The Journal of San Diego History
Winter 1976, Volume 22, Number 1
James E. Moss, Editor

Edited by Peter W. van der Pas

Prof. Dr. Hugo de Vries

W. O. Hendricks, in his article entitled “Developing San Diego’s Desert Empire” published in the Journal of San Diego History, Summer, 1971, discussed the history of the Imperial Valley from the time California became a state until about 1907 and dealt mainly with the organizational aspects of the reclamation of the Colorado Desert. R. L. Sperry’s article, “When The Imperial Valley Fought For Its Life,” published in the Journal, Winter, 1975, covered the engineering works constructed to bring water into the valley and the subsequent difficulties experienced with those works.

The Imperial Valley as it was at an early stage of its settlement in 1904 was described by the Dutch botanist Hugo de Vries who also wrote an account of his visit to San Diego in 1906, published in this Journal, Summer, 1971, with Hendricks’ article. De Vries looked at the valley through the eyes of a botanist and agriculturist and was especially interested in the desert as it was before settlement had taken place. It is a view that is different from that of Hendricks and Sperry and therefore serves as a supplement to their articles. For a brief biographical sketch of de Vries, see his 1906 account of San Diego mentioned above.

Until the end of World War II, the Dutch in general did not travel much. Most of them spent their vacations in a pension or in a residential hotel near a forested area or near the beach, or they simply stayed home. Travel to foreign countries was relatively rare and if a trip abroad was taken, neighboring countries were favored, Belgium, Germany (the Rhine!), France, Switzerland, perhaps Italy or Austria. England was much less visited, the United States only rarely.

The lesser popularity of English speaking countries was perhaps caused by the unfavorable rate of exchange, to which for the United States the lengthy and costly ocean crossing must be added. Around the year 1900, the trip from Rotterdam to New York took ten days; about three weeks of ocean travel for a round trip. This alone would exclude a vacation trip to the United States.

Trips to the United States by Dutch people, and this is probably true for other continental European countries as well, were mainly made for business reasons or for study. As a consequence, there was little first hand information about the United States. The newspapers did not have much information; what they reported was mainly the more sensational news which contributed little toward knowing and understanding the country, but which added to the aura of mystery which surrounded it.

This explains why so many travelers to the United States put down their impressions in a book or in a magazine article and why such publications found avid readers. Hugo de Vries’ account of his first journey to the United States went through two editions (1905, 1906); the travel account of another Dutch botanist, ). P. Lotsy, was also published two times (1924, 1930).

Until the year 1890, de Vries’ research had been in the field of plant physiology. Around 1890 he completely and quite suddenly changed the field of his researches to the sturdy of phenomena of variation and heredity in plants from all conceivable angles. Around 1896, he discovered the laws of heredity which are now called Mendel’s laws. The priest Gregor Johann Mendel had discovered these laws earlier and published them in a paper in 1865. When de Vries discovered these laws, without knowing of Mendel’s work, he did not publish immediately; he wanted to save them for a large book on heredity he was planning to publish later. However, around 1900, there were indications in the professional literature that others were on the same track. Therefore de Vries decided to publish his findings simultaneously in French and German journals. His suspicion that others were obtaining similar results in their experimentations proved to be true. Before the year had ended, two other investigators published their results, the German botanist Carl Correns and the Austrian agriculturist Erik Tschermak. This discovery and especially the fact that it was claimed by three investigators almost simultaneously, caused great excitement in the botanical world. It especially focused attention on de Vries. Up to that time, de Vries was quite well known in Europe as a plant physiologist, but unknown in the United States where plant physiology was little studied. There was, however, a great interest in hybridization in the United States De Vries’ rediscovery of Mendel’s laws and the publication during 1901-03 of his large book, The Mutation Theory, which he had been planning for ten years, made his name known across the ocean and led to invitations to lecture at the Summer School in Berkeley in 1904 and 1906.

The rediscovery of Mendel’s laws of heredity led to a frantic activity in this field by botanists of many nations, an activity in which de Vries hardly participated. He was not very much interested in unraveling the secrets of heredity. He was interested in the explanation of evolution. He wanted to know how a species originated, and he believed that a discovery he had made before the rediscovery of Mendel’s laws, the mutation of plants, would lead to an answer to such questions. Mendel’s laws predicted how the characteristics of a “father” and a “mother” plant were distributed over their progeny. Hence de Vries reasoned that a Mendelian crossing only redistributed already existing characters and thus could not create a new species which required the rise of entirely new characteristics. When he found plants producing offspring which differed markedly from both the father and the mother plant, he decided that such plants had to be considered new species according to the accepted views of taxonomy of the time. Especially one plant genus, Oenothera, showed this mutation phenomenon markedly, and de Vries made intensive studies of its genus.

With the publication of his book, The Mutation Theory, de Vries considered his research on these subjects closed and started to look for a new field of activity. It had long been known that plants which grow under difficult circumstances, for example in deserts, have special ways to adapt themselves to their adverse environment. These plants must have developed their ability to adapt in a gradual way by small evolutionary steps. De Vries planned to take the adaptation of plants to a hostile environment as his next research project, hence his interest in desert plants. During his American trips of 1904 and 1906, de Vries visited the deserts and badlands as much as possible. On his trip of 1904, he studied the desert of Arizona, visited the Desert Laboratory in Tucson, the Colorado desert and the alkali lands near Monterey and Fresno. On his trip of 1906, he visited the desert of Arizona again, the deserts near Salt Lake City and the dunes near the shore of Lake Michigan.

