From the pages of
The Sublette County Journal
Volume 3, Number 30 - 8/26/99
brought to you online by Pinedale Online

"Manifest Destiny affects the Upper Green River Valley." Dredgeboat digging the Cottonwood Canal.
The Rise and Fall of the Uinta County Irrigation Company

by Helena Linn

While visiting with Peggy Sage Arnell at the Big Piney School Reunion this summer, I realized that she and two other ladies at our table, Barbara Warren from Farmington, New Mexico, and Marilyn Vickrey, were there because of their common heritage. Peggy's grandfather, Addison Moffat, was one of the settlers who responded early in this century to the promotion of the Uinta County Irrigation Company to take up land under the Carey Land Act, near Big Piney, Wyoming. Barbara's father, Hank Beecher, had been foreman for the crew that built canals for the Irrigation Company. And Marilyn's grandparents, the Hakes, had left drought-stricken Burlingame, Kansas, in 1912, to settle on land in Wyoming where they were promised that "artificial waterways will give an unfailing water supply, sufficient at all times, to produce the richest and most abundant crops."

Carey Land Act

Near the turn of the century, agricultural ground in Sublette County was homesteaded in the valley bottoms, along streams and rivers where irrigation water could easily be routed across productive pastures and meadowlands. But much of the arid higher terrain, numbering in the thousands of acres, relied solely on rainfall to supplement its short growing season.

Because of this challenge to make desert lands bloom, Joseph M. Carey, a U.S. senator in the Wyoming territory, sponsored the Carey Land Act of 1894, using it as a government-level tool to lure homesteaders from great distances to purchase and develop these unproductive lands.

Fields of Dreams

Effie (Mrs. Frank) Shipley at home on Cottonwood Canal.
Prompted by the new Carey Act, a company called the Uinta County Irrigation Company devised a plan to dig two canals in Sublette County which would bring water to some of the county's desert lands. The land adjacent to these canals would then be sold for a profit to would be farmers and ranchers.

A full-page ad about the Uinta County Irrigation Company appeared in the Marbleton Republican on August 20, 1913. It announced that 4,000 acres of land in Uinta County (now Sublette County) would be opened for settlement in conjuction with the construciton of the canals.

The ad cited lands "lying under and irrigatable from the irrigation system known as the Big Piney Canal system and particularly under the North Piney Canal in the County of Uinta." The company claimed that it had "acquired its water rights under the North and South Cottonwood Creeks, South Horse Creek, Muddy Creek, North Piney Creek, and Green River, all flowing through and adjacent to the Green River Basin." It further stated that the Cottonwood Canal (leading from the Green River south of Daniel to the Piney cuttoff) was already completed, and that the North Piney Canal (east of highway 189) was under construction. In reality, the Cottonwood Canal had not yet been completed as the Company had claimed.

The Company then sent its agent, Mr. Herman, to the mid-western and southern states to promote the project. He told prospective settlers they could buy an 80 or 160-acre farm by paying from $25 to $35 an acre for a perpetual water right, which was equal to title to the land. This sum also assured them a proportionate interest in the irrigation system.

To make an entry, they would be required to pay $3 per acre cash for the $25 land and $5 per acre cash for the $35 land, with the balance divided into ten equal annual payments at 6% interest. They also were to pay 25› per acre to the state when they made an entry and 25› per acre when they made final proof, which could be done anytime within three years.

Farmers were assured that the Green River Basin lands were of a dark sandy loam covered by big, sound, healthy sagebrush, and were sure to be fertile, and that the lands would not have been opened up if they weren't up to national and state government standards. "In ten years time, under the Uinta County Irrigation Company's method," the Company promised, "you would be a comparatively rich man."

Destination - Wyoming

Mr. Gilhausen at home on the Cottonwood Canal.
Mr. Herman convinced several families in Burlingame, Kansas to seek a better life in Sublette County along one of the new canals. Ira C. Hakes and his family, the Shipley brothers, the Fisher family, and Carl Craft, were among the discouraged farmers who decided to risk that Mr. Herman was right.

Among the first to arrive in Sublette County were J.E. Roberts, E.O. Martin, and Dan R. Storemont from Oklahoma. Dr. Perkins came from Missouri, "well equipped with implement and work stock." Mr. and Mrs. George Wilson, from Dearborn, Missouri, brought with them a "carload of effects, such as cows, pigs, chickens, and several splendid teams, and are thoro farmers," according to the April 3, 1913 issue of the Big Piney Examiner.

