“Whenever men attempt to divert water from its natural streambed; to store it in artificially man made reservoirs; to spread it in thin layers as required over farms and field crops; to accrue the necessary cooperation of the people who are affected; to keep the forces of Nature, such as storms, winds, rain and hail from destroying their work and efforts, and to eventually pay off the debts which must be incurred in so doing, then, and in such an instance, they are certain to have plenty of such experiences, to have many hard times; to drift into many cul-de-sacs out of which there seem to be no roads or exits; then, they see that only through struggle and sufferings and sustained efforts may any lengthy success be achieved.”
So wrote George E. Lawrence in compiling a history of the creation of the Whitney Irrigation District, an endeavor that by his accounting was much more difficult than the founders envisioned, but through which they persevered in an attempt to secure a better future for generations to follow.
Today, the Whitney Irrigation District continues to serve area farmers and ranchers and the board of directors would agree that it’s of significant benefit, not only to the landowners who utilize the water reserves but to agricultural producers across the region as a source of hay and grain. The vision of those pioneers in the 1920s who imagined the possibilities of irrigation projects such as Whitney, Mirage Flats and Angostura furthered the efforts of the region’s original homesteaders who worked to settle what was once considered a treeless wasteland.
But the completion of the project was not always guaranteed. Historical documents discovered at the Whitney Irrigation District office recently paint an often bleak picture, as landowners battled Mother Nature, the Great Depression and the financial hardships that came with it. As success of the district became tied to the sustainability of the school and even the town itself, those leading the irrigation district cast about for a saving grace, lobbying the government to relocate farmers evicted from their land in Wahoo and eventually seeking approval of the War Relocation Authority to turn the entire town and irrigation district into an internment camp.
The papers unearthed this spring document the struggles of the irrigation district and indicate that, in hindsight, they believed their failure to secure government assistance was a blessing in disguise.
“The American way of life however, has ever been one of permitting the individual to make his own plans, carry them into effect and learn by making mistakes by so doing. No one has ever claimed, who knows the facts, that the American way of life is the most efficient that human minds might devise. The founding fathers of our country never sought nor claimed anything of that sort. They had “things of the spirit” much more in mind than just “things.” The Whitney Project is a good illustration of this American way of life in action. We would not consider the surrender of the experiences gained for any regimented program of life and action,” Lawrence wrote.
His written history was mostly compiled in 1941 as the irrigation district was asking the Farm Security Administration to consider the Whitney district as a rehabilitation project; it appears the history was written in an effort to explain the district’s misfortunes and hopefully influence the powers-that-be to approve a federal project at Whitney. Lawrence also noted that it was hoped other irrigation districts could learn from their experiences.
“In presenting this more detailed picture, it is with the hope that the problems described, and their eventual solution, may possibly at some time prove beneficial to some similar improvement district laboring under similar difficulties and handicaps, it having become increasingly evident that ours, as likewise all other previously organized districts have sustained almost identically similar misfortunes and vicissitudes,” he wrote.
The Whitney Irrigation District had its roots in an idea born to Danish immigrant Nels Rasmussen. He and his sons, John and Chris, worked to harness the waters of the Big Cottonwood Creek to irrigate their crops, but before they found success, Nels died. Twelve years later, John and Chris revisited the idea of an irrigation program but decided it would be more efficient to use the White River, diverting through an open channel or large pipeline for six miles to a site they deemed perfect for the reservoir.
Several ranchers had been using the White River for decades on small holdings, but the Whitney Irrigation District as they envisioned it would become a functioning system that would “be their gift to the community.”
The district was granted water appropriation storage rights by the state’s Bureau of Irrigation, Water Power and Drainage in 1921, the first winter storage and reservoir rights to be issued on the White River. Voters approved the creation of the district that December on a 21-3 vote and the first board of directors included J.J. Rasmussen, Grant Spearman, C.E. Stewart, William Hitchcock and Lawrence.
