The raging Colorado River, named by the Spanish speaking early settlers for its muddy red waters, used to surge south out of the great canyons of Utah, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico and make an almost straight line for the Gulf of California. In the early days of the 1850s before the great dams that now tame this mighty river, the Colorado would rise and fall with the seasons. In the spring it would spill over and flood the desert along what is now the western border of Arizona with miles of dark-red churning mud. One year the river rose to such a height that the water flooded back into southern California at the Imperial Valley and formed the Salten Sea.
In late summer when the monsoons hit the high desert and rim country again the Colorado would expand its banks. In only a matter of a few hours the relatively quiet Colorado could double its flow – for seemingly no reason at all.
All of this made steam boating on the river very dangerous. The big sternwheelers and side-wheelers that in the 1850s changed transportation so drastically along the Mississippi River had been transported across the isthmus of Central America in pieces and shipped north up the Pacific to the Gulf of California. When they had been reconstruct they were used to bring cargo up from Mexico to Yuma and beyond, and then return with silver, trade goods and passengers.
The river, even at its most quiet times, was many miles wide at its mouth and even up near Yuma the big, red muddy was almost a mile wide at places.
It was actually very difficult to tell exactly where the mouth of the river was. The delta was dotted with numerous small islands and from the broad, still waters rose an almost constant haze that obscured the shoreline. But, even with the haze, at least if the tide was coming in, it was not difficult to tell where the gulf met the river. For through the stillness of the haze came the constant roar of the “tidal bore.” This increasingly huge wave was created as the incoming water of the rising gulf tide met the out-flow from the river.
As the tide became stronger it pushed further upstream against the river flow. The further it reached, the stronger the flow of the river. The tidal bore grew in fury, louder and higher. The wave it created tumbled against the dark, resisting, muddy water. The crest of the wave increased.
It was this great tidal bore that frightened the steamboat captains more than any instant flood the Colorado could produce. Times and tides were calculated carefully. Schedules were matched to the position of the moon and sun. But, even then, the churning of the riverboats down the Colorado’s mouth through that low haze were difficult times for the Captains. They listened and watched with keen eye and ear. Especially with the ear – for that distinctive dull roar through the haze – for that constant distant thunder of the tidal bore. Many a ship was wrecked by that churning tidal wave and many a sailor was lost in the muddy, green mouth of the Colorado River in the 1850s.
Only the Bay of Fundy and the Amazon River mouth have tidal bores of a size comparable to that which used to rush up the Colorado. Now, with the river mouth dry, only the haze is left, and the sternwheelers are gone.