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Lauchlin MacLean and the ‘Big Ditch’

By on July 23, 2018 in Columnist with 0 Comments

Rod MolzahnBy Rod Molzahn

Talk of the need for a ditch to irrigate all of the Wenatchee Flat had bounced around Wenatchee for years but in 1888 it looked like something might just happen.

In March a meeting was called to start a plan. A small group of farmers and businessmen met at Sam Miller’s store at the confluence.

Mr. B.C. Bonnell, an engineer and town resident, was asked to conduct a survey for a “Big Ditch” beginning just east of Leavenworth to carry Wenatchee River water to the Wenatchee Flat and provide an estimate of the cost of such a project.

Bonnell deemed the project feasible. His cost estimate, which later proved to be accurate, was much higher than expected and proved to be prohibitive and beyond the means of the small community. The project went no further.

The completion of the Shotwell/Gunn Ditch in 1891 re-energized the talk of a “Big Ditch.” A second effort was made to find funding for the project. This time, community-issued bonds were proposed as the revenue source. This approach also failed. Ten years passed before the idea came back again.

The agitation for a “Big Ditch” heated up again at the turn of the century when 1900 began. It was a census year and the results showed 1,100 white people in the Wenatchee Valley south of the Wenatchee River with 451 of them living in the town of Wenatchee. The Valley was growing but without irrigation the Wenatchee Flat would languish as a dry, dusty place of struggling vegetable gardens and the odd cluster of fruit trees.

By 1901 word had spread throughout the valley about the construction of the 26-mile long irrigation canal between Selah and Moxee in the Yakima Valley. Eight thousand acres were under irrigation.

That same year Lauchlin MacLean opened a real estate office in Wenatchee. He also actively joined the push for a “Big Ditch.”

Lauchlin MacLean, of Scottish descent, was born in 1856 in Prince Edward Island eastern Canada. He came to Washington Territory in the mid 1880s with a party of railroad survey engineers and worked as a brakeman and conductor for the Union Pacific railroad and for the Northern Pacific between Ellensburg and Pasco.

Soon he was appointed Land Agent for the Northern Pacific Railroad. For a time he sold insurance in the Seattle area then opened real estate offices in Seattle, Yakima and Spokane. It was in Spokane that he became interested in the Big Bend country.

About 1888 he began developing a 2,000 acre cattle ranch along Foster Creek above Bridgeport. The cattle killing winter of 1889/90 nearly wiped him out but he persisted and eventually rebuilt his herd and ranch. In 1889 he also built and operated the cable ferry crossing the Columbia where Beebe Bridge now stands.

In 1891 MacLean partnered with Judge Joseph Snow and his wife, Sarah Snow to plat and develop the town site of Chelan Falls. He formed another real estate company and sold $40,000 to $50,000 of lots in the new town and re-invested all the proceeds in improvements including the Chelan Falls Hotel built that same year.

He also partnered in the founding of the Chelan Falls Leader, later the Chelan Leader, to publicize the new town.

In 1891 he bought the town site of Lake Side on Lake Chelan. In 1897 MacLean homesteaded 160 acres across the Columbia from Chelan Falls and proved up on it in September 1903.

But before that, in 1901, he came to Wenatchee. John Gellatly, a fellow Scotsman, described MacLean as, “In every particular a Scotsman. He had the swinging gate of a Scotsman, he had a cheery gesture for friend and foe alike.”

After months of discussion in the community, a meeting was called in the fall of 1901. John Gellatly recalled that 30 or 40 businessmen and land owners attended and proposed that $250 be raised to pay for surveys to determine how far up the Wenatchee River a ditch would need to begin to create a gravity powered system to serve all the un-irrigated land from the headgate to the Wenatchee Flat.

A committee of three men, including John Gellatly, was charged with raising the necessary funds.

Gellatly recalled setting out with L.V. Wells to canvas the town. The first businessman we called on “was a saloon keeper. We explained to him all about our mission, but he was very disinterested and proceeded to dismiss us in rather discourteous language and stated further that he had no money for our “blankety-blank” schemes.

“We then called upon a small merchant, He gave us a suspicious look along with some depressing language. Eventually he opened his cash drawer, withdrew a $5 gold piece and threw it on the counter with the statement that he had just as well throw it into the Columbia River so far as any good it would ever do.”

Wells and Gellatly persisted and did, finally, raise the money.

The survey was made and with that in hand Lauchlin MacLean traveled to Yakima for a meeting with William T. Clark who had overseen the construction of the Selah/Moxee ditch. Clark was impressed with the proposal and sent his two engineers, Marvin Chase and C.C. Ward, to Wenatchee to take a look.

Chase and Ward brought back positive and optimistic reports with a cost estimate to Clark who immediately went in search of financing for the project.

They appealed to Robert Livingston, head of the Oregon Mortgage Company. Livingston, within days, visited Wenatchee to see the lands to be irrigated and the route the canal would follow.

Livingston agreed to provide $225,000 secured by signed contracts from the affected landowners promising to pay $60/acre annually for water rights and give the Oregon Mortgage Company a first lien on their land as guarantee of payment.

Getting the signatures proved to be far more difficult than anticipated.

“Farmers,” as Gellatly wrote, “as a whole are the most conservative class known to the business world.”

Objections were many; the $60/acre was exorbitant and almost none were willing to give the first lien.

The task of gathering signatures dragged on for months. Gellatly recalled that, “One landowner and his wife were in my office a whole day before I could induce them to sign on the dotted line.”

Weeks passed. Many of the men working to get signatures became resigned in the belief that, once again, the “Big Ditch” would never be built.

Lauchlin MacLean was not among the doubters. He kept his plans secret from the rest of the committee, ferreted out the names of absentee landowners and embarked on a letter writing campaign to sign them up.

He said nothing to his fellow ditch advocates until he could announce that the required number of contracts had been signed. With that accomplished, financing was assured.

Gellatly wrote, “When the news became generally known that the Highline Canal would be built, the whole population of the little community really went wild.”

He goes on to point out it was the “eternal persistence” on the part of Lauchlin MacLean that got the job done, adding, “It is only fair to say that Mr. MacLean was, in all respects, the leader par excellence in the well nigh momentous struggle to win the support of the landowners.”

Construction began in 1902 with crews of men bearing shovels, picks and horse drawn machinery to scrape and dig and form the canal. One hundred and sixteen years later the water still flows.

Historian, actor and teacher Rod Molzahn can be reached at shake.speak@nwi.net. His third history CD, Legends & Legacies Vol. III – Stories of Wenatchee and North Central Washington, is now available at the Wenatchee Valley Museum and Cultural Center and at other locations throughout the area.

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