W.F. Chaloupka served as the engineer for the project and estimated the construction of the dam and pipeline system would cost $390,870. A 20-11 vote in March of 1922 paved the way for the issuance of bonds in that amount, and detailed plans were ordered.
“Up until this time the entire costs of the preliminary and final surveys, legal and other proceedings, had been subscribed to, and guaranteed by the small group of men who fortunately were able to envisage the great ultimate development and benefits which would accrue unto the district and adjacent community through the building of the contemplated improvement. Possibly it is likewise fortunate that they were unable to visualize the hardships, financial stresses, days and nights of mental and physical labor, that their interest might have wanted to the vanishing point,” Lawrence wrote.
Problems turning their dream of creating the “Garden Beyond the Sandhills” into reality began almost immediately.
The district, after making sure the state Legislature passed and repealed laws to make the irrigation appropriations legal, had trouble finding buyers for the bonds. When H.L. Powers of Tacoma, Wash., with the American Wood Pipe Company became excited about the project, he was able to influence investors, including John Dwight Neale, representing Schwabacker and Company of San Francisco.
Neale ordered a Mr. Fowler to inspect the project in person; Fowler delivered a negative report after his inspection tour in bad weather left him with a less than favorable impression. A second inspection by a Mr. Heinz was more positive, and Powers was able to convince Neale, who was now working with the J.R. Mason Company, to move ahead.
The irrigation district was able to sell the bonds to the American Wood Pipe Company, who immediately resold them to the J.R. Mason Company. However, a stipulation in the contract was that it would not be in force until the State of Nebraska showed faith in the project by purchasing $50,000 in bonds. Several attempts to sway the state failed, until, finally in the spring of 1923, the state agreed to purchase the bonds.
The bids were opened May 8, 1923, and the American Wood Pipe Company was awarded the contract in its entirety. The company retained the work of building and furnishing materials for the pipeline and sublet the rest to Stryker Construction Company in Denver. Stryker, in turn, sublet pieces of the project – many to local contractors in the Ardmore area.
Unbeknownst to the district board of directors, the troubles were just beginning. Herman Baab, the contractor on the major concrete structures, and John Wortham, the superintendent of construction for the Stryker Company, both warned that the irrigation district would suffer “eventual financial, if not physical disintegration.”
“They further stated that likewise the original landowners and pioneers in similar improvement programs had never been the ones to reap the benefits of their endeavors, that many, in fact, would possibly lose their entire holdings, and much direful prophecy has, sad to say, proven to be much too realistically true,” Lawrence wrote in 1941.
To comply with state law, which said work had to start within six months of securing the appropriation, some initial work on the Stewart Dam was completed in November 1921, but the bulk of the construction didn’t begin until June 1923. The plans called for four retaining dams – Norman on the southwest, Stewart on the southeast, Spearman on the northeast and Rasmussen on the northwest. The Spearman and Norman dams were designed as the largest, spanning 6,000 feet.
Inman and La Fontaine of Cheyenne, Wyo., had the job of excavating the siphons and main pipeline; using a trench digging machine they dug a trench six to eight feet in width, 30 feet deep, excavating 600-800 feet a day in favorable conditions. The pipe building crew followed behind them closely. The pipe was designed to have air valves installed, but they often became clogged with brush and were eventually replaced with standpipes.
At the reservoir site, Stryker Construction, which bid the cost of the diversion dam at $12,000, was frequently interrupted by wash outs and high waters. Dirt was moved into the earthen dams with dump wagons, loaded by elevating graders, all operated by horse and mule.
Stryker Company initially brought in 80 head of horses and mules – some completely unbroken to harness. The weather delays only complicated the situation.
“For the following three weeks owing to adverse weather conditions, they were unable to use this work stock for any purpose whatsoever. Consequently, when they eventually did start operations, the scene resembled a wild west rodeo at its best.” Lawrence noted they didn’t find some mules for days.
All of the delays led to an order to bring in a second dirt crew and 50 more horses. The slope of the water face also had to change during the construction phase, requiring 100,000 cubic yards of additional dirt. The final cost for the dams was more than $3,000 over budget.
