Watering the Land:
The Turbulent History of the Carlsbad Irrigation District
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On November 28, 1905, Secretary of the Interior Ethan Allen Hitchock approved acquisition of the financially-troubled Carlsbad reclamation project. It was neither an easy nor swift decision. More than a year earlier, the general manager of the Pecos Irrigation Company had pleaded with Federal officials to purchase the privately-financed irrigation system. A series of disastrous floods in October 1904 had destroyed the system's main diversion dam and canal network. Chronically under-capitalized, the local irrigation company was unable to repair the extensive damage and quickly slipped into bankruptcy. The plight of hundreds of waterless farmers, as well as intense congressional pressure, eventually persuaded the Secretary of the Interior to act. Like many other Federal reclamation projects throughout the West, the Carlsbad reclamation project represented the beginning of a long-lasting, and often troubled marriage between the Reclamation Service and the local farmers that the agency was created to serve.

The Historic American Engineering Record (HAER) history, written by Mark Hufstetler and Lon Johnson, relates the turbulent story of the Carlsbad Project. The history traces the roots of the irrigation system to Pat Garrett, the well-known killer of Billy the Kid. Deciding not to seek re-election as Lincoln County Sheriff in 1882, Garret retired to his 1800-acre ranch near Roswell, New Mexico. Here, from his comfortable two-story adobe home, the taciturn former sheriff envisioned the physical transformation of the Pecos River Valley from desert to small prosperous farms. Possessing vision but little hard currency, Garret enlisted the financial support of New Mexico cattleman Charles B. Eddy, Punch Cigar manufacturer Robert Weems Tansill, and most importantly, railroad builder James J. Hagerman. Damming the unpredictable and turbid waters of the Pecos River was key to their new corporate irrigation plan.

By 1890, the founders of the Pecos Irrigation and Investment Company had successfully dammed the Pecos River and constructed the core of the complex irrigation system. The network included an innovative diversion dam, two main canals, and a 475-foot-long wooden flume that transported water across the Pecos River to eagerly-awaiting valley farmers. Avalon Dam, a rockfill structure with an impervious earthfill facing, represented the first such dam constructed in the United States for reclamation purposes. By 1893, the local irrigation company had added McMillan Dam to the system. This rockfill dam and its attendant storage reservoir substantially increased the amount of water available for irrigation purposes.

Unfortunately, operation of the new irrigation system proved more troublesome than its construction. Seepage problems in the porous reservoir floor, as well as in the unlined earthen canals, inflated maintenance and operation costs. Although the privately financed irrigation company had expended over two million dollars in constructing and operating the system, the Reclamation Service purchased the entire irrigation network for $150,000 in 1905.

Within two years, the Reclamation Service had successfully reconstructed most of the irrigation system. Federal engineers redesigned Avalon Dam by adding a thin concrete corewall to withstand future flooding. During the winter of 1911-1912, the Reclamation Service also constructed two innovative cylinder spillway gates at Avalon. The design for these cylinder gates would later be incorporated into the intake towers of Hoover Dam. However impressive the design and reconstruction of Carlsbad, local farmers soon found themselves unable to repay the large Federal obligation. To lighten their financial burden, the Reclamation Service extended the repayment schedule for local irrigators from 10 to 20 years in 1914. By 1949, most of the Federal debt had been repaid and on October 1, the Bureau of Reclamation finally returned operation and maintenance of the system to the local irrigation district.

Historic American Engineering Record projects such as Carlsbad reclamation project have recently been accused of distorting history by focusing on structures at the expense of the "people who lived and built the machines." [1] On the contrary, the emphasis by HAER on the built environment represents a tremendous asset to historians and to students of the American West. These concise technological histories provide sorely-needed, non-traditional perspectives on westward expansion. Prominent historians including Frederick Jackson Turner and his prolific disciple Ray Allen Billington traditionally portrayed the West as a frontier conquered by rugged individualists. Moreover, histories of the West have routinely contended that the American frontier closed in 1890 when the U.S. census determined that no vast tracts of public lands remained for settlement. Yet most of the public works projects documented by HAER belie this stock interpretation. Irrigation projects built by the Reclamation Service across the West—from the deserts of southern New Mexico at Carlsbad to the windswept plains of northwestern Wyoming at Buffalo Bill Dam—are physical evidence of the failure of the lone homesteader. Indeed, the first Federal reclamation projects and their attendant agricultural development began nearly a decade after the so called closing of the American frontier.

The solitary farmer was ill-equipped to settle the semi-arid country beyond the 100th meridian. Individuals as diverse as Pat Garrett and Buffalo Bill Cody began irrigation projects in the West only to have them collapse due to under capitalization, inexperience, and bad luck. The situation at Carlsbad was not unique. In many cases, the Reclamation Service adopted the failed projects as their own. [2] After relinquishing local ownership, farmers became critically dependent on water provided and controlled by a Federal agency. Even when subsidized by the Federal government, the self-reliant farmer and his 160-acre farm represented more myth than reality. At Carlsbad and at another contemporary Reclamation Service project at Roosevelt, Arizona, very few public lands were opened to farmers. The Carlsbad Project, in fact, encompassed almost no Federal lands and contained hundreds of established farms, many of which exceeded 160 acres, the maximum size allowed in Federal reclamation projects.

In addition to Bureau of Reclamation irrigation projects such as Carlsbad, thousands of historic structures built with Federal funds have been recorded in the West. Hundreds of Federal Highway Administration bridges, from small, prefabricated metal trusses to long, graceful, concrete arch structures, have been recorded by HAER teams. Historic roadways, such as Glacier National Park's Going to the Sun Highway and Rocky Mountain National Park's Trail Ridge Road traversing the continental divide, have also been documented to HAER Standards. These HAER histories chronicle the Federal Government's past fiscal commitment to building a vast physical infrastructure throughout the West. Moreover, the histories help to explain the Federal Government's current vested interest in rebuilding this vast network of roadways, bridges, dams, airports and the like. By focusing on historic structures, the Historic American Engineering Record has and continues to provide specific examples of how dependent Western settlement was on Federal largess.

The format and organization of the HAER collection in the Library of Congress dictate that histories concentrate on individual historic structures. As a consequence, HAER histories seldom attempt nor achieve the broad syntheses of American history sometimes produced by academia. This was never the intent of the collection. However, the Carlsbad reclamation project history, when multiplied by similar HAER histories, provides new evidence and fresh perspective to the growing body of literature re-evaluating the traditional view of the American West. [3]

Gregory D. Kendrick


1. See for example, Steve Lubar, "The Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record/America's Industrial Heritage Project: Some Recent Publications," The Public Historian 13 (Summer 1991):121-122.

2. For a discussion of the Buffalo Bill (Shoshone) Dam (HAER No. WY-2), see T.A. Larson, A History of Wyoming (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1965), 356.

3. Several books have appeared during the last few years which provide refreshing new historical perspectives into the American West. For example, Patricia Nelson Limerick, Professor of History at the University of Colorado at Boulder, stresses the continuity of the past in The Legacy of Conquest: the Unbroken Past of the American West, (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1987). Rivers of Empire: Water Aridity, and the Growth of the American West, by Donald Worster (New York: Pantheon Books, 1985), uses irrigation as a means to re-examine the West's development. Designed as a college textbook, Richard White's It's Your Misfortune and None of My Own: A History of the American West (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991) documents the Federal government's continued involvement in the West.

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Last Updated: 01-Feb-2008