Ranching Feature: Miller Creek Ditch, one of Meeker’s great industries

RBC I Range cattle in White River country were plagued with summer drought, a condition providing little grass for late summer and an unreliable supply for winter. Before irrigation, there was little stored hay for emergencies or winter feed. Outfits made long cattle drives to find better grass. In 1889, the UCC/Keystone outfit’s herd became thin and weak. Cattle, some with calves, were bawling and in no condition to travel, yet were pushed on the trail toward better grass — 75 percent of the cattle died and 60 percent of the saddle horses.
The White River settlers were issued settlers rights, patents, homestead rights and made outright land purchases from the U.S. government, signed by President Benjamin Harrison in 1891 and President Theodore Roosevelt in 1901. Some were transferred under a Ute Series Certificate. Some land sold for $1.25 per acre. These hardworking farm and ranch people were courageous, industrious and smart. They knew to survive they must develop reliable irrigation water.
Terry Mobley’s research lists many legal water rights filed — many were spring filings for livestock water — by 1890. It seems a miraculous change occurred in just 10 years after the Meeker Massacre and its impact on the whole White River Valley.
This story relates to the development of the Miller Creek Ditch, not the first but one of the many water development ditches. Work officially started on the Miller Creek Ditch in October 1898. Water was granted for the project June 1, 1896, under priority number 134. The co-partners in the company in 1899 were H.C. Rock, J.R. Wilber, H. Niblock, J. Pierce, F. Harker, J.B. Hill, G. Gunterman, J.E. Redpath, F.A. Carstens, Ouimet and Fuller, J.W. Welch, J.D. Miller, I. Baer and R.W. Coats.
According to Byron Linden, the location of the ditch was under study for a while. He believes the original alignment was well above the final location, taking water only from Miller Creek and to be constructed as much as 60 feet higher and above the rocky canyon. He has seen signs of ditch work that existed along this upper route. Mr. Linden says the factor changing alignment from the upper site was that Miller Creek could not provide the quantity of water required to serve the land needing irrigation.
F.A. Carstens and Fred Gunterman originally located the Miller Creek Ditch in June, 1896. Carstens threw the first shovelful of dirt out of it. It was in 1889 that right of way was obtained to legally locate, survey and stake a strip of land on each side of the surveyed grade stakes, giving the Ditch Company and its contractors the right to enter for the purpose of constructing, enlarging and cleaning the ditch.
The head gate located on the White River just east of Miller Creek, diverted 45 cubic feet of water. The 15-mile ditch was designed to be about 12 feet wide and 2.75 feet deep. The design grade amounted to a drop of 4.33 feet per mile.
The Ditch Company certified members owned 3,275 acres of arid arable lands, which would profit if irrigated as tilled land, meadows, or good pasture. The association included new members J. Kincher, Ed Wilber, Oscar Morse, Edwin Amick, W.S. Reynolds, R. Metzger, A.S. Richardson, T. Baker, M.B. Welsh, C. Whitcomb, Frank Barker and Baer Bros. Land and Cattle.
The 1902 White River Review newspaper story titled, “One of Meeker’s Great Industries,” said, “As construction of the Miller Creek Ditch neared completion most of our home people do not realize the magnitude of this undertaking or the great benefits it will confer upon the whole valley. The ditch has been built entirely local capital, men who own property along the ditch and in this town.
“Excavation commenced in the month of October 1898, and has continued uninterrupted. An eight-hour work day has been observed since its inception. From 12 to 28 men have worked on its construction. A large force of men will be engaged in plow and scraper work in the near future. Bills for construction and supplies have been met promptly every month. This has been accomplished by our home people, there being only 46 shares of ditch stock. In the construction over two and a half miles of rock work has been encountered, some of the reefs towering 60 feet above the grade of the ditch.
“So far the home company has expended over $32,000, which has been disbursed here at home. The ditch progressed at a rate of one half-mile per week. Laurence Daum, superintendent of construction, said water is running in the ditch as far as Veatch and Carsten. The work around the rocky points has finished and camp was moved farther down the line. Now plow and scraper work will move more rapidly. Daum took the working stock to town to get them shod and to repair harnesses.
“Happy Shareholders — On Tuesday, June 10, 1902, just six years and eleven days after the first stake was set, the water in Miller Creek ditch ran from Miller Creek head gate to Veatch gulch. Besides a few small leaks and breaks and a little seepage, it did not give much trouble. The ditch is in charge of Al Wenger, who had charge of the water last year. He is experienced at his business, and knows every weak place and chipmunk hole and crook in the ditch. The fact that he got the water through the ditch in eight days (not leaving it run nights) speaks well of the ditch and him.
