Backdrops to Montana History: The Irrigation Ditch

Coming to Montana in 1981 from the wet, humid South, I thought little of irrigation as a moving force in history.  To my mind, irrigation was about sprinklers keeping suburban lawns nice and green in the summer.  I cared little for that, and thought no more about it.

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Milk River system, Tampico, Valley County

Realizing that irrigation had shaped the history of the United States was another of those primary contributions living and working in Montana brought to my understanding of history.  In the 1984-85 historic preservation survey of the state, I noted a few key systems and thought about their significance.  But in the time since, I came to understand irrigation as one of the key components of an engineered landscape, that literally reshaped the state and made towns, cities, and ranches possible in the early 20th century.

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Big Hole Valley

Early Montana settlers, especially the pioneering irrigator I.D. O’Donnell of Billings,  understood by the turn of the century that there would never be enough water to make Montana an agricultural paradise.  Men could not conquer nature–but they could build a machine that could harness it, even replace it.

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This irrigation effort in Valier took advantage of the 1894 Carey Act.

So with the financial assistance of the federal government, first with the Carey Act of 1894 and then the vastly more important Newlands Reclamation Act of 1902, the transformation of Montana through irrigation took place in the first third of the 20th century. 

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The U.S. Reclamation Service Office at Ballatine, Yellowstone County.  Championed by I.D. O’Donnell, the Huntley project was the second USRS project in the nation.

The engineered landscape represented by irrigation is everywhere in Montana.  I will pick up this theme in later postings but end today with another image that evokes the impact, even beauty, of the man-made streams that crisscross the state.

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Madison County, along Montana Highway 249

 

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