From Salt to Sand: The Entrepreneurs Who Shaped Palm Springs

Before Coachella or Stagecoach … before Wexler or Krisel … and even before the first date shake, a handful of visionaries saw more than a desert … they saw an oasis of opportunity.

Over the last decade, Palm Springs has enjoyed an overdue revival. Thanks in part to a mid-century renaissance and the arrival of yearly, sold-out concert events, the Coachella Valley is back on the map and hotter than ever … if that’s even possible.

But even before the Alexander Company built all those iconic neighborhoods and Hollywood royalty discovered a quick getaway, Palm Springs and “the Other Desert Cities” had a much different commodity: salt.

According to a story recently published by Palm Springs Life, before both agriculture and hospitality arrived in the desert, a San Francisco businessman made salt the area’s biggest export. Back in the late 1800s, salt was more than a condiment, it was a precious mineral necessary for food preservation. When George Durbrow found the salt at the bottom of the Salton Sea to be pure, he had uncovered a goldmine.

William F. Cody, left, with an associate in Cody’s L.A. office on Santa Monica Boulevard. (Courtesy of the Architecture and Design Museum)

“In 1884, Durbrow launched commercial operations on more than 1,000 acres of Salton Sink rock salt, which were among the largest deposits in the country. Cahuilla Indians provided the labor force, harvesting as much as 700 tons per day and shipping it to markets all over the country via the Southern Pacific Railway.”

Unfortunately for Durbrow, the Colorado River flooded the Salton Sea in 1905 and operations ended, but the economic impact of his endeavor set in motion a future for Palm Springs.

By the time California architect William F. Cody arrived in 1945, the region was brimming with potential. His design influence in Palm Springs would prove to be a game changer.

Read more about Cody and other disrupters who shaped the Coachella Valley.