Prior to his first visit to the United States, de Vries made extensive studies to decide what he wanted to see and where he could learn most. He questioned his colleagues at the University of Amsterdam and borrowed numerous books on American subjects. His account of his visit to Imperial Valley starts with a discussion of the geological history of the Colorado River and the Salton Basin. This information he probably owed to the geology professor A. C. Lawson of Berkeley. He devoted only a few lines to the story of the engineering works which brought the water of the Colorado river into the Valley. Apparently he did not quite understand this subject, which is, as Sperry’s article shows, rather complicated. The most interesting part of his account is the description of his walk along one of the irrigation canals and into the desert. His discussion of the desert flora gives a vivid impression of the desolation of the land which was being reclaimed. The account ends with some remarks on the irrigation system itself and on the founding of new cities. The latter subject fascinated him; elsewhere in his book he describes how the development of cities in California could be watched from the train, starting with a whistlestop without signs of habitation, elsewhere streets laid out but with no houses as yet, and so on, and finally a fully developed city such as San Francisco at the end of the evolutionary scale.


Imperial is the most southern city I visited in California. It is located in the immediate vicinity of the Mexican border. This border separates Lower California, the long and narrow peninsula between the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of California, from the State of California. The border line runs straight in westerly direction from Yuma towards the ocean.

Imperial is a young city, built in the middle of an enormous desert. This desert does not consist of barren sand but, on the contrary, of very fertile clay which cannot be cultivated on account of a total lack of water. Hence, the area could be converted into a fertile plain if only water could be supplied.

The area contains about 500,000 acres of such soil. This land is government property; according to existing laws property rights can be transferred to those who are willing to cultivate the land. The Desert Act allows to sell the land for $1.25 per acre; the Homestead Act allows to donate parcels, large enough to support a family, free of charge.

The problem hence is to secure a regular supply of water; however, water costs more than land here. Companies, organised to bring water to the valley and distribute it by contract to the land owners have been started. Although these companies have been in operation for only a half dozen years, the result already is that 200,000 acres of land have been acquired by some 1000 families and that the population is steadily increasing.

It is obvious that a family which has requested and acquired an average of 200 acres, cannot bring it all under cultivation immediately. Indeed, manure is not needed, for the soil is the most fertile clay known. But the digging of the irrigation canals and all that goes with it, proceeds only slowly. Accordingly, only 50,000 acres were under cultivation last year [1903]. The main products are wheat and barley and also a kind of sorghum, known as Milo-Maize, which is however not at all a maize species.1

It is a large scale land reclamation project, perhaps the largest such project ever attempted. To give my readers an idea of the curious status of this plain in former times and of the benefits which are expected, it is easiest to discuss some geography first. The central theme thereof is the Colorado River, the river which supplies the irrigation water and which has actually created the entire plain in ancient times.

I reached California by Southern Pacific Railroad about midnight, on 21 June [1904]. I was sleeping in my Pullman-car but was awakened by the shunting of the carriages at the border station, Yuma. I looked from the window at the moonlit landscape for some time. Soon we were riding over a long bridge, crossing the Colorado River. It was a mighty stream which carried enormous amounts of mud-laden water to the ocean. The muddiness consists of silt, worn off the rocks along which the river flows. The destination of the river is not the Pacific Ocean proper, but the Gulf of California. A few hours southwest of Yuma the Colorado flows into this Gulf at its most northern location.2 The enormous amount of silt is deposited there and the clarified fresh water mixes with the salt water of the Gulf. At various places, mudflats are formed and pretty soon it will be possible to reclaim large stretches of fertile land by building dikes. However, the Gulf is located in Mexico and for the enterprising Americans there is still so much to be done in their own country that the slow legislature and the imperfect laws across the border will be an impediment for such a reclamation. They would rather develop the dry desert in their own country. The Colorado River is sometimes called America’s Nile on account of its enormous power to create deltas. It is one of the largest rivers in America, taking its course almost entirely through the dry wilderness of the West. The Colorado starts where the Green River joins the Grand River, the former of which having its source in Wyoming, the latter in Colorado.3 These states, which are located north of the desert states are rich in water, received mainly in the form of snow in the mountains. This snow melts in springtime, until June and during this time, the Colorado River carries as much water per hour as in the remainder of the year.4

Date Palms flourished in Southern California The river is famous for its canyons, deep crevices in the rocks; the main river as well as its tributaries run in such deep and narrow valleys. These canyons have been eroded into rather flat country and, picturesque as these canyons may be, they are very detrimental, for it is easy to see that a river which runs everywhere hundreds of meters lower than the land can only serve for irrigation at the sacrifice of great costs. Mighty pumping works would be needed to lift the water to the plains and the returns of agriculture are not sufficient to warrant these costs. In addition, the fall of the rivers is only slight, consequently there are only a few locations where water can be drawn and transported by canal to the area to be irrigated. There are plans to divide the river into a number of successive basins by means of dams, the silt would settle in these basins during the fall and, after the sluices would be opened, vast, silt covered and hence fertile regions could be reclaimed. However, this can only be done in the deep sections of the river and where the river is sufficiently wide to carry out such enterprises. It is estimated that the fertile area reclaimable this way, would be as large as Imperial Desert, about 500,000 bunders.5 But the cost of those works, the building of the railroads, needed to transport the products and several other circumstances favor the use of the desert above the use of the river itself for the near future.

