• Red cliffs descend into the water of Bighorn Canyon

    Bighorn Canyon

    National Recreation Area MT,WY

Bighorn Ditch Head Gate

Remains of the Bighorn Ditch Headgate
Remains of the Bighorn Ditch Headgate
NPS
 

Work Of Art
The Bighorn Ditch Headgate stands as mute testimony to the shifting patterns of life. This stone and mortar structure was built by the Crow Indians to control the flow of water into the Bighorn Ditch. Not only utilitarian, it is a work of art standing proudly at the head of a massive irrigation system.

The buffalo was gone. And with it a whole economy and a way of life. Like the death of the private automobile would be to us, the passing of the bison wrought havoc on the Plains Indian. The inability to provide a comfortable living for his family forced the Crow to look for other means. With the extermination of the buffalo at the end of the 19th century, the Crow people turned to agriculture as a way of life.

A Giant Step
The giant step from the mid-19th century hunter/gatherer way of life to the 20th century cultivator of the land took one generation…father to son. But without irrigation, cultivation “in eastern Montana is a risky undertaking, because of the short growing season, lack of rainfall, the savage late summer hailstorms, and the periodic invasions by grasshoppers.”

The irrigation ditch, mostly dug by Crow men using horse drawn implements, opened 35,000 acres of arable land for irrigation to several hundred families. It was twenty-eight miles long and ran from the mouth of Bighorn Canyon to Two Leggins Creek. Water was diverted into the ditch by a 416 foot diversion dam. It diverted 720 cubic feet of water per second into the ditch (by comparison the average discharge from the Yellowtail Dam is 8,000 cubic feet per second). The laborers worked 10 hours a day at .40 cents per hour ($10.18 per hour in 2009 terms).

The irrigation system was completed in the autumn of 1904 after 12 years of labor. It is an example of a people’s effort to totally change their way of life. Experts from all over the western United States visited the project and were impressed with what they saw.

A report from the commissioner of Indian Affairs stated that the Bighorn Headgate was “one of the best and most substantial pieces of irrigation in the United States and reflects credit on the Department for ordering the work, the engineers who planned and superintended the same, and the Crow Indians who did the work.”

Self-Sufficiency
More importantly, through the skills gained in the project, and the land allotment system the Crow became self-sufficient by 1906. Many Crow used the skills they learned in construction of the Bighorn Ditch to secure work off the reservation. Fifty to sixty Crow men with their teams from the Black Lodge District were employed in 1903 and 1904 on an irrigation project in Rosebud County. In 1906, Crow men were again employed on the Huntley Irrigation project.

In 1966, with the completion of the Yellowtail Dam, the Bighorn Ditch was flooded. The remains of the Head gate and beginning of the ditch can be seen at the end of the Head Gate Trail. There is a quiet picnic area at the end of the trail. During low water, banks of the Bighorn Ditch are more evident near the Afterbay Campground. The ditch, between the Headgate and Afterbay Dam, can be traced without difficulty at low water.

Did You Know?

Young bighorn ram, photo by T. Ennis

The bighorn sheep disappeared from the area in the 1800s. In the 1970s, Montana and Wyoming state game agencies translocated sheep into nearby areas. Descendants of these sheep moved into the range along Bighorn Canyon and today the estimated population is 150 to 200. More...