A good portion of the Imperial Valley is below sea level. Above is a picture of the flag pole in the nearby town of Calipatria. That flagpole is a hundred and eighty-four feet tall. The top of the pole is at sea level.
Most of the Imperial Valley is dry lake bottom. It is good flat land. It could be great farmland if it had a steady supply of water.
The intense rays of the sun here have often been brutal. In the months of June through September, temperatures average above 100°. Temperatures in those months have often exceeded 116°. That, combined with the dry air has been known to kill people in a matter of hours. I have seen this happened many times. Cars break down in the desert, people make the mistake of waiting inside their cars for help. Clear skies, desert heat, and dehydration can take a life.
I do not remember why we came to settle there. I was just a boy, barely four years old and no one told me why, but our first summer in that desert was terrific.
At the time that we first arrived in Mexicali/Calexico, it was still very small. In fact it was so small and new that the towns were less than ten years old. Mexicali was still a part of, or suburb of Ensenada. That town was on the coast on the other side of Baja California. With the arrival of new settlers a few years later it was able to stand on its own.
Already the valley was gaining in importance. I know this does not mean much in the great universal plan, but once Mexicali was established as a city it became the northernmost city in all of Latin America. It became the capital of Baja California. It was a border city, a gateway between the two countries. It was the center of activity in building the canals from the Colorado River. And it became a commerce center and transportation hub.
Since the time of Cortez this area has pretty much been ignored by European settlers and explorers. TheYuma and Cocopah, Cahuilla, Piute, have made this home for many generations. They were protected by the mountains to the west, the waters of the sea of Cortez, the Great River to the east, and miles and miles of uninviting land.
A wonderful characteristic of us human beings is the ability to make something out of nothing. You know the old cliché that says, when life gives you lemons, make lemonade. I know that sounds like a pile of horse feathers, until you see somebody actually do it.
It took a lot of politicking, but around 1900 the California Development Company got permission from the government of Mexico to dig a canal from the Colorado River to the Imperial Valley flatlands. The company actually gave Imperial Valley its name to make it sound more inviting. That’s about sixty miles worth of canal digging.
Farmers arrived as early as 1903. With the canal network being built they were able to start farming. Some of the crops that did well there were cotton, carrots, melons, and sugar beets.
I found this picture taken in 1904. Look carefully, the man is fishing from the banks of the canal.
The Imperial Valley suddenly became a land of opportunity. A man named Harry Chandler saw opportunity in the land south of the border. He was the publisher of the Los Angeles Times. His development company bought up eight hundred thousand hectares of land on the Mexican side. One hectare of land is equal to one hundred acres. Eight hundred thousand multiplied by one hundred comes to eighty million acres. That comes out to three thousand eighty-nine square miles. This is according to my encyclopedia, and it should be about three times the size of Rhode Island.
It is okay to double check my math. I am over eighty now writing from memory and I may be losing my marbles, so it is okay to double check my math.
Chandler was another one of those lemonade kind of guys. With all that land under his control, he began constructing canals. He brought in thousands of Chinese workers to do the heavy work. He saved money on labor costs that way. This turned out to be a good thing, at least for me, now. There are a lot of excellent Chinese restaurants here in Mexicali.