My family, especially my children, know better than to ask me questions about history unless they are ready for a lengthy dissertation on Thus and Such. I don’t mean to imply that I’m an great historian, or even an good historian. But I do love me some history. I am, in all honesty, an unapologetic fact junky.
I like every historical subject in general, but I’m particularly infatuated with Idaho history. Recently, and possibly because harvest season is my favorite time of year, I’ve been studying Idaho’s early agriculture history. I find it fascinating so I hope you enjoy some of the nifty things I’ve discovered. If not, read this blog post when you go to bed and you’ll likely be out cold by the end of the next paragraph!
I assume most Americans know at least the basic story of “Westward Ho!”–the intrepid Pioneers of the 1840s and 50s who packed up whatever they thought they could feasibly drag across the Great Plains, and headed west. The discovery of Gold in California, and the promise to homesteaders of free land, sent hundreds of thousands of Americans on a thousands-mile journey, looking for opportunity. There are amazing stories of daring-do and, sadly, a not to few stories of daring-don’t. But in the end, the west was settled and this great country was able to boast of greatness from “sea to shining sea.”
What a lot of folks don’t know is on their way out west, a lot of Pioneers came through Idaho, then called Idaho Territory, and absolutely hated every inch of it. Idaho was then, and still is, a land of rugged mountains, high desert steppes, treacherous rivers, and, as more than one Pioneer described it, “mile-after-mile of absolute barren, relentless, nothingness.”
Having spent most of my life in Idaho, I understand why many Pioneers felt this way. Until one stops to actually look at the unique and amazing geology of Idaho, it can be quite intimidating at first glance.
But when one does stop to take a closer look, one is often amazed at how a once barren and ugly stretch of nothingness has become among the most fertile and productive tracks of agricultural land in the United States.
The reason for this can be attributed in great part to a Wyoming Senator by the name of Joseph M. Carey. Senator Carey introduced the Carey Act, also known as the Desert Reclamation Act. With the intent of helping his home state of Wyoming, and in bringing more settlers to Wyoming and the west, Senator Carey introduced his bill in 1892. He was well pleased to announce its passing in 1894. The Carey Act while intended to bring prosperity to Wyoming, included Montana, Idaho, Colorado, Oregon, Nevada, Washington, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico, as states that would benefit from its passage.
In a nutshell, the Carey Act authorized the building of irrigation systems, to include dams, diversions, and the sale of ‘reclaimed’ water, in order to irrigate desert lands and turn such lands into agricultural meccas.
Wyoming folks aught to be proud of their senator, his intent first and foremost was to help his state, but, in truth, it’s Idahoans who aught to give great thanks to Senator Carey, because the only place the Carey Act really took root and worked well, was Idaho.
The Carey Act authorized the Federal Land Office to transfer up to one million acres of arid public lands in each state that developed reclamation programs. Companies interested in developing water projects were tasked with proposing, designing and building the irrigation projects. From 1908-1910, irrigation companies initiated 40 new Carey Act projects in Idaho–the majority of which still exist.
No other state approaches Idaho in the success of the Carey Act. Over 60 percent of land irrigated by the Carey Act are Idaho projects.
What Pioneers in the 1850s called an “Arid, ugly, wasteland,” by 1912 was quickly becoming the agricultural mecca it is today.
I suppose a lot of folks might read this and shrug. It’s nice history but really, who cares? I understand that feeling, but here is why you should be at least a little amazed. Irrigation projects are neither new, nor really all that interesting–but building irrigation projects in a geographic area where sheer cliffs, lava flows, steep mountains, and an average of 10 inches of water a year, really is remarkable. The fact those irrigation projects still exist, many using the same dams and ditches built over 100 years ago, is nothing short of incredible.
Most westward bound Pioneers of the 1850s might have been extremely happy to leave Idaho in their dust, but Idaho Pioneers, in my opinion, had a bit more grit. They turned the ugly into the fertile, and that Idaho pioneering spirit is still alive and well today.