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1916, Eyes

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1935, When Man
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Want to visit the Grand Canyon or the Grand Canyon North Rim? Are you planning on taking a Grand Canyon tour? If so visit us!

 Imperial Valley Irrigation History


Harold Bell Wright based his best-selling romantic novel, The Winning of Barbara Worth (Chicago: Book Supply Company, 1911), on actual events that occurred in Southern California's Imperial Valley in the first decade of the 20th century. In brief, in 1901, developers cut an opening in the west bank of the Colorado River, across from Yuma, Arizona, and installed gates to irrigate the much lower Imperial Valley. In December, 1904 floods washed out those gates, diverting the entire Colorado River from its course and forming the Salton Sea. It required more than two years of heroic efforts to close the gap. Had those efforts failed -- as they very nearly did -- most of Imperial County parts of Riverside County would be under water today.

Following is a brief outline of the actual historical events. This information is based on two sources: The Wonders of the Colorado Desert, by George Wharton James (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1911, 548pp.); and The Colorado, by Frank Waters (New York: Rinehart & Company, 1946, 400pp.)

The book by James was published in 1911, perhaps to take advantage of the popularity of Wright's novel published that year, but it was actually written in El Centro in 1906 when the Colorado River was still pouring into the Salton Sea. James visited the sites of the repair efforts while they were in progress, talked to the engineers and workers, took photographs (see below) and even floated down the flood waters from the run-away cut in the river bank to the Salton Sink--though not quite to the sea itself. All this is described in great detail in the book.

Frank Waters set up office in the Barbara Worth Hotel in 1925. He, too, visited the repair sites and interviewed many of those who stopped the overflow, though he was 20 years after the fact. He comments: "The valley's romance was portrayed by the murals on the lobby walls of the Barbara Worth Hotel. They pictured scenes from 'The Winning of Barbara Worth' by Harold Bell Wright. Even the hotel stationery carried a cut of the fetching young lady herself under a great romantic sombrero whose wide brim was coyly upturned. For her this huge, terrible desert had been conquered by brave engineers and opened to courageous pioneers. Not a hint of Beatty and Heber, of stock manipulation and quarreling bankers stained the walls with a splotch of perfidious truth and crass reality." [The novel, of course, was stained by plenty of manipulation and quarreling.]

Click here for the Imperial Valley Press's excellent account of how the flood was stopped.

Click to Enlarge  
1849 -- Dr. Oliver Meredith Wozencraft treks across barren desert between Yuma and San Diego. Thinks it is lower than Colorado River, hires surveyor who verifies this, and begins developing plan to irrigate the desert.
1859--Wozencraft is delegate to Constitutional Convention to establish California as a state. Gets the new legislature to give him rights to the entire 1600 square miles of the "valueless and horrible desert." Wozencraft tried for three years to get the U.S. Congress to back his plan, without success.

 

1891--John C. Beatty, organizes the Arizona and Sonora Land and Irrigation Company to irrigate land on the Arizona side of the Colorado River. He hires a young engineer named Charles Robinson Rockwood to assist. Rockwood talks Beatty out of his plan and convinces him to irrigate land on the California side of the river by cutting an opening at Potholes, 12 miles above Yuma. In order to get around the sand dunes, Rockwood proposed a canal that would carry the water almost parallel to the Colorado 40 miles south, into Mexico, west past the dunes, and then north to the Imperial Valley. They change name of company to Colorado River Irrigation Company, but the plan fails when the company goes bankrupt as a result of the 1893 stock market panic.
1896--Rockwood forms the California Development Company. Over the next two years he is joined by investors W. T. Hefferman, Sam Ferguson and A. H. Heber.
Plowing salt in the Salton Basin. 1900--George M. Chaffey, a financier, engineer and irrigation expert, makes major investment in the California Development Company, becomes president, and signs contract with Mexico, to build canal across Mexican land.

Headquarters of California Development Company, Calexico.

