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Hell's Kitchen - The History

Captain Davis was intrigued with the idea of living on a dead volcano 200 feet below sea level, and even before the wild water had been brought under control he had acquired the butte, now become an island, and had begun construction of his cabin. A hand-painted sign propped against the building proclaimed that this was Hell's Kitchen.

In 1908 he built the boat landing, cafe and dance hall, which were to flourish for nearly a quarter century under his management. During those years, Captain Davis seined and sold his "alfalfa-fed mullet", battled for the conservation of natural resources, released his imported sea lions, launched a stillborn showboat, made a scientific study of the mud pots, acted as game warden, prepared and served shore dinners, took part in county politics, emceed his dances, rented boats to duck hunters and vacationists and roared sea shanties to the delight of friends and visiting celebrities. Clearly several of these activities require explanation!

Imperial Valley residents, interviewed in 1952 for an article by Nell Murbarger which was published in the Palm Springs Villager, remembered Davis as a perfect host. He had a marvellous baritone voice and would sit at the piano for hours, roaring out those old sea chanties and mining camp ballads. He operated Hell's Kitchen as a cafe, dance hall and boat landing, and drove an old white truck completely covered with pictures of game birds that he had painted himself, using the natural pigments of the Indian paint pots dissolved in fish oil. He painted all his buildings with the same mixture. He used to buy alfalfa hay by the ton and feed it to the fish from his boat dock. Folks came from all over the valley to buy his "alfalfa-fed mullet". Sometimes he'd smoke cure it and take a big load to Los Angeles where he would stand at the comer of Eighth and Broadway and hand out samples. He believed that pelicans planted mullet in the inland Salton Sea when they flew in for safety in stormy weather with a pouch full of emergency rations!

One time he purchased a big fishing barge from a drydock in San Pedro and trucked it all the way to his landing. He was going to convert it into sort of a Mississippi River showboat with moonlight excursions and music and dancing. It sank as soon as he put it in the water, and that was that. Another time he got the idea of planting sea lions in the Salton Sea. The climate didn't agree with them and they disappeared one by one. One newspaper clipping reported that farmers suspected that the sea lions were coming out of the sea at night and stealing their pigs!

CTR is reviewing the incorporation of solar installations above ground. The Salton Sea has an annual rainfall less than 4 inches, and the sun shines all year round.  Solar installations will mitigate dust from exposed playa and improve plant performance by using solar boosting to offset parasitic cooling losses during the warmer portions of the day.

It would seem that these various projects would keep a man from boredom, but in 1927 Captain Davis became intensely interested in the story of the ill-fated Donner party, who suffered unspeakable hardships on the overland trail to California in 1845 and who perished in the snows of the Sierras that winter. The captain was a painter, and the tragedies of the Donner party were portrayed in large oil paintings displayed on easels around the interior of his establishment. They were extremely realistic, if somewhat primitive, and were certainly an incongruity in that setting of gurgling mud pots, geysers and old volcanoes. Davis actually retraced the entire 2,000 mile trip from Independence, Missouri to Fort Sutter, and the thousands of artifacts, newspaper clippings, photographs, maps and records, even animal skeletons he collected are on display at Sutter's Fort Museum. The overflow he brought back to Hell's Kitchen, to add to the decor there.

Marcia Rittenhouse Winn, writing for Westways in February 1975, tells of going to live on Mullet Island in the mid-1920s. It wasn't really an island then but was connected to the mainland by a rough dirt road. In 1925 her stepfather, Harry Siegfried, acquainted with the owners of the Southern Sierras Power Company, was made president of the newly-organized Frontier Development Company, which, though actually a subsidiary of the power company, was not publicly associated with it in any way. It was all very hush-hush. At that stage the company was not certain that steam power could be developed on a commercial basis, but the initial reports were encouraging.

"The hissing of steam and the gurgling that came up from some mysterious subterranean discontent were to be an ever present reminder that we were sitting on top of volcanic ground, whose steam vents man could not turn off," said Ms. Winn. The geysers kept a thin layer of moisture on top of the surrounding silt in all seasons. Occasionally there were visits from geologists, scientists, Boy Scout groups and others who came to marvel at the paint (mud) pots and the steaming mud geysers. Ms. Winn quite accurately described her one-room cement walled home as "next to Hell's Kitchen". Duck hunting and fishing supplemented their canned food diet. Only on the days immediately after a trip into Calipatria, thirteen miles away, did they enjoy ice, fresh vegetables and meat.

Drilling operations began March 18, 1927. It was a small-bore test well. On reaching a depth of a little over 700 feet they ran into very hot strata of steam and water, and it was decided that further progress with so small a hole was impossible. The well continued to blow steam and water for eighteen months. Well No. 2 came in on December 1, after a depth of 1,000 feet was reached. It blew in with such violence that for a time it looked like the top of the crater would blow off. It blew uncontrollably for three hours, then plugged. During this volcanic disgorgement it was estimated that over 300 tons of hot mud, exploded shale, pebbles and rock dust were thrown out over the derrick and the top of the island. The force of the explosion and the pressure caused the eight-inch steel casing to bend and twist off, resulting in the plug. During the following weeks, after the well plugged, attempts were made to drill deeper, bypassing the twisted steel and putting down a new smaller casing. Although they drilled to a total depth of 1,263 feet, the well was never satisfactorily brought in. A third well was drilled to a depth of 1,473 feet, but the company decided at this point to go no deeper, and the effort to produce high pressure natural dry steam was abandoned. There was an air of mystery surrounding the whole drilling operation.

The first commercial geothermal well was brought in January 1, 1964, near Niland and a few miles north of Calipatria. This 8100-foot well, sent brine and steam rushing to the surface just two and a half months after operations began. The prime objective was to explore the potential of these steam geysers to provide and generate electricity. According to scientists who have studied the area, the Imperial Valley has one of the largest geo-thermal potentials in the world. In times past, a great oozing mass of magma rose in a dome-like structure close to the surface of the now imperial Valley. What vents there were became plugged with hardening obsidian. These plugged vents have kept a great deal of heat close to the surface. In the Imperial Valley there are perhaps 25 square miles of high temperature porous rock associated with an underground sea of very hot brine, which must have a source of heat deep in the earth. Evidence indicates that the brine is a combination of water released as the magma cools and an active ore solution containing untold tonnages of mineral salts and metals, including copper, manganese, lithium and silver. These impurities in the steam can cause problems for the turbines, but if a successful way can be found to separate these minerals, they will represent another source of wealth. A drive west from highway 111, between Niland and Calipatria reveals massive structures already utilizing this remarkable natural resource from below the Salton Sea.

Mullet Island can now be reached by boat from Red Hill Marina or now by land. Occasional bubbles rise to the surface from the mud pots which once bubbled merrily for the visitors to Hell's Kitchen. No doubt Captain Davis would be pleased to know that the Salton Sea Wildlife Refuge has been established almost at his backdoor, where magnificent geese and many other waterfowl feed on fields of alfalfa planted just for them. It is a fitting salute to a man who so painstakingly covered the old trails west to help preserve the record of the Donner Party.

Controlled Thermal Resources are very proud to honor this somewhat unknown but important piece history of the Imperial Valley.