Work Of Art
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 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.”
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.
Last updated: February 24, 2015