved to Hawthorne in 1883. Aurora became a ghost town by the 1920s. Now it crumbles and rots into the surrounding terrain.