An Amphibious Sidecar Tour of the Salton Sea

100 years ago, John Edwin Hogg and Phillip Johnston visited the Salton Sea. Their exploits earned detailed coverage in the September 1921 issue of "The Harley-Davidson Enthusiast™" magazine due to the unexpected role their Harley-Davidson® motorcycles played in the adventure.

By Harley-Davidson Museum

“Not the most weird tale of the Arabian Nights could outrival the string of adventures that John Edwin Hogg and Phillip Johnston have to relate since their return from Salton Sea where, on business bent, they journeyed recently via Harley-Davidson.” - The Harley-Davidson Enthusiast

In the summer of 1921, John Edwin Hogg and Phillip Johnston rode their Harley-Davidson® motorcycles from Los Angeles to the Salton Sea, a large inland salt lake located in California's Colorado Desert. Their destination was Pelican Island, some 20 miles into the lake.

A prolific writer and journalist, Hogg was on assignment to document the island's abundant birds in their habitat, as well as the area's interesting terrain that included boiling mud pots and numerous rocky islands.

Desert Sidecar Driving (1921)Harley-Davidson Museum

Hogg rode a 74" Harley-Davidson® motorcycle equipped with a roadster sidecar, while Johnston piloted a 61" Harley-Davidson standard sidecar outfit. The route from L.A. was more terrain than road.

“The distance from Palm Springs to Palm Canyon is hardly more than five miles, but it is five miles of good, hard work and not pleasure touring. The trail leading over the desert up to Palm Canyon over cactus and boulders and up and down and across mesas and washes was so sandy and rutty that they found it necessary to stop, despite the broiling hot sun, and extend the sidecar axles to fit the wheel tracks of the road.”

Camping in the California Desert (1921)Harley-Davidson Museum

They camped overnight in Palm Canyon and continued to the next day to the Salton Sea’s main access point, Mullet Island.

“The route to Salton Sea is quite a roundabout one, for the reason that the sea is surrounded almost entirely by a bottomless saline mud flat a mile or more in width. Only at one point is it accessible, and this is at Mullet Island which is the home of Captain Charles E. Davis, who heads the fishing industry of the Salton Sea. Hell's Kitchen, the captain's home on Mullet Island, was the destination, therefore, of Hogg and Johnston on the bright summer morning that they set out on their photographic quest."

Amphibious Sidecar Story - Page One (1921)Harley-Davidson Museum

Hogg had intended to charter a boat to Pelican Island, but upon reaching Hell's Kitchen, they learned Davis was already at the island and not quickly expected back. On a strict timeline to capture elements of the birds' breeding season, they couldn't wait for Davis’ return.

"It was a case of no captain, no motor boat, and it was necessary that no time be lost in procuring the pictures they had come for. Then it was that Hogg hit upon his amphibious sidecar touring plan. "Boats!" he said, "We don't need boats. We've got a couple of sidecars that we can paddle across the sea."

Sidecar Slides Down Sand Dune (1921)Harley-Davidson Museum

They turned their sidecars into boats by applying pitch and caulk to seal them against water, and securing a tar-coated canvas to seal the door of Johnston’s sidecar. Old oars were sawed off to make paddles, and the boats were left to cure overnight. 

"Early next morning, after a night's sleep that was none too sound, due to frequent earthquakes that shook the house to its very foundations, the two men set out for Pelican Island with their improvised boats. Hogg soon discovered that his roadster was a perfect little canoe, and that after getting on to its peculiarities, he could even stand up and paddle without the slightest difficulty."

Paddling Sidecar Boat (1921)Harley-Davidson Museum

By noon, Pelican Island was on the horizon. Temperatures were above 100 degrees and the physical activity, combined with heat and sun, was exhausting. Noticing their fresh water supply was going too fast, Hogg and Johnston started dousing themselves with lake water to cool down.

"Gradually, however, Pelican Island loomed larger and nearer upon the horizon, and revived new hopes. Two hours more passed, and just when they felt that they could not stand the torture of open blisters and sore muscles any longer, they heard the put-put of a motor boat. Just as Hogg surmised, it turned out to be Captain Davis on his motor boat. He had sighted them from land and had taken them for a couple of boys who had drifted down there from the Alamo River."

Sidecar Boat Fishing (1921)Harley-Davidson Museum

Davis brought the men to Pelican Island, where "a good supper, a swim, and sound night's sleep" reportedly followed. 

For the next two days, they set about their work documenting the area's wildlife and habitat, using the sidecar boats to visit the many nearby islands. 

"There are about twenty of these islands and they are the nesting places of literally hundreds of thousands of pelicans, cormorants, gulls, terns, and other water birds. Hogg and Johnston timed their visits to the islands during the coolest hours of the morning and evening so that they would not disturb the mother birds during the heat of the day when their wings were needed for the protection of the little ones from the scorching rays of the sun."

Mud Volcanoes and Motorcycles (1921)Harley-Davidson Museum

On the third day, Hogg and Johnston loaded the sidecars onto Davis' boat and went back to Hell’s Kitchen. The sidecars were reattached to the motorcycles and the pair headed home to L.A.

"While both men freely admit that it was infinitely more comfortable crossing the Salton Sea beneath the sun shelter of the "Salton's" canopy, they would not give up the experience they had on their amphibious sidecar trip for the world. Furthermore, Hogg says that the next time he goes to the Salton Sea it will be in the cool fine weather of the fall to shoot ducks, and unless his plan goes sadly awry it will be an amphibious sidecar trip."
- The Harley-Davidson Enthusiast

Motorcycle Sidecar Boats (1921)Harley-Davidson Museum

See it on Film

Recently, the Harley-Davidson Museum learned that a Fox Movietone News camera operator filmed Hogg and Johnston's Salton Sea adventures. Outtakes, including film of the scene pictured here, are in the University of South Carolina's Moving Image Research Collections

Credits: Story

Special thanks to the University of South Carolina's Moving Image Research Collections, home of the Fox Movietone News Collection that houses the original films and documents related to the filming of this event. 

Film outtakes of Hogg and Johnston's Salton Sea experiences are available to watch online by searching 3565 and 8877 in their database. The collection also has a wealth of additional information in the "cameraman's title and dispatching sheets" — documents that accompanied the films when they were sent from California to the Fox Movietone offices.

This is the first time the Fox Movietone News films have been linked to the article in The Harley-Davidson Enthusiast magazine. It was a pleasure to see the story and the photos in the Harley-Davidson Archives come to life with their help. 

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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