Did the Colorado River always exist and did the river always have the same course? Did the river always deposit its silt at the same places? These questions are of a geological nature and for us, they are only of interest as far as they concern the last several thousand of years before our era. Hence we will limit ourselves to the times during which the rivers from Colorado and Wyoming transported their waters to the sea the way they do now.

Everywhere deep canyons have been created. Immense quantities of silt must have been transported. These quantities are so large that they would be sufficient to fill a large portion of the Gulf of California. In the dry season, when part of the tributaries are frozen, the river transports near Yuma about 3000 cubic feet of muddy water per second. How much is transported during the wet season is not exactly known; it is estimated at a half million cubic feet per second.

Now we have to reason backwards, using these data. We decide that, if the river brings so much silt per year that the Gulf of California is visibly decreased in size, this Gulf must necessarily have been much larger in past centuries. And, if we calculate by millenniums instead of centuries, we realise that the Gulf must have extended many miles in some or another direction. What was Gulf in those days, is now dry land, formed by sedimentation.

If we want to know where this dried up part of the Gulf is probably located, we have only to look at the map. For, where we find mountain ranges or hills, there cannot have been silt deposits in the last millenniums. The Gulf is however located between two mountain ranges, one on the mainland of Mexico, the other on the Lower California peninsula. There we should not look. We have a much better chance if we extend the Gulf towards the heart of California between the two mountain ranges. There we find the Imperial Desert, which starts only a few hours from the present shore of the Gulf.

Here we find a vast plain, covered entirely with river silt. And not with a thin layer either; bore holes in the middle of this plain, extending downward to several hundred feet have not reached the bottom layer of this clay. Everything hence points to the conclusion that this plain once was part of the Gulf of California and that the Colorado River deposited most of its sediments there.

I cannot elaborate on the recent geological history of California, but I will point out the well known fact that the entire coast of the Pacific Ocean has risen from the sea in those days. Layers of shells, belonging to species which are still living today, found several hundred meters or more above sea level and many other phenomena prove this beyond doubt.

The floor of the Gulf of California is obviously very uneven, higher here, lower there. As the entire coast rose in geological times, some parts must have emerged above water sooner than others. If we assume that, south of the location of present day Yuma, such a shallow area crossed the Gulf and that this shallow area slowly rose to above water level, one can visualise how Imperial Valley was separated from the Gulf and became a lake. The river still flowed into this lake and filled it slowly with silt deposits.

However, this activity of the river was arrested by unknown causes, probably long before our era. A little sand hill perhaps caused it to change course from the right to the left, sufficiently to dry up the river bed, leading to Imperial Valley and to find a new bed, leading again to the Gulf. This path is still followed, but the old river bed was, although dry, not at all blown away by the wind or obliterated some other way. The bed was only not noticed before and its discovery was the starting point for the irrigation works of Imperial.

I may now anticipate my story and ask you to visualise what happened to the Imperial Valley after the river stopped supplying water. If the climate had been even, such as with us [Holland], the large lake would probably have remained as it was. However, the climate here is that of the surrounding deserts, hot and dry. There is hardly any rainfall and stagnant water evaporates fast. The lake had to dry up gradually. Obviously, the bottom of the lake was not level. The southern part, near the mouth of the Colorado River, had become quite high through sedimentation, the northern part was quite low. As the water evaporated, the shallow part became dry land first, the ocean water gradually receded to the deeper parts. Here it finally evaporated completely, leaving a thick layer of salt. This area is known as the Salton Sink while the entire former lake is known as the Salton Basin. This Salton Sink is hence a low valley; the bottom is about 100 meters below sea level.6 Numerous salt refineries now clean and market the salt which has been left behind and make good use of its many components in agriculture and industry.

Sketch map based on a map by J.B. Lippincott, dated 1905. It was a chance happening which first focused attention to the possibility of irrigating this vast plain. It happened in 1890, when the Colorado River reached an unusually high level in the beginning of summer. The water rose so high that it overflowed the dam which had previously blocked its entrance to the Imperial Valley. A breach was worn in that dam and the river returned to its old bed. At about the same time it opened a second dam and it appared that this second dam corresponded to an unknown dry bed of another river arm, leading also into the valley. Through both former river beds, so much water flowed all at once that the salt works in the Salton Sink were completely inundated. This valley was changed into a vast lake and it took an entire year to get rid of the water and restore the damage.

It had become evident that those two dry river beds were an easy way to bring water into the valley, it was only necessary to replace the dams with short canals and install the necessary sluices to control the flow of the water. Unfortunately, the dams were located on Mexican territory and both rivers ran partly through Mexico before they reached the State of California. According to Mexican laws, such exploitation could be carried out only by a Mexican company. Such a company was started with American money and now works together with the Imperial Land Company, with offices in Los Angeles, which takes care of the transport and the distribution of the water.7

The old rivers hence are now operating again. The eastern one of the two is called the Salton River,8 the western one the New River.9 They meander from the Colorado River, but almost parallel, to the Salton Sink. Only at one location do they distantiate from each other and there is the heart of the irrigation system, with its seat in Imperial.

