Jenny Zhang at Harper's Magazine:
The Salton Sea began as an error. At the end of the nineteenth century, developers took interest in the fertile soil found in the Imperial Valley and constructed a series of canals around the ancient dry lakebed, then called the Salton Sink, to divert water for agricultural production. Favoring greed over quality, these shoddily built canals were ill equipped to handle the accumulation of silt. In 1905, the nearby Colorado River breached the canals and for eighteen months filled the thirty-five-mile-wide, ten-mile-long, 235-feet-below-sea-level lakebed with freshwater. The Southern Pacific Railroad company had several lines running through the Imperial Valley and, frustrated by the amount of labor and money lost to rerouting lines onto higher ground, dumped 2,500 cars of rolling stock filled with rock, dirt, and wood into the canals to stop the flooding. Despite being smack-dab in the blistering desert, the high rate of evaporation was offset by runoff from neighboring farmland in the Imperial Valley, and for the next few decades, the water level remained relatively stable.
In the Fifties and Sixties, developers set their sights on transforming the Salton Sea into a destination for urban dwellers from Los Angeles looking for an escape. Resort towns and retirement homes quickly popped up along the shore. Yacht clubs and glittering marinas attracted celebrities like Sonny Bono, Desi Arnaz, and Frank Sinatra, as well as more modest vacationers who came for the golfing, boating, and jet-skiing.