There has been a recent surge in interest in recreation at the Salton Sea, including the upcoming SEAthletes SEATalk and North Shore Xtreme recreation event, aimed at bringing more public attention to the Sea. However, this is only one chapter in a long history of public recreation at the Salton Sea.
The Salton Sea in the 1940s through the 1960s was an exclusive resort town that earned the nickname “Palm Springs by the Beach.” General George S. Patton would visit the resorts of Date Palm Beach when he left the local naval base—the locals estimated that 500 soldiers passed through to swim in the Sea or enjoy a famous date shake every day during World War II.
As one local restaurant owner described the beaches of the Salton Sea, “I never saw anything so beautiful. The sun was shining, the sand was white, and I knew this was the place I wanted to live.” It featured resorts designed by Albert Frey, and attracted celebrities looking to get away–including Frank Sinatra and Michael Jackson.
No need for paddles! In 1961, the Salton Sea 500, a speedboat race that covered 500 miles and awarded a $25,000 prize, was inaugurated and drew huge crowds. Rudy Ramos, the record-setting winner, had installed an aircraft engine in his boat. However, after his fourth win with his “Hot Rod Magazine Special” boat, the organizers limited contestants to exclusively automobile engines. At one point, 400,000 boats sailed and fished the Salton Sea every year, supporting a thriving local economy and filling marinas around the Sea.
The struggles of the Salton Sea began in the 70s, when rising salinity and algal blooms began to plague its shores. As the fish died, so did the tourism revenue that had sustained local businesses and brought media attention to the Sea. The infrastructure that had been built to accommodate thousands of visitors was simply abandoned; lonely marinas, speedboats, and clubs still surround the Sea.
After the crowds faded from the area around the Sea, a new form of recreation arose—escapism. The Salvation Mountain monument rises out of the desert near the Sea, the result of a decades-long art project by Leonard Knight that began in the mid 80’s. The mountain is made of adobe clay and shouts out Knight’s spiritual messages in enormous painted letters. The local community of East Jesus also embraces the solitude of the abandoned areas outside the Salton Sea. The community serves as a living art installation, reusing trash to build sculptures and make statements.
With the many upcoming changes to the Sea from new legislative decisions and environmental threats, it remains to be seen how recreation at the Sea will develop in the near future, and whether or not the image of the Salton Sea can be rehabilitated as well.