It is obvious that these companies do not admit more water than is necessary for irrigation. The largest part of the irrigation water disappears into the soil, the remainder of the water runs in the two rivers towards the Salton Sink. But this water also disappears into the ground, long before reaching the salt works, both rivers are completely dry.

Now I have progressed this far with my story, the remainder consists of two parts. One concerns the desert, the other the reclamation. And, since the reclamation still covers only a small area of the desert, I think it best to start with the latter. From the inn, located at about the center of the young city,10 I walked for about one hour along one of the irrigation canals, between luxuriant fields, mainly planted with wheat and barley, some with sorghum and alfalfa and some special cultures. After that time, I reached the boundary line of the cultivation and hence the desert. I chose the most interesting looking direction, guided by the sight of some green bushes in the distance. Where I left, there was a lone willow tree, almost the only kind of tree grown around here. This tree could show me later where I had to leave the desert on my return trip. The desert is level. There is admittedly a small sloping towards the Salton Sink, exactly as much as is needed for irrigation and the removal of superfluous water, but the desert appears level to the eye of the observer.

Far away, in the east, I saw rows of sand dunes which I had passed in the train in the morning. They are separated from the fertile silt deposits by a white, sandy plain, not unlike a former beach. Behind them, the peaks of the Sierra’s, cloaked in a blue haze. In the west is the Pacific Ocean, but separated by the lower hills of the Coast Range. Some of them must formerly have been little islands in the lake or gulf; such islands are still found in the present Gulf.

I walked over the plain until I finally reached the New River, far beyond the location where the main channel of the irrigation works discharges its water into this stream. The wide canal, full of water, is separated by a sluice from the narrow river which does not carry much water at this time of the year. The rivulet appears as a green, winding line in the barren plain. But it is incised so deeply that its green vegetation can hardly be seen from a distance.

Before I reached the rivulet, I was in the original desert. The soil is a hard clay, which is surfaced by a hard crust, caused by the little rain which falls occasionally (some rain had fallen a few days before my visit), on which one walks easily. But where this crust has been broken and crushed by carts or footsteps, the clay is very fine and will blow away in the wind. Walking along the roads, which are yet obviously nowhere surfaced, is therefore much less pleasant than walking in the desert on account of the unequal surface of the road and the fine dust.

The plain is not completely bare. On both sides of the river, one sees some shrubs and in the plain, the saltbushes or scales. They are more numerous along the rivulet; in the plain they grow at distances of about one hundred steps, sometimes at much greater distances, leaving large areas without vegetation. These bushes are about half the height of a man, or a little larger and almost round. They have a main trunk with a taproot, but closely above the ground, many branches reach in all directions.

Often the trunk is not visible, the bush emerges from the ground like a creeping willow with many branches. In this case, the plant stands on a little hill, which shows that it has been covered with dust on dry and windy days. Such little hills are very common and the plant which caused the hill has often long since died. The saltbushes, which are almost the only inhabitants of the desert, are of a grey color, when they are young, greyish green, but at a later time so grey that they almost assume the color of the clay and increase the monotony of the desert. For miles and miles, no other plants are found but these saltbushes; but one may feel happy that at least something is growing there. Sometimes they are mistakenly called sage brushes.11 They are closely related to the “melden” of our sea coast, they are however less juicy, but instead very woody and dry. There are mainly three species, Atriplex lentiformis12 with lens shaped dry fruits, Atriplex polycarpa13 with very dense clusters of fruits above the leaves, which are called shrub saltbushes here and Atriplex canescens14 or grey saltbush, which is called shad scale here. They are typical desert plants which like salty soil, as our “melden” do. For it is easy to see that the soil in this area, which was formerly a sea, still contains a fair amount of salt. The salt in the soil amounts to about one percent and consists for one third of normal salt and for two thirds of Glauber’s salt.15 In our country, the rain soon washes the salt from our polders, surrounded by dikes, but there falls so little rain here that, although the rain sinks quickly into the soil, it is soon captured by capillary action and cannot proceed any further. And therefore, the salt remains in the soil and can even move upwards through capillary action. The saltbushes like this kind of soil and do not care whether the soil is a clean, hard clay or whether it consists of a loose mixture of sand and clay. I saw some of those saltbushes in flower, others bearing fruit. The ground around some of them was covered with their little, four-winged seeds. Everything was so dry and so brittle that it was difficult to bring the younger parts between paper to preserve them for my herbarium; for the older parts it was completely impossible.

The first tree I reached after a short walk was an old mesquite or algaroba,16 Prosopis juliflora, a tree having green branches and hardly any leaves. The tree belongs to the Pea family and was indeed partly laden with pea pods. The leaves are finned, the leaflets are very small. The leaves unfold quickly after a spell of rain and dry out equally quickly, leaving the tree almost bare. Of this particular tree, the trunk emerged obliquely from the ground and had lost almost all its branches. Apparently, the tree had grown up during a few wet years and has since declined because the ground water disappeared. The tree originated perhaps from the flood of 1890 which was discussed above, for very heavy trunks will grow here in only a few years; Californians call a tree of more than ten years of age, a very old tree. Such trees can be compared with our mature trees. These trees mature fast, but they probably die fast also when water starts lacking; I had the impression that the few green branches which were left were destined to soon undergo the fate of the dead branches.

