Having been deemed a “poor class of tenant farmers” by the Bureau of Reclamation, the landowners in the Whitney Irrigation District almost immediately had to deal with yet another setback after their hopes for a federal rehabilitation project had been dashed.
Historical documents located at the district office recently shed light on the efforts the district board went to in order to secure assistance from the federal government, but the history compiled by district secretary George Lawrence also details a natural disaster that, left unchecked, could have been catastrophic. Fortunately, those “poor tenant farmers” the Bureau of Reclamation referred to were deeply invested in the success of the Whitney Irrigation system and worked tirelessly to prevent such a disaster.
In late April and early May 1942, the reservoir, despite repeated warnings from landowners who had served on the board or helped operate the district, was allowed to become overfull, exceeding the protection offered by the rip rap on the face of the dam. Lawrence said warnings went unheeded, because those operating the district on a day-to-day basis believed there would be no erosion damage because so many trees had grown in.
But heavy snowfall, followed by a week of rain, left 14 inches of moisture with nowhere to go but an already full reservoir. Northwest winds gusted across the mile of open water on Whitney Lake, creating waves six to eight feet high dashing against and over the top of the south dams.
C.W. Spearman, chairman of the board, ordered the head gate at the intake closed, but it was too little, too late. The outlet gates were also opened, flooding the land below the reservoir for miles but the water continued to rise.
“This near disaster occurred at a particularly inopportune time as all of the streams were in flood with bridges and roads washed out to an extent that precluded other than a very few of those closest to the reservoir in aiding with the work of trying to save the south dams. The task faced by those men was almost monumental as they were compelled to work waist deep in icy water to cut the trees essential to the protection of the eroded portions of the dams,” Lawrence wrote.
After two days and nights of “constant laboring” in those conditions, it seemed inevitable that the dams would break. The district, in a last ditch effort, contacted Fort Robinson and within an hour, Col. Paul V. Kendall and a fleet of Army trucks loaded with soldiers, equipment and mules, as well as several Army jeeps were on their way.
Plans were made to dynamite the Stewart dam in order to lower the water levels at a more rapid rate, but John Rasmussen prevented that extreme step when he thought to cut the canal banks and fill the spillways and canals beyond their maximum capacity. That step lowered the water level in the lake by more than a foot in two days and avoided the use of explosives, Lawrence wrote.
Still, men worked constantly – taking four-hour shifts – placing several hundred trees and thousands of bags of dirt on the eroded portions of the dam. C&NW Railroad also dispatched a crew of section men and a load of sacks for sandbags to aid in the fight. Lawrence said the railroad’s sacks proved invaluable because the Fort’s supply of over 2,000 was insufficient.
“To fully realize just what these conditions actually were it would be necessary to visualize a sea of mud, gumbo, knee deep constant rain, driving wind and cold sleet, filling sacks with mud, loading them on high government wagons and hauling them to the point of unloading and then as a climax, wading out into the icy waters to place them in position on the dam with the waves almost dashing down,” Lawrence wrote.
Roads to the dam soon became impassable, even for the large Army equipment; some were mired so deeply in the muck they were left for several days – under guard – until it dried out.
“A good team could only make about one trip with a wagon containing five or six men and the roads became absolutely impassable for tractors. The one last trip by my tractor while hauling men was started at the dam with a wagon hooked on with a chain and ten soldiers as passengers. Before they had gone very far five were walking and five riding, changing off at intervals. When they arrived at Whitney the wagon had pulled completely apart and they were pulling the wagon box on the ground with a chain, similar to a sled in the mud,” Lawrence recalled.
Once the danger passed, Al Schmeckel worked with a dragline and dump trucks on the Norman dam to repair some of the damage wrought by Mother Nature. Additional repairs and erosion protection was needed, but given the district’s financial situation, the board was unable to do more. Instead, potential danger from similar circumstances in the future was mitigated by closing the intake before water levels reached such a critical point; however, that path was not ideal, as it could prove costly to landowners if a drought occurred and there wasn’t enough water in reserve.
Despite the trying circumstances, Lawrence wrote, he believed the situation proved one thing: if all of America’s soldiers fighting World War II were as willing and efficient as those from Fort Robinson, “the outcome of the war was no longer in doubt.”