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Water for the land — riches from ditches

By on June 27, 2018 in Columnist with 0 Comments

Rod MolzahnBy Rod Molzahn

Before white settlers arrived in the Wenatchee Valley in the late 1800s, the P’squose people had called the valley home for, at least, 8,000 years.

They relied on the valley and the surrounding hills for their food, moving with the seasons to dig roots, gather berries and fish and hunt.

The white settlers wanted much more from the land. To get more they had to get water to the land.

The Columbia River was of little help. It was wild and fast and wound through the bottom of the valley. Without pumps to move it, the Columbia water had to be carried up hill to houses and farms, sometimes by children with buckets. White settlers quickly began looking for other ways to deliver water to their lands.

Waterwheels were tried along the Wenatchee River, tall wheels to use the river’s power to lift water up to the farmland. Every wheel that was built was destroyed by high water in the first spring after construction.

Ditches proved to be a better solution.

About 1868 “Dutch” John Galler became the first white settler in the Wenatchee Valley when he took a squatter’s claim on land near Three Lakes. He built a house for his family on the bluff overlooking the Columbia and planted a garden, vineyard and fruit trees.

Galler found a spring on a hill above his farm, developed it and dug a ditch down to his gardens. Historian Bruce Mitchell called Galler the valley’s first “irrigationist.”

A year or so later Jack Ingram and John McBride moved their trading post from Rock Island to the Wenatchee/Columbia Confluence. McBride soon claimed 160 acres of prime land below Saddle Rock.

Using Indian labor he began constructing a ditch to bring water from Squilchuck Creek to his land. In 1871 McBride sold the land to a young couple named Perkins. They lasted only a year but did more digging on the ditch before selling it all to Philip Miller.

Miller completed the ditch with the help of more Indian labor.

In 1880 Philip’s nephew, George Miller, came west to join him. With George’s help Philip was able to begin improving and enlarging the ditch. In 1889, after the arrival of more Miller men, the work on the “Miller Ditch” was completed. Philip Miller applied for and was granted the first right to 320 inches of water from Squilchuck Creek.

By the end of 1883 the Stemilt Basin had its first settlers. Ira Canaday and a Mr. Lockwood each had claimed homesteads in the upper part of the basin and Al Thomas, a friend of Canaday, took land lower in the basin.

Thomas left the area for a time and when he returned he found that Lockwood and Canaday had built a ditch less than a mile long to bring Stemilt Creek water to their lands.

Thomas bought an interest in the ditch and hired 20 Chinese miners to enlarge the intake and extend the ditch about five miles to his land and on to the Columbia.

Thomas had mining claims along the river that he had leased to the Chinese for two years in exchange for their labor on the ditch.

They were promised water from the ditch for their sluice boxes for the two years of the lease. After that the ditch water would be sold to the increasing number of white settlers in the Basin.

In 1884 a group of early settlers on the Wenatchee Flat including George Blair, Christopher Rickman and Tallman Tripp organized to form the Settler’s Ditch Company.

They dug a second ditch from Squilchuck Creek parallel to the Miller Ditch with the take out point higher on the creek than that of the Miller Ditch. The Settler’s Ditch delivered water to lands above and below Western Avenue between Washington Street and Fifth Street.

Over the next few years new homesteaders bought into the ditch.

One of them was Z.A. Lanham who, with his wife, Clara, came to the valley in 1885. Lanham quickly realized that the water he got was not sufficient.

Squilchuck Creek was small and the Settler’s Ditch was second in water rights to Philip Miller’s 320 inches. From mid summer through fall there was often no water left in the creek for the settlers.

Lanham solved his problem by purchasing a quarter section of land with ample water on Wheeler Hill. He diverted the water through a ditch to his land in town facing Okanogan Avenue.

In 1888 Charles Reed and Ed Allen constructed a second ditch from Stemilt Creek, near its headwaters, to their homesteads just down the Columbia from the present location of Malaga. Their water rights were, of course, second to the rights of the Lockwood/Canaday/Thomas ditch.

1891 saw the first efforts to draw water from the Wenatchee River to irrigate land in the Monitor area.

Jacob Shotwell and his son Harry dug a ditch and built flumes to take water from the Wenatchee River below Peshastin to Jacob’s 160 acres on the north bank of the Wenatchee just downstream from Monitor. They agreed to extend the ditch down to land owned by W.E. Stevens. Stevens owned a mercantile store in Old Town and paid for the extension with food for the Shotwells from his store to keep them digging.

In 1896 Arthur Gunn joined the Shotwells to extend the ditch down to Burch Flats (Olds Station) where Gunn had extensive land holdings.

Because of Gunn’s friendship with J.J. Hill, a loan was arranged from the Great Northern Railroad, which Hill owned, to enlarge and extend the Shotwell Ditch and to construct a lateral from it to cross the Wenatchee River on a trestle bridge and deliver water to much of the northern part of the Wenatchee Flat.

The work was completed in 1898. The Gunn/Shotwell Ditch still serves the valley and north Wenatchee.

All of the early ditches were built with private money and labor without government participation or support.

This success prompted the people of the Wenatchee Valley to think even bigger and contemplate the building of a larger “Big Ditch” to irrigate all the Wenatchee Flat and, in time, to reach across the Columbia to East Wenatchee.

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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