As I was busy to record these observations, and was about to start reflecting upon the infinity of the desert and the frailty of life, a great gray lizard suddenly jumped from a burrow in the ground near the tree trunk, chasing a grasshopper.17 I had not yet seen animal life in this desert, therefore I followed the jumps of the insect and the crafty movements of its crawling enemy for some time until the insect, with a great jump from the tree, ended the dangerous game. A motion of mine startled the lizard, who presently returned to its burrow. Later I saw many such burrows, but no more lizards emerged.

Towards the rivulet, bushes became more numerous. These were Creosote bushes (Larrea tridentata),18 one of the most typical desert plants which covers enormous areas in Arizona also. Their leaves are small and have a greenish brown color with a varnishy glossy surface; they contain so much resin and etheral oils that even fresh leaves burn easily. The plant has a peculiar smell which gives the plant its name.

This plant is further characterized by rather large yellow flowers and fruits of a spherical shape, the size of red gooseberries, 19 covered with thick, stiff, grey hairs. When I visited, the plant hardly flowered any more. I saw many galls, resembling small bedeguars20 on the branches, also beautiful beetles with gray and yellowish green stripes which look so much like leaves that they are initially hard to find. These shrubs have, like other desert plants, enormously long, deeply penetrating roots, they can therefore obtain water from deep layers, whence it has percolated from the river.

A Southern California Palm Canyon, with Washington Palms At last, I reached the rivulet, the New River. It flowed in a canyon with steep walls, about three feet deep, dug into the hard clay. The rivulet ran swiftly at the bottom and was narrow enough to be jumped over, at any rate at those places where the clay was not slippery from the last rain. Although it was one of the last days of June, the dry season had apparently already started. The bottom of the canyon was usually 25-30 feet wide, and at some locations much wider and there were indications that at times the entire channel was full of water. At the moment, the canyon was dry, except for the swiftly running rivulet. The water was however not clean enough to be drinkable and therefore I had to be content with eating a few fruits I had brought, while sitting in the hot sun, leaning against the wall of the canyon which gave hardly any shade at all.

How delightful the desert is if visited for the first time and alone. All around an immense plain, no sound of man or beast, nothing which reminds of civilisation. Above, the clear, blue, cloudless sky, at the horizon only the distant mountains, hidden in a blue haze. Only little vegetation, mainly bare soil with only a few plants, mostly ligneous, without or with only a few leaves or, like the Creosote bushes, protected by a thick layer of varnish against loss of water. Nowhere are the leaves dense, one can look out between the branches in every direction. On the floor of the canyon there were remnants of a rich vegetation of small annuals which probably lived for only a few weeks when the soil was sufficiently moist after the wide stream had retreated into the narrow summer bed. Half dry grasses and many dry stems of Peppergrass21 (Lepidium lasiocarpum) with open fruit capsules from which the seed was already scattered over the ground. Here and there a lone flower; close to where I was sitting a late specimen of a “desert heliotrope”, Chinese Pusley (Heliotropum curassavicum) with soft gray leaves and sweet little gray-blue star-shaped flowers on tight, curved spikes.

But the ground where I was sitting was so hot that I could not stand it any longer and had to get up. I looked in vain for a shady spot where I could sit more comfortably, but the sun was so high in the sky that none could be found. Therefore I walked along the rivulet, now on this side, then on the other side, sometimes in the canyon, at other times, if it was possible to leave the canyon, along its border on the plain. Above, the saltbushes and creosote bushes grew in large numbers, rooting deeply in the wet sand layers. Close to the rivulet, many green plants were growing, erect and with vertical branches, exactly like our marsh plants which grow between the reeds and cat’s tails. But here were no reeds or cat’s tails and generally speaking only a few plant species. The borders here were mainly adorned with a few Composites and a willow and sometimes with a dense, man-high plant which I could hardly penetrate. Silver-white Chachimilla or Arrow-root22 (Pluchea serica) and a red flowering species of Baccharis,23 the first greyish-green, the latter more bright-green, alternated with willow trees, carrying partly ripe male and female catkins. All these plants had narrow and long leaves of equal size and, if they had not carried flowers, I would have called all of them willows, so much did they look alike.

There was very little variation in vegetation. This was without doubt due to two important causes, the salt content of the soil and the lack of water which renders this location uninhabitable for most plants. However, the number of species was in my opinion too small to be explained by these circumstances. Many plants which, in Southern California, prefer salt or even alkali soil are lacking here as also most species of the real deserts. Of course, I saw only a small part of the flora and the fact that I was unfamiliar with the names of the plants, most of which I saw for the first time, perhaps caused me to overlook many species. However, this paucity has been observed by others also. Much of this is certainly caused by the dryness, for along the irrigation canals in the cultivated area, I saw many plants which I did not see in the desert or only as very small specimens.

