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Half a century ago, the Salton Sea was called the “French Riviera of California” — and that claim really held water as celebrities and many others seeking a spectacular getaway escaped to the “mini-ocean” just past Palm Springs.

But today, the abandoned remains of this former tourist hot spot represent an eerie aftermath: a virtual ghost town where once the rich came to play.

Is there hope that this one-time tourist Mecca can re-establish itself as an oasis in the desert? According to the area’s prime crusader, absolutely.

Jennie Kelly is a soft-spoken but fervently dedicated preservationist who is making a difference at Salton Sea. A longtime resident, she has created what she hopes will become the anchor in the revitalization of her beloved adopted home. Just several months ago, in the old North Shore Yacht Club, she spearheaded the opening of the Salton Sea Museum, and thus far thousands of visitors have flocked there. Fittingly, Kelly is the museum director, and she has big plans.

First some background: Covering an area of almost 400 square miles, Southern California’s Salton Sea is one of the strangest places in the United States. The sea was formed accidentally between 1905 and 1907 when the Colorado River burst through poorly built irrigation controls. The resulting flood destroyed communities, farms and the main line of the Southern Pacific Railroad.

But it left the largest body of water in California.

Today, the “sea” (30 miles south of Palm Springs) is about 35 miles long by 15 miles wide (give or take a few miles depending on the year) and gets as deep as 51 feet. It’s also 228 feet below sea level, just 5 feet higher than the lowest spot in Death Valley.

Starting in the 1920s, the Salton Sea was developed into a tourist attraction featuring yacht clubs, restaurants, a golf course — all of the trappings of a deluxe resort community.

Many celebrities including Jerry Lewis and the Marx Brothers vacationed and kept their boats here. Promotional films from the 1950s and ’60s billed Salton Sea as the “French Riviera of California” — and the claim held water.

With water skiing, camping and beautiful beaches, the man-made lake became a playground for everyone from families to the rich and powerful.

But it was not to last.

The Salton Sea was a freshwater lake back in the 1920s, but by the ’70s, salinity began to rise. Salt-heavy soil from the desert (leftover from a prehistoric ocean) had been infiltrating Salton Sea. There was also toxic run-off and industrial waste from Mexicali, pesticides from the nearby Imperial Valley agriculture fields — and more salt.

Add it all up and you had a poisonous stew brewing in the Salton Sea, which resulted in the death of millions of birds and fish. The sea became 25 percent saltier than the ocean, and then it rose, swallowing up homes and businesses in its peculiar, rust-colored water.

By the mid-1980s, it started to become a ghost town. And today, as many people visit to wander the eerie, abandoned skeleton neighborhoods as they do to bird watch and camp along the desolate shores.

At various spots along the beach, the strong stench of rotting fish and birds is overwhelming. Sand on the shore has been replaced with a thick pack of dried, crunchy fish bones. Yet other spots are as idyllic, clean and serene as a circa-1950s Salton City Chamber of Commerce postcard.

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