As recently as the year 1900, the Imperial Valley had not a single civilized inhabitant, and not one of its hot, arid acres had ever been cultivated. It now has a population of more than forty thousand, with churches, banks, ice factories, electric-light plants and fine school buildings, in half a dozen prosperous towns, and its 400,000 acres of cultivated land have produced, in the last six or eight years, crops to the value of at least $50,000,000. The history of this fertile oasis in the Colorado Desert will forever be connected with the name of E. H. Harriman. He did not create the Imperial Valley, nor did he develop it; but he saved it from ruinous devastation at a time when the agency that had created it threatened capriciously to destroy it, and when there was no other power in the world that could give it protection.
—George Kennan, The Salton Sea (1917)
Amid his trials of 1906, Harriman found to his dismay that the list of foes arrayed against him included nature itself, which unleashed its wrath in the form of two major catastrophes. Although the last thing Harriman needed was more fights, these offered a refreshing difference. They were clean and elemental, pitting force against force with the stakes clear and the outcome uncluttered by human conniving. Or so Harriman thought when he took up the challenges.
Information was vital to the running of a far-flung empire. To get it reliably and privately, Harriman had in 1901 leased a private wire from Western Union between New York and Chicago, then built an extension from Chicago to Omaha. By using the Union Pacific's wires west of Omaha, Harriman had a communication link that enabled him to talk to people in the West by telegraph as a later generation would by telephone. He would fire messages at his secretary, who tapped them out on the key and then read him the response when it came. 1
Sometimes nature thwarted this system. In November 1903, just as Harriman was preparing to leave for the ceremonies opening the Lucin cutoff, a monster storm knocked out telephone, telegraph, and rail service, isolating Harriman at Arden for more than a week. A secretary named W. V. Hill managed to get a brief message to him by a circuitous route and was told in reply to get to Arden the