Along these canals I saw everywhere beautiful wild purslane (Sesamum portulacastrum)24 with its small red flowers, resembling those of ice-plants. The borders were covered with large sods of this juicy plant, showing in the bright sunshine their numerous wide-open little flowers, resembling finely rayed little stars. A few tender alkali grasses (Leptochloa imbricata),25 grew in the water, others on the border. But I should not give here a list of plants which are unknown to my readers. I was particularly surprised at the speed with which all kinds of weeds and european plants spread under the influence of irrigation. Beautiful specimens of Carex26 and Cyperus,27 of the Common Cockle bur (Xanthium commune),28 full of thorny fruits, of several kinds of scales,29 Blitum,30 Milk thistle31 and many others, apparently imported as contaminations of agricultural seeds. In the canals, I noticed cat-tails, both kinds,32 some of them so numerous that they narrowed the canals. They had probably been imported among some reed or other packing material. It is clear that although the area has been under cultivation for only three years, the weeds multiply so fast that soon the endemic flora will have been displaced largely by these foreigners. Together with mankind, the nettles and thistles conquer the desert.

Walking along the Red River33 I reached a spot where former visitors apparently had enjoyed some water melon. Some plants, each of which had made stems of some 2-3 meters long, stretching in all directions, had grown from the seeds. These stems were dead now, with withered leaves, but dozens of small ripe melons, as big as oranges, were lying around, still attached to the stems.

Unfortunately, I did not know the genus and had therefore to deny myself the pleasure of eating some. And this is a great sacrifice in the desert! But one has to be careful of unknown California plants; I had been warned several times.

My room was on the north side of the hotel. The windows, protected by a screen, offered a view of the immense plain. After this difficult and tiring trip, it was a pleasure to return to and sit down in a shady room, even if the temperature was 36.5° C (99° F).

I also visited the area in an eastern direction, but my impressions were materially the same.

I should here tell something about the ancient beach of this basin, the Old Beach,34 which is also the name of the station where the branch of the Southern Pacific Railroad leading to Imperial starts. This old beach was visited the next day when I had to wait for several hours for a train connection. The soil of this beach consists partly of sand, partly of pebbles, some as big as boulders. The clay content is low, but sufficient to produce a fertile soil. Near Indio, north of Old Beach, the land has been irrigated for many years, there is a green oasis, a welcome sight from the train after having travelled through bare and rough plains. Green fields of alfalfa and several other cultures, avenues lined with large fan palms (Neowashingtonia pilifera)35 bear witness of the fertility of the soil. However, Indio is the lowest point of the railroad, only a few feet above sea-level, while Old Beach has an elevation of 70-80 meters36 and other stations have much higher elevations. Around Old Beach, the land is mainly covered with bushes, especially creosote bushes and mesquites, the same as around Imperial. But they are numerous here, although they do not grow so densely, but in groups as determined by the nature of the soil. Apparently the wind blows stronger here, for most of these bushes stand on little hills; the sand around them has been blown away. The action of the wind is also shown by bared boulders. Most bushes are half dead since many of their roots have been laid bare and have dried out.

At some places, rains have dug small brooks and canyons in this beach, from where the water flows into the basin. One sees these from the train as winding lines. At the bottom of these canyons grow the desert melden and sometimes green plants; the rest of the plain is bare. In a southern direction this wide beach meets vast, drifting dunes without vegetation. The idea to open up the Colorado Desert, the basin where Imperial is located, for agricultural purposes is only some ten years old and was apparently suggested by the floods caused by the formerly New and Salton Rivers in 1890. Some enterprising citizens of Los Angeles asked the Experimental Station of the University of California at Berkeley in 1893 to send out a team to examine the fertility and other conditions of the soil. The results were very satisfactory but needed large scale confirmation. One difficulty was the salt content of the soil, especially since this was not common kitchen salt. Common kitchen salt is very soluble and hence easy to remove from the soil; it has gradually disappeared during the centuries. However, the less soluble salts, especially Glauber’s salt, remained and became relatively more abundant. These salts are more harmful to agriculture than kitchen salt and more difficult to remove. They have the curious name white alkali. This white alkali can, under certain circumstances, be converted into black alkali (i.e. blackening alkali), sodium carbonate, which is much more dangerous because it kills the roots of nearly all culture plants. These facts, known from a study of similar soils, necessitated an elaborate investigation before it could be decided whether there was a chance that the reclamation could be successfully carried out. It finally appeared that there are some locations where the soil must be considered worthless on account of its alkali content, but that there are not many such locations and that most of the land is perfectly fertile.

The Imperial Land and Water Company was accordingly founded in 1900. This company acquired the rights needed for exploitation and engaged not only in the supply of water but also in the starting of cities. The first of these is called Imperial. This city has grown so much in three years that a charter has been requested from the Government of California. Other cities will follow and the transport of settlers and products is sufficiently important to the Southern Pacific Railroad to build a branch line to Imperial from their interoceanic line. This line runs southward through the desert and reaches the Salton River only near the irrigated fields of Imperial.

Here one can observe how American cities are started and grow. At first there is nothing, three years later there are some hundred houses, a bank, a few schools and some farms in the vicinity. And, of course, a newspaper. One can forgive the enthusiastic citizens some boasting; for example in a desert of 35° C and higher: “An ice and refrigeration plant furnishes coolness for the entire valley.”