Overruns occurred elsewhere on the project, too.
Wet crossings proved difficult and more expensive as the workers encountered quicksand that necessitated sheet piling, solid rock that required blasting, and the operation of several pumps. In addition, unprecedented rainfall caved trench banks, mandating another slope change.
“Approximately six miles of trench for the pipe line, which must be rightly termed ‘The Life Line of the District,’ varying from a minimum of eight feet to a maximum depth of thirty feet must be excavated and the wood stave pipe constructed in place with river and stream crossing necessary in five or more places under flowing streams,” Lawrence wrote in explaining the scope of the project.
Once the danger of flooding was thought to have passed, the pipeline from the diversion dam to the first river crossing – 1,900 feet – was finished during the winter of 1923. Excavation of rock in the river channel began, but a late downpour resulted in a 10-foot rise in the river. The water broke through the trench, floating and wrecking the pipe and cutting a new course for the river.
The result was the purchase of new right-of-way and of additional land for backfill.
Eventually, using high explosives and a large crew, the trench was dug through the frozen river bed as the water was confined by two dams built in the river. Lawrence’s history says this marked the beginning of the district’s major financial difficulties.
“Later developments proved that the general contractor had been financing this operation by the criminal method known as ‘kiting checks,’ which translated literally means operating through a number of banking institutions with a working balance in each merely sufficient to warrant the writing of checks on such accounts.”
When a check of $28,000 was forwarded direct for collection and no funds were available a “complete collapse of the operator’s financial structure” occurred, and the district officials had to assume the supervision of the unfinished construction work. Bonds to insure against incidents such as this were declared invalid due to the conditions caused by Mother Nature.
The district officers, hoping to see their vision fulfilled, secured and supervised labor, hauled them to and from work and even worked side by side with them at no cost to the district, but more hardships were still to come.
The Big Cottonwood siphon was completed shortly after the main pipeline, but before it could be backfilled, snow melt eroded the trench and 430 feet of wooden pipeline dropped into the washout.
By June 1924, the system was complete enough that University of Nebraska staff hosted an irrigation school for the local farmers and the first water was turned into one of the canals. A few months later, the district issued construction warrants to pay outstanding notes in the amount of $20,000, and second issue bonds were approved in September to pay $30,000 in construction warrants and make final settlement with the contractors.
Work continued on the dam in 1925 as large screened gravel and rock were was laid on the water face of the dams to protect them from wave erosion; Lawrence noted that another windy season brought the realization that an even heavier material was necessary, and 100 carloads – 3,000 tons – of large flat rock was hauled in. That, combined with a heavy growth of trees and brush that grew in over time, was thought to create “100 percent protection.”
“The financial downfall of the district could be foreseen during the early months of 1925 at which time it was only by the supreme effort and sacrifice of a comparatively small group of men, comprised of the directors, secretary, Mr. Hitchcock, Mr. R.F. Pitman, who at this time advanced approximately the amount of $10,000, much of which was subsequently lost in the scavenger tax sale held in 1931. Mr. C.E. Stewart, the largest landowner in the district likewise contributed very heavily and this group raised in excess of $24,000 in their endeavor to keep the bonds of the district from defaulting.
“When the next semi-annual interest payment became due, these same men, aided this time by Mr. Rank L. Hall, of Crawford, who had in the meantime become a landowner, raised approximately the same amount in a few hours’ time, still retaining the belief that they had accepted a moral risk, even if not a legal personal liability, thereby assuming an undertaking which proved of no ultimate benefit to the district, but which practically ruined their personal credit, so nearly in fact that several never regained their financial balance.”
Lawrence’s history was written to sway government agencies that the district’s financial troubles were due to conditions beyond their control, hoping to convince them that a federal project would easily turn things around.
“However, despite the many physical, financial and natural blows dealt to the district inclusive of the period from 1921 to 1926, a completed system was functioning which conclusively demonstrated to its builders that their efforts had not been in vain and that the ultimate success of their early vision was assured.”