Gallery E
Salton Sea
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Lost Galleon, Aircraft In A California Desert

By James Donahue

The infamous Bermuda Triangle isn’t the only place in and around the United States where ships and aircraft mysteriously disappear. There is a place in Southern California’s Colorado Desert called the Salton Sea where aircraft have been disappearing for the last century and legend has it that an ancient Spanish galleon, filled with treasure, also has been seen there.

The really peculiar thing about the Salton Sea is that it is a manufactured lake, an area of desert that was flooded by accident, and it never dried up. It is a large but shallow body of saline water covering 362 square miles in the Salton Basin, east of San Diego and just north of the Mexican border. The community of Salton City, which once existed there, was flooded. The lake, which has an average depth of about 30 feet, shouldn’t be there. In fact it did not exist before 1905,

It was that year that an irrigation construction canal, designed to bring water from the Colorado River into San Francisco and other southern California cities, sprung a leak. The leak was big and because of financial problems, did not get repaired until 1907. By then the Salton Sea had been created in the basin, which lies 228 feet below sea level. The water has apparently been maintained by agricultural runoff, tropical storms or some other unknown source because after a century, the massive lake still exists. It just got salty. In fact, the water in the Salton Sea is said to be about 30 percent saltier than the Pacific Ocean.

Before the basin was flooded, there were stories about an ancient ship sitting partly buried in the shifting sands. The stories became legend after Tiburcio Manquerna, a mule driver, claimed to come upon a cache of pearls in 1774, and a prospector named Charley Clusker claimed to have discovered a Spanish Galleon just sitting in the desert in 1870. Both men returned to the area with plans to search for treasure, but never found the pearls or the ship.

How could a ship have gotten to such a barren place in the California desert?

Geologists say that the Salton Sea is not the first body of water to exist on that site. Back in about the Sixteenth Century, when Spanish Galleons were sailing the high seas, the basin was not only flooded, but it was linked to the open sea via the Gulf of California. It was known to the natives then as Lake Cahuilla. Thus it was possible for a ship to have sailed into the lake from the sea and perhaps gotten stranded there. The myth of a lost Spanish Galleon may have some credibility.

But that does not explain what has happened in more recent times since the Salton Sea has been created. And it does not explain what happened to Lake Cahuilla.

During World War II, military bases were constructed in the area around the Salton Sea. The lake also attracted private development so homes and even towns appeared. Private yachts and other vessels sailed the lake. And military aircraft flew over it. And the mystery is, many of them disappeared without a trace.

It is said that more than three dozen men and their planes were lost. Navy records show that four Wildcats, two Corsairs, two Hellcats, four patrol planes, two Helldivers and ten Avengers disappeared somewhere over that 35-mile-wide body of water. The wreckage of the planes or the private boats that disappeared in the lake has never been found.

The old military bases have since been left abandoned, as are many of the resort homes and structures erected along the water’s edge. The bones of dead fish and birds line what would normally be the beaches. The Salton Sea is truly an eerie place where myths and legends abound.