Like all cities in the West, Imperial has been designed on a scale which anticipates the chance that it will once be the largest city of America. The streets are much wider than the widest avenues of New York or Chicago; they are admittedly still covered with rough, dusty clay, but where there are houses, there are board walks. To provide shade, trees are planted, preferably the fast growing Cotton woods or Poplars, the fruits of which have hairs, resembling cotton, which explains their name. These trees have grown in three years to the same height as trees found in old parks in our country. They are very valuable, because they demand much of what is most precious here, water. When they have been newly planted, an irrigation ditch runs along the row, circling around each tree, delivering as much water as the soil can absorb and the roots can carry upward. This produces splendid results; the shade is very welcome. And from a distance, the green trees, as seen between the houses improve the aspect of the sunny, white city very much.

Brawley is the second city, located on the railroad track to Old Beach, nine miles north of Imperial. It was founded in 1903. In that year fifty houses were built. A hotel and a church have been completed, a school is under construction. The streets have only been laid out between the existing houses and in the desert where houses are planned for the future.

Calexico is located near the Mexican border, hence south of Imperial with which it is connected by a railroad. Heber and Holton37 are cities of which the streets have been laid out in the desert. In Heber there are already a few houses; the literature I consulted says nothing about Holton.

There are, of course, many more future cities. Now they exist only on the map where they are indicated by cross hatching.

The irrigation system keeps pace with the development of the cities, that is, with the sale of land. In Imperial it is fully developed. From the Salton River, a main canal, starting at the Mexican border, runs first in a westerly, then in a northerly direction and supplies water to many branch canals. The main canal finally connects with the New River. This main canal is straight, 70 feet wide and 8 feet deep at the center. Many branch canals start from this main canal, dividing the land in parcels. These branch canals, in turn, feed many smaller canals which bring the water to the several fields. The slope of the valley is sufficient to warrant an adequate supply and drainage of the water. At various locations there are sluices to control the flow.

Every landowner has his own sluice on a canal, adjacent to his fields to enable him to irrigate his land. One has to buy certain rights from the Company for, if delivery of water were refused, the property would be worthless. These proprietary sluices sometimes bring the water into a system of small ditches to lead it exactly where it is needed, for example on the paths which run between the plants which grow in slightly elevated rows. In other cases, the sluice is located in the corner of a field and enables to inundate it entirely. This apparently rough operation is very satisfactory, both when the field has to be leached and in spring time, when one plows and sows. If everything is done right, wheat and barley grow so fast that they need no more water; the supply introduced into the soil is sufficient. Milo however, which grows man-high and has quite broad leaves and hence evaporates more water, exhausts the soil too much; hence it is necessary to repeat the irrigation from time to time when the plants grow tall.

The irrigation rate is hence dictated by the demand of the culture; when I visited I saw these operations in various stages.

This is not the place to discuss the results or analyse future expectations. The fact that the settling rate increases every year gives a good indication. The entire enterprise throws a light on the spirit of the Americans, on their enormous energy and on the full confidence with which they supply large sums of money for enterprises which would be unthinkable in other countries.

To change a desert of 500,000 acres into a luscious garden, to found flourishing cities in a few years and add a fertile province to the State, these are achievements which command respect!


When Hugo de Vries visited Imperial Valley, he apparently was unaware of the fact that the water supply had been maintained only by means of special measures. This was true for the years 1902, 1903 and 1904. These measures were one of the causes which contributed to the disaster of 1905. In that year there were, during the months of February through August, six unusually high floods in the Colorado River. The last one of these diverted the course of the River from its current bed, leading into the Gulf of California, back into its old bed, leading into the Imperial Valley. The waters of the river raced into the Imperial Valley and started filling up Salton Sink which again was changed into a lake and greatly increased in area. The bottom of the Sink was 287 feet below sea level in 1904; at the present time the water level of what is now called the Salton Sea is 244 feet below sea level, a difference of 43 feet. At the height of the disaster, the difference was 83 feet. The flooding of the valley repeated itself in 1906.38

The Colorado Development Company had already expended most of its working capital on efforts to supply water to the Valley during the years 1902-1904 and was totally unable to cope with this disaster. The Company was taken over ultimately by the Southern Pacific Railroad which, with its abundance of resources, personnel and engineering talent, finally managed to lead the river back into its old bed on February 11, 1907.

When de Vries returned to the United States in the spring of 1906, the disaster situation was at its height. He was very much interested in this event and planned to visit Imperial Valley again. The Southern Pacific Railroad had given him free train tickets, however his schedule was too crowded. He never saw the Imperial Desert again.




1. Usually simply called milo, it is an annual grain sorghum introduced into South Carolina about 1880, probably from Africa, and belongs to the genus Andropogon. Maize, or corn, belongs to the Genus Zea.

2. In Holland the word hour is often loosely used to indicate distance; one hour walking or five kilometers (about 3.5 miles).

3. Here the Rio Grande is probably meant. The Green River is a tributary to the Colorado River, but the Rio Grande flows directly into the Gulf of Mexico.

4. This does not make sense. De Vries probably meant that the river carries in spring as much water per hour as at other times it carries per day.

5. A bunder is an old dutch measure of area, equalling 2.471 acres. De Vries used the word mistakenly instead of acre.

6. 100 meters equal 328 feet; the Lippincott map shows 287 feet.

7. The Mexican Company was the Sociedad de Irrigacion y Terrenos de la Baja California. The Imperial Land Company, according to Hendricks’ article, was the California Development Company. (See Bibliography).