Over the next year, the Examiner and the Republican printed many news items, referring to people who took up land on the ditch project. In one, "Johnnie Matthews and Chas. Rathbun brought a number of land hungry home seekers up from the road (Opal and the railway) to view the lands." In another item, the family of C.W. Carlson had moved into their new home built under the Cottonwood Canal. Mr. Carlson had one of the best crops of oats in the valley, convincing him he came to the right country to settle.

Faded Dreams

It soon became apparent to the settlers, however, that they had ventured into a project that was doomed to fail. Because the Uinta County Irrigation Company was unable to complete the canal system, within a couple of years the settlers found they were trying to live on unproductive land with no irrigation water and a very short growing season. Perhaps what proved to be the Company's least conceivable claim was: "Within the coming year, we expect a railroad to be built within thirty miles of the Uinta County Irrigation Company's lands!"

Beginning of the End

Further, the Irrigation Company had been unable to acquire all the right-of-ways through private property. Therefore the water, which meant to give life to the land, legally was unavailable to the settlers. Work on the Cottonwood Canal was halted as the ill-fated project began to fall apart.

By February 1915, people were beginning to leave a country they had hoped to love. The Big Piney Examiner reported that "Mr. and Mrs. Dan Storemont will leave for Oklahoma, having sold all of their household goods and livestock the past week." Cottonwood Land & Livestock, managed by settler Wm. E. Carlin, was selling its cattle and hay to T.D. O'Neil. And though Mr. Carlin had made his own desert land entry in 1911 and filed his notice of intention to make final proof in 1914, he wrote in 1915 to ask that the Examiner be sent to Los Angeles, which was now his permanent address.

An Examiner ad for roller-skating at the Auditorium in Marbleton showed that proprietor Frank Shipley had turned to other enterprises; he already had started a brick kiln. Mr. Shipley's wife died a few years after they applied for land on the project. He remarried and spent the rest of his life contracting and ranching in the Big Piney area.

Some of the houses built by the farmers in the settlement were abandoned; others were moved. The Gilhausen house was moved into Big Piney and became the home of George and Elaine Moffat. The Roberts house was moved into Marbleton, where the family continued to live for several years. Joe Murdock and Caryn Bing remember that their family bought and moved one of the houses to use as a ranch bunkhouse. Another went to the Wardell Ranch.

Among the settlers making a decision to stay in the area, were the families of Addison Moffat, George and Mabel Wilson, and Dr. Perkins. They all had filed on land in Meadow Canyon where they were able to irrigate the land. Bill (Mother) Williams worked on ranches and rode for the cattlemen's associations, earning a reputation as a good cook and pro card player. Charles Fultz settled on Cottonwood. Roxie McClintock, who lived on the Guthrie Place, cooked for the roundups - a fantastic Dutch oven cook, according to Gordon Mickelson.

The Hakes' daughter, Opal, married Bill Ray. Mr. and Mrs. Hakes moved to Washington, but Opal and Bill remained and raised their family. Effie Stout married Sylvester Griggs, who had a garage and managed the electric company in Big Piney for many years. George Moffat served as cashier and officer of State Bank of Big Piney. Grace Moffat met and married Joe Sage, who had ridden into the country on horseback from Encampment. They raised their family on land that they bought from Floyd Norris at the edge of Marbleton. Mabel Wilson married Gus Erickson after George died and operated Erickson's Caf‚ for a long time. Hank Beecher, the Company's agent, took up his own land. The other agent, Mr. Herman, stayed in the area for several years.

The Last Days

On November 22, 1915, the Big Piney Examiner published the notice that the Uinta County Irrigation Company, with all property, rights, titles, and interests would be offered for sale to the highest bidder.

In the 1930s, Jim Mickelson acquired the project from John Hay and finally completed the work begun so many years before. Despite early-days frustrations and disappointments, the canals, which were meant to irrigate that the "undeveloped empires of agriculture," today supply several ranches along their banks.

Whether or not the irrigation project was a land scam, or built on a shaky foundation with the best of intentions, will never be known.

Thank you, Dianne Davison, Gordon and Margaret Mickelson, Charles Price, Jonita and Albert Sommers, Helen Atwood, Caryn Bing, Joe Murdock, Clint Gilchrist, and Toni David for providing information for this article.

Photo credits:  Pearl Spencer, Pearl Spencer, Pearl Spencer

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Publisher/Editor: Rob Shaul