Wednesday afternoon, Carstens irrigated the garden and part of the hay land. The boys paid their proportion of $29,000 to see the water come down the ditch, and it was a most welcome sight to them. For their grit and energy, extended over so many years, The Review hopes every shareholder may become a millionaire.
“By July carpenters under Joe Goff were working on the flume, calking joints, and treating them with a dose of pitch and tar. Excited stockholders on the lower end doubled their assessments to keep a large force working while the going was good. By July they were at the Mesa School house and had progressed to the rock quarry near the Reynolds ranch. The ditch sunk at the Warren place but was rapidly remedied. The boys ran into rimrock just beyond the rock quarry and pick and shoveled through it.
By December 1902, the teams are off the ditch except those hauling lumber and timber for the head gates. Special work on the east end was completed and a contract dated January 1903, was issued for work on four miles of ditch and lateral on the west end. H. O’Neill will finish this when the frost leaves the ground.”
(Mr. Linden thought the original drop at Flag Creek was a wooden flume structure. He believed they had considered keeping it at a higher elevation and crossing Flag Creek more on the contour.)
“April 18, 1903 E. Fuller inspected the head gates, overshots, and flumes says water will be running this season. Al Wenger, ditch walker established his camp, and contractor O’Neill is ready to work.
“June 13, 1903: The last contract for work is complete, surveyor Mr. Moog and the Miller Creek Ditch Co. board of directors made their official investigation of the project.”
Diana Amick Watson tells about the Amick Ranch and some of the impacts of the ditch. The kitchen table talk often revolved around activities of the ditch. Her dad, Harold, was on the board, and her mother, Phyllis, was the secretary. “Without the water, our crops, mostly hay, would have been dry land, or irrigated by early runoff water from LO7,” Diana said.
“Each time the ditch broke it meant serious concerns about damages and what the repair costs would be. The down time when water was not available set crops back and had a devastating effect on each ranch depending on the water.
“Besides irrigation for crops the ditch watered livestock and gardens. It provided entertainment for children to swim, ride tubes, and just throw stones in the water and sometimes ice skate. It did challenge anyone trying to drive cattle, horses or milk cows across the ditch. The animals learned when you were not right behind them at the crossing and would run back to the pasture.
“Those who irrigated either walked or rode a horse. They would mount up, throw a shovel over their shoulder morning and night. As a child, dad would let me ride in front of him, however, the deer flies kept me from wanting to go very often. We hired seasonal help as one or two men with families who lived in houses on the ranch and worked all year. Our hay crew usually consisted of two or three high school boys as well as one or two full time hands who worked full time in the hay fields when not irrigating or working cattle. Most everything was done from horseback and pack horses, including packing salt to the cattle, fixing fence, and checking cattle.
Mother cooked for those who worked on the ranch, cleaned the bunk house, washed clothes, bought groceries and supplies, a job that was never done. We raised as much food in the garden as we could. There was a strong sense of family as we worked together. Grandparents helped and good conversations were had while peas were shelled and beans snapped. Good times as a family continued during conversations around the kitchen table following a big meal at noon and a smaller meal in the evening. Stories were told and passed from one generation to the next. Mother monitored these stories more closely when some of father’s childhood pranks resurfaced in the next generation.”
The high costs of improving the ditch to carry more water and maintaining the ditch continued to be a concern and stressful for the company stockholders and rancher during some hard times. Her grandpa Arthur Amick tells “that during initial construction the costs kept most of the shareholders near bankruptcy. Several of them did go under, all due to the expensive construction in the canyon along the White River.”
Diana said, “Although much as changed over the years, the value of water from Miller Creek Ditch, remains the same to those who use it on their ranches as it does for all those who irrigate and water livestock from the White River.”
A 1951 ratification enlarging the Ditch to carry 100 cfs defined the right of way as a width necessary to properly construct and maintain the ditch and prevent damage from seepage to the cultivated land. Added major participants for the Ditch Company were Irwin Clapper, George Layton, Arthur Kincher, Soren. M. Neilsen, Byron Linden, Harold Amick, Bruce Baker, Dean LaGrange, Clarence Johnson, M.L. Richardson, Arthur R. Amick, Reginald Sprod, Ernest Sprod, Frank A. and Evalon Huff. Geo. Parkes, George Russell, J.A. Pierce, Carl H. Seely and D.B. Cannafax.
Even today, the Miller Creek Ditch is considered the most expensive ditch to service and maintain in Rio Blanco County. The strong determined people who dreamed the dream and fought the battle to build the ditch can be proud that it remains an impact industry for Meeker and Rio Blanco County.
— Thanks to local historian Dr. David Steinman for researching the papers for articles pertinent to the Miller Creek Ditch