8. Identified on the Lippincott map as the Alamo River.

9. Not named on the Lippincott map, but so named on various other maps.

10. This was Imperial.

11. The saltbushes are Atriplex genus, the sage brushes are Artemisia genus (Sunflower family).

12. Quailbrush or Lenscale.

13. Cattle spinach or Allscale. The name Shrub saltbush does not occur in the floras of Jaeger, Munz, Jepson or the California Geological Survey (see Bibliography).

14. Jaeger uses the common name narrow-leaved wingscale, while Jepson calls them shadscale.

15. Sodium chloride and sodium sulfate.

16. This Spanish word is spelled with double “r.” The desert mesquite is Prosopis juliflora var. glandulosa.

17. Jaeger, in The California Deserts, writes “The leopard lizard (Crotaphytus wislisenii) is a denizen of the broad stretches of the sandy mesas and washes of the open desert. In spite of its large body it is capable of great speed and if caught in disadvantageous positions is able to give its pursuer a merry and prolonged chase before being taken. The hotter the day the more interesting and racy the pursuit… The silverwinged grasshopper (Bootettix argentatus), singing in the creosote bushes, is often snatched from its perch by a leaping Crotaphytus, which may have jumped three times its own length to get it.”

18. Jaeger and Munz identify them as Larrea divaricata.

19. Ribus rubrum.

20. A gall which is found on roses, Cypnis species. The gall seen by de Vries was Asphondylia auripila.

21. De Vries has the dutch word ster-kers here. However, no dutch flora has this name. He must have meant kruid-kers, Lepidium genus, of which several species grow wild in Holland.

22. De Vries mistakenly writes “Arrow-root.” It is buckthorn (Alnus).

23. The three Baccharis species mentioned by Jaeger all have whitish or yellowish leaves.

24. Actually Sesuvium verrucosum or S. sessile. The English name is Lowland purslane.

25. Leptochloa uninerva.

26. Sedges.

27. Galingale.

28. Probably Xanthium spinosum, Spiny cocklebur.

29. Atriplex genus.

30. Actually Chenopodium, pig-weed.

31. Sonchus species.

32. Typha latifolia and T. angustifolia.

33. De Vries means New River.

34. The name of this place must have been changed shortly after de Vries visited. It is called Old Beach on the map which illustrates Sperry’s article, Imperial Junction on Lippincott’s map and Niland on modern maps.

35. Actually Washingtonia filifera.

36. About 230-260 feet above sea level. This does not check at all, Imperial Junction lies about 120 feet below sea level.

37. Identified on the Lippincott map as Holtville.

38. The story of what can only be called the inadequacy of the engineering works is told in Sperry’s article, where also are accounts of the disasters of 1905 and 1906 and the efforts of the Southern Pacific Railroad which finally brought the river under control again (See Bibliography).



W. H. Brewer, Sereno Watson and Asa Gray, Geological Survey of California: Botany, Vols. I and II Cambridge, Mass.: J. Wilson & Son, 1880.

W. O. Hendricks, “Developing San Diego’s Desert Empire.” Journal of San Diego History, XVII, 3 (Summer, 1971), 1-11.

J. Huizinga, Mensch en Menigte in Amerika, vier Essays over moderne Beschavingsgeschiedenis. Haarlem: Tjeenk Willink, 1918. Reprinted 1920, 1928. Also published in Verzamelde Werken, Vol. V, pp. 249-417.

J. Huizinga, Amerika, levend en denkend. Losse opmerkingen. Haarlem: Tjeenk Willink, 1927. Also published in Verzamelde Werken, Vol. V, pp. 418-489.

E. C. Jaeger, The California Deserts, A Visitor’s Handbook. Fifth ed. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1948.

E. C. Jaeger, Desert Wildflowers. Seventh ed. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1958.

W. L. Jepson, A Manual of the Flowering Plants of California. Berkeley: Sather Gate Bookshop, 1925.

J. P. Lotsy, Van den Atlantischen Oceaan naar de Stille Zuidzee. Gravenhage: G. Naeff, 1923. Second ed., 1930.

P. A. Munz, A Manual of Southern California Botany. Claremont: Claremont Colleges, 1935.

P. W. van der Pas, “Hugo de Vries visits San Diego: A Famous Botanist Views The City At The Turn Of The Century.” Journal of San Diego History, XVII, 3 (Summer, 1971), 13-23.

R. L. Sperry, “When the Imperial Valley Fought For Its Life.” Journal of San Diego History, XXII, 1 (Winter, 1975), 1-25.

H. de Vries, Naar Californie, Reisherinneringen. Haarlem: Tjeenk Willink, 1905. Reprinted 1906.

H. de Vries, Naar Californie II, Reisherinneringen. Haarlem: Tjeenk Willink, 1907.

Peter W. van der Pas, who holds a degree in physics from the Institute of Technology, Delft, Holland, has contributed papers on subjects in the history of science to various journals such as Archives Internationales d’Histoire des Sciences, Janus, Scientiarium Historia and to the International Congresses for the History of Science in Ithaca (1962) and Paris (1968). He edited and translated an article entitled “Hugo De Vries Visits San Diego: A Famous Botanist Views the City at the Turn of the Century,” which appeared in this journal in the Summer, 1971, issue.

Illustrations from H. de Vries, Naar Californie, Reisherinnerigen. Haarlem: Tjeenk Willink, 1905.