Monday, February 08, 2010

Chrispy Time Travel: In Search of ... The Snake River Flood of Spring 1904

26th Annual Report US Geological Survey, p 263

Whipple Phillips was deep into the Snake River Valley irigation projects when floods devastated his Owyhee Land and Irrigation Company. Elsewhere on the blog are numeroud images from the period.

Today, we look at the history. What possessed a Providence business man to jump into Idaho? Look hence:

Early investigations of irrigation possibilities in Idaho were made under the direction of the Geological Survey in 1889-1890. These surveys included a preliminary examination of the Minidoka Project, when survey lines were run from 15 to 35 miles westward on both sides of the Snake River from the Minidoka Dam site. Additional surveys were made in 1895. Private organizations became interested in developing the area at various times after 1887.

At the time of passage of the Reclamation Act of June 1902, considerable data relative to the area were available for use by the State Engineer, who was responsible for cooperating with the Reclamation Service in Idaho. During 1902, information obtained about the storage potential in the headwaters of the Snake River indicated that suitable capacities could be developed at reasonable cost. On November 17, 1902, the Secretary of the Interior withdrew from public entry a large body of land embracing the proposed irrigable area of the Minidoka tract, rendering it subject to filing under the terms of the Reclamation Act.


The Minidoka Project was authorized by the Secretary of the Interior on April 23, 1904, under the 1902 Reclamation Act.

Had he indeed held out a bit longer, profits were to be made ...

In 1904, the lower Minidoka Project area around the present cities of Burley and Rupert was a nearly uninhabited sagebrush desert with only a few scattered ranches. After construction of the initial phases of the project brought water to the land, giving opportunity for expansion, it became a prosperous, highly developed farm area.

Owyhee County (inc. 31 December 1863) included all territory lying south of the Snake River and east to the range of the Rockies, the southern boundary being the Nevada and Utah State lines. The width of Idaho Territory at its southern boundary was 397 miles. Of this distance, over 300 miles were in Owyhee County.

The Owyhee River is a tributary of the Snake River located in northern Nevada, southwestern Idaho and southeastern Oregon in the United States. It is 280 miles (450 km) long.[1] The river's drainage basin is 11,049 square miles (28,620 km2) in area, one of the largest subbasins of the Columbia Basin.[2] The mean annual discharge is 995 cubic feet per second (cfs), with a maximum of 50,000 cfs recorded in 1993 and a minimum of 42 cfs in 1954.[1]

The Owyhee drains a remote area of the arid plateau region on the north edge of the Great Basin, rising in northeastern Nevada and flowing generally northward near the Oregon-Idaho border to the Snake River. Its watershed is very sparsely populated. The Owyhee River and tributaries flow through the Owyhee Plateau, cutting deep canyons, often with vertical walls and in some places over 1,000 feet (300 m) deep

So what flood is the one that devastated the project?

I found one candidate:

In 1901, during the administration of Mayor Moses Alexander, the flume was entirely rebuilt, much of it with wood as previously, but in March 1904, most of this construction proved totally inadequate to control an unusually heavy spring runoff. Two hundred feet of wooden flume collapsed and a torrent of water from nearby Hull's Gulch cut across corners and flowed down Harrison Boulevard. Steady rain throughout southwestern Idaho caused all of the creeks and rivers to overflow their banks. The bridge at Star was carried away, and Gooding and Shoshone were under water as the Big and Little Wood Rivers went over their banks in what was called "the worst flood in 20 years."

The Statesman described it: "General Downpour: A heavy rain fell last night from the head of Long Valley to Silver City, and from Huntington to Montpelier. It melted the loose snow and brought oceans of water down from the mountain sides. The Boise River rose 18 inches before midnight and is still coming up.
Many roads outside of Boise were nearly impassable; in 1904 there were no paved roads anywhere in Idaho and only a few paved streets in Boise.

"Down the valley there was a continuous downpour from early evening and the creeks are running bank full, while the roads are in abominable condition. This section of the state has not had such a thorough soaking in years. The farmers are disgusted with the roads, but delighted with crop prospects, which were never so promising."

I have never read what date this flood occured - other than in March 1904 like that above - but there are slivers of information that show March had periodic inundating rains for several days into April.

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