 

May 14, 1901--digging begins for gate at Pilot Knob (Intake No. 1), directly across the river from Yuma.  From there the canal goes south into Mexico, then west for 40 miles in the Alamo channel, then north into Imperial Valley. Though Rockwood insisted the gate floor must be no more than 100 feet above sea level, Chaffey, without Rockwood's knowledge, builds it 105 feet above sea level. This causes the water to flow from the Colorado so slowly that it silts quickly. The Imperial Land Company is formed to develop towns and sell land. Rockwood bought back controlling interest in the California Development Company and pushed Chaffee out of company. Chaffey leaves the Imperial Valley. Intake No. 2 is cut just below the Mexican border to satisfy a provision in the contract with Mexico, but it is not very useful and is seldom used.
  1902-1904--Southern Pacific Railroad builds track into the valley, Imperial, Holtville, Brawley, El Centro, Mexicali and Calexico are added to map. Farmers flock in from everywhere, crops flourish-until winter of 1903-4.
1903-1904--The canal is almost entirely blocked by silt that has built up over the previous two years. Crops fail during the winter of 1903-1904. Some farmers sue the California Development Company. The company does not have the money to dredge or build proper gates, so Anthony K. Heber, now biggest investor in the company and president of the company, orders Rockwood to dynamite the gate to let the river flood through and clear the silt. Rockwood realizes the danger that the whole river might wash into the Imperial Valley and talks Heber into another plan, one he considers safer.
October 1904--Rockwood digs new cut in river bank four miles below Mexican border (Intake No. 3) and files plan for gate to be added when approved by Mexican officials. Farmers get water but disaster arrives before gate is approved. This un-gated cut in the soft soil of the riverbank proves to be as dangerous as Heber's plan.
  Winter 1904-5--River floods, water rushes through new opening, filling Volcano Lake in Mexico and then following Alamo Channel north to Imperial Valley. The entire Colorado River is running into the Imperial Valley. The ancient river bed below the cut is "as dry as a desert." The battle to save the Imperial Valley begins.
March 1905--Attack No. 1. Heber and Rockwood build 60-foot dam of brush and sandbags. Water washes it away.
  March 1905--Attack No. 2. Second attempt, similar to first, fails.
May-June 1905--Heber and Rockwood appeal to E. H. Harriman, president of the Southern Pacific Railroad for a loan. Harriman grants the loan and takes over the California Development Company, assigning civil engineer, Espes Randolph as president. Heber is forced out and moves to Nevada. Rockwood is retained and engineer, H. T. Cory is assigned to be his assistant.
  May-June, 1905--Attack No. 3. Rockwood, Cory and company build a 600-foot dam across opening, using a double row of 60-foot piles. G.W. James says, "...under the direction of C. N. Perry, one of the engineers, the work was begun."
November 29, 1905--Flood washes dam away. Rockwood and Cory develop new plan to dredge the original channel across from Yuma, and build a huge concrete and steel gate to control the water, while they close the gap. The work continues all winter and spring.
April 18, 1906--Earthquake destroys San Francisco, unrelated flood washes away the dam built by Rockwood and Cory. Rockwood resigns. Estes Randolph, president of California Development Company appeals to Southern Pacific Railroad president Harriman, to step in an save valley.
"The late spring flood of the Colorado was approaching its maximum. The crevasse was now a half mile wide, and through it the river was pouring 6,000,000,000 [six billion] cubic feet of water every 24 hours. In the middle of the Imperial Valley the works of the New Liverpool Salt Company were buried under 60 feet of water, and above them Salton Sea was rising seven inches higher each day, covering an area of 400 square miles. The towns of Calexico and Mexicali were partially destroyed; 12,000 people were in danger of losing their property, homes and lives...And yet, by a mammoth jest, there still existed the paradox that these thousands of settlers would be driven out of the desert by lack of water should the river be wholly dammed." --Waters
  April 1906--Cory is appointed head engineer, replacing Rockwood.
August 1906--Attack No. 4. Cory oversees construction of huge brush mattress, 100 feet wide. They also build rail trestle across entire cut. They sink mattress and dump 300 carloads of rock (60 tons each carload) on top of the mattress. The river is dammed and the problem is solved--for a few weeks.
  October 11, 1906--flood sweeps away most of the mattress and the new headgate. Cory and crew frantically dump more rock on the mattress and in the opening.
  November 4, 1906--The breach is filled, Attack No. 4 is finally successful. But...
December 7, 1906--Another flood comes, the dam holds, but an earthen levee one-half mile below the repaired dam washes out, creating a new opening that is 1,000 feet wide. Harriman appeals to U. S. President Theodore Roosevelt for help. Roosevelt says he can't do anything without approval of congress, which goes home that day for the Christmas holidays, but promises he will ask congress to appropriate some money when they reconvene. Harriman finally decides to invest his money and trust that congress will help when it gets back to business. Harriman thus became the real hero of the story, the man who invested his cash ($3.1 million total] to benefit the people of the valley.
Late December 1906 -- Attack No. 5. Southern Pacific builds two trestles across the breach, in order to dump rock twice as fast, and begins dumping rock as fast as possible. According to Waters, they "dump 3000 cars of rock totaling 80,000 cubic yards in 15 days." Photo at left by C. E. Tait, November 1906.

