Monday, July 13, 2009

Adrift In A Sea Of Sand?

The Lost Ship of the Desert is the subject of legends about ancient ships found in California's Colorado Desert. Since after the U.S. Civil War, stories have been told about buried ships hidden in the desert lands north of the Gulf of California.

The Galleon stories started shortly after the Colorado river flood of 1862. Colonel Albert S. Evans reported seeing it in 1863. In the Los Angeles Daily News of August 1870, it was described as a half buried hulk in a drying alkali marsh or saline lake, west of Dos Palmas, California and 40 miles north of Yuma, Arizona. It could easily be viewed at a distance of several miles from a mesa that lay between Dos Palmas and Palma Seca, California. (Stories have given Palma Seca other names: Soda Springs, Indian Springs, and Bitter Springs, as the area was not well mapped in 1870.) Expeditions were sent out in search, but the ship had vanished into the sand and mud once again. The Galleon, according to old timers, is now under the waters of the current Salton Sea.

There are those who claim this ship is Cavendish's Content (ship) filled with pirate plunder; others, that she is the Iqueue, a ship of Spanish mutineers.

The Viking Stories started sometime around 1900 by the Mexicans and Indians who live in the Colorado River delta region near the Laguna Salada basin. The ship is consistently described as an open boat with round metal shields on its sides in the badlands someplace westerly of Mexicali, Mexico.

Around 1933, Myrtle Botts, a librarian from Julian, California, had an encounter with an old prospector who showed her photos of what she calls a Viking ship. He gave her and her husband directions to the location but an earthquake prevented the Botts from following the prospector's trail to the ship. Has Julian's Pioneer Museum, which inherited Myrtle Botts' papers, also inherited those directions.

The Pearl Ship may be the same ship as the Lost Galleon but it has always been reported close to the sand hills west of El Centro, California. Its descriptions when given are closer to the size of one of Columbus's small Caravels.

The Pearl Ship is rumored to have been seen as recently as the 1970s. The story goes that in 1615 Spanish explorer Juan De Iturbe sailed a shallow-drafted caravel up the Gulf of California, and a high tidal bore carried him across a strait into Lake Cahuilla, which was in the process of drying up. Unable to sail out again, Iturbe beached his craft and made his way back to the nearest Spanish settlement leaving a fortune in black pearls behind.

This ship has been seen and lost several times and there are several stories about this ship having been looted. A mule driver of the de Anza expedition was said to have removed the pearls in 1774. Around 1917 an El Centro farmer named Jacobsen was said to have found a very small chest of jewels that he quietly sold in Los Angeles and that he used timber from the pearl ship to build his pig pens.

This story really grew out of an effort to explain or debunk the Lost Galleon story. It was thought that an abandoned ferry or steamboat that had broken away during a Colorado River flood and left dry in the vast sands of the river delta was the start of the rumors. Others claim that it was a schooner that gold seekers wishing to search the more inaccessible portions of the Colorado River had built in Los Angeles and hauled through the desert by a mule or oxen team until the animals perished leaving the boat mired in soft sand.

The Ferryboat story changed over time more often than the Lost Galleon story. One incarnation said that a small ferry (a two man sweep) was built away from the river in a place a hundred feet or so above sea level where a source of wood was found and that a six oxen team (or more) perished hauling it through the sand near Los Algondones.

From a smattering of first-, second- and third-hand accounts, a variety of fictional (especially graphic and cinematic) variations of the Lost Ship stories have been created, but first-hand accounts are extremely rare. Many of the above references fit the Lost Mines and Urban Legends molds, where the story passes from ear to ear, with all evidence disappearing along the way.

Searching for and finding the remains of a Lost Ship now would be rather problematic. The greater part of the Salton Sink is submerged under (highly polluted) water. Much adjacent land is under military control and has even been used as bombing ranges, rendering on-the-ground searches highly hazardous. The military has undoubtedly performed intensive aerial surveillance of the area, but apparently has not released any information about lost ships.

Lands adjacent to Laguna Salada in Baja California (Mexico), and between the Gulf of California and the Salton Sea, regularly receive wind-blown sand from the desiccated delta of the much-diverted Colorado River, generating vast sand dune systems. Aerial searches using ground-penetrating radar might (or might not) reveal ships' remains.

Whether or not any such ships actually existed, the legends are obviously entertaining, as are stories of other lost artifacts and treasures. See the More Lost Ships sub-page at the Harry Oliver Fan Center site for tales of submarines, an aircraft carrier, and wagonloads of booze, in the Southern California deserts.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

great story