February 10, 1907 -- Victory. Building the trestles and dumping the rock took 52 days and $1,600,000, but the overflow is permanently stopped. Water continues to flow to the valley through the new gate just north of the Mexican border. I am still looking for information that will clear up the place that C. K. Clarke played in winning this battle. Neither of the sources for this outline mention his name, but he was pictured twice on the murals that once adorned the walls of the Barbara Worth Hotel. The mural booklet says, [Clarke] "directed the last phase of the winning fight against the river." The Imperial Valley Press site quotes from George Keenan's book, The Salton Sea: "If Mr. Harriman, personally, had been asked who finally controlled the Colorado River and saved the Imperial Valley, he undoubtedly would have replied: 'Epes Randolph, H. T. Cory, Thomas J. Hind, C. K. Clarke and their associates.' But these gentlemen have publicly said that the driving power behind their work, the one thing that made it successful, was the invincible determination of their chief [Harriman]. C. K. Clarke said, 'The writer desires to put on record the fact that the accomplishment of the work was due primarily and exclusively to the independent judgment and courage of Mr. Harriman, who persisted in his belief that the breaks could be closed, and his determination to close them, in the face of opposition and regardless of the positive assertions of a host of eminent engineers that the closure was a physical impossibility.'" Two photo at left by C. E. Tait. Both are marked November 1906.
  January 12, 1907--President Roosevelt recommends to congress that they reimburse Harriman for his efforts. Nothing happens.
  1909 -- New U.S. president, Taft, urges congress to pay for expenses of saving valley. Again nothing happens.
  1911 -- Congress rejects request, decides to pay nothing. It was never considered again.
  September 17, 1930 -- Dedication ceremony marking official start date for work on "Boulder Canyon Project," or "Boulder Dam," above Needles and above the Imperial Valley. During ceremony President Herbert Hoover's Secretary of the Interior Ray L. Wilbur announces the new name: "Hoover Dam."
  May 8, 1933, Harold Ickes, Franklin Roosevelt's Secretary of the Interior, renames the dam "Boulder Dam."
  May, 1935-- Boulder Dam completed, producing enormous amounts of electricity and controlling the flow of water down the Colorado River. Floods no longer threaten Imperial Valley.
  April 30, 1947 -- Congress renames dam, "Hoover Dam." Name sticks.
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This Harold Bell Wright web site is written and produced by Gerry Chudleigh with the help of many friends.
Copyright 2000-May, 2011 by Gerry Chudleigh
Last updated 05/25/11