Descent on Trailhead 3 (Overlooking Virgin River)
In 1863, Brigham Young called for Mormons to settle southern Utah and raise cotton; the civil war had cut off Utah's supply lines from the southern states. By 1900, census reports show that only half these settlers braved the desert and remained. The harsh conditions led some of the remaining settlers to the water of the Virgin River. However, the river's erratic flooding soon made ghost towns out of many settlements and washed away crops and farms.
Settlers had their eyes on the Hurricane Bench, a fertile area away from the Virgin River's wrath. If only water could be brought to the Bench...
In the 1860s, Mormon leader Erastus Snow and surveyor John M. Macfarlane declared a canal impossible. In 1874, Brigham Young and his son John W. Young traveled through Hurricane. Local resident James Jepson Jr. pointed out the idea of taking water from the river, but Brigham Young, using a leveling instrument, declared the project 'impractical" and went home. It looked as if the settlers were at the mercy of the river.
Early settler James Jepson Jr. recalled:
"[The early settlers] built farms on tiny plots of soil that clung close to the banks of the Virgin River, and garden spots even closer to the rich deltas of the river bed. These fields were often no larger than three acres, the gardens so small they called them 'dinner baskets.'
"If the virgin had been faithful to her sacred name, she would have mothered and nourished the gardens - but not so - she would give promise of protection while the farmers planted and labored, but when the crop was ready to harvest, only too often she forgot her promise. Filling her banks with angry flood waters from some storm, she would turn from her course and devour the dainty dinner baskets, either leaving none, or only a meager portion for the hard-toiling Saints. Not only were the gardens wiped out, but the dams were broken and ditches filled with mud."
In the Canal, further along -- around the bend . . .
The committee grew into a corporation with shareholders. A share was an acre of land, with water rights. The Hurricane Canal Company limited land ownership to 20 acres per member so there would be no monopoly on the land once the canal made it farmable. However, men with grown sons could buy more than 20 acres. A labor assessment was made of $2.50 a share and an eight-hour day of work was worth $2.00 in wages or credit.
Work began in December of 1893. It was decided that canal work would take place during the winter so that the men could farm during the summer months. They estimated that the project would take a few years for seven and one half miles of canal and a dam. During the first two winters, over 300 men worked on the canal.
Morris Wilson, Jr. remembered his accommodations that first winter:
"Our first shelter was a wagon cover anchored to some rocks and pegged into the ground. This made a sort of lean-to in which we had our beds. All of our cooking we did over a fire in the open. We worked all day on the canal; then at the conclusion of our day's work we gathered up driftwood deposited by the flood waters to make our fires for cooking and to warm ourselves. This was our hardest winter - there were so many inconveniences."
At a tunnel . . .
Accommodations were rough that first winter and so was the work. As the canal progressed, the terrain got more rocky. In his book I Was Called to Dixie, Andrew Karl Larson wrote, "All the rest of the ditch where it follows the canal and much of it along the Hurricane Fault bordering the town of Hurricane and its fields was made with shovel and pick and hand-driven drills. Wheelbarrows and crowbars were the most complicated machines used on this job. There was no room to use teams [of horses] on the steep hillsides and ledges, and compressors were unknown on this project" (390).
Tunnels had to be built and massive rocks had to be moved, but the men lacked the necessary experience with black powder, which was the only powder available to them at the time. The Panic of 1893 had swept across Nevada, turning former Nevada miners into transients, looking for work. Although the Canal Company couldn't afford to pay the transients, the unemployed men worked for room and board, teaching the other workers how to use explosives. Money was so tight that unused explosives were gathered after a misfire and re-used, despite the dangers of such a policy. The first tunnel was called the Matthew McMurtie tunnel after the man who built it.
Mattie C. Speedlove, Hurricane resident, recalled:
"When they were working on the McMurtrie tunnel, the men composed a song about it. One little snatch runs through my mind - 'The honest and true will stay with Matt Murtrie till the tunnel gets through.' "
"It is difficult for one who has never followed the torturous route of the canal from the Narrows to the fields to appreciate the magnitude of the undertaking. There was no road to into the canyon. Everything needed at the dam site and for a considerable distance along the canal route had to be carried from the top down into the canyon and across to the other side where the canal began. Food, tools, bedding, and in fact all of the supplies used during the first year were carried on the backs of men who labored there. Even an anvil . . . was slung on a pole and frightened down the rocky incline to the bottom of the canyon on the shoulders of strong and husky men."
Further along the trail -- Robber's Roost
Although the work was tough, life was far from miserable in the campsites. After work, tales of the day's misfortunes and adventures reigned. The transients, many of who were from other countries, danced and sang traditional songs from home. A road was built because, as Lorenzo J. Speedlove said, "I suppose we just got too lazy to carry our supplies in." Men would ride to work on Mondays and give their horses a slap on the flanks to send them back home. On Saturday nights, the men were met by their wives with a wagon or a horse for the men to return on. The road was rugged and treacherous and, as Alice Gubler Stratton tells in her book The Story of the Hurricane Canal, there was one hazardous spot in the road that the wagon-riders would not ride over, but instead walk with their horses. However, Amelia Sanders would drive her horses right over the descent as the other women screamed and her horses reared and spooked.
This area was named Robber's Roost by the men who camped here during the first winter. However, Chinatown, further down the hill, soon served as the center of camp life. Often, families and others from the area visited the canal to check on its progress and visit the men. As Stratton recalled, "A group of Toquerville girls came on their horses one day to see the Chinatown camp. Jess Lemmon was the cook and invited them to stay for dinner. He promised to bake them a dried peach pie. And he did. When the girls cut into its beautiful crust, they sat and giggled, for sure enough, it was a 'dried' peach pie. The peaches were dry as chips and entirely unstewed. But pranksters are the recipients of pranks. One evening when Jess lit the fire in his dugout, he found that someone had stuffed his chimney with rags and bolted the door. They let him out when he was sufficiently smoked" (12).
Jess Lemmon was charged with the task of fixing food for the hungry travelers. After a week of managing the farm chores by themselves, the wives of the Hurricane Canal builders were happy to see their husbands. The owner of the Sulfur Springs allowed the workers to bathe in the hot springs and on Saturday nights, the women would join the men in a swim through the hot springs before heading home.
Down the trail (at a diversion dam)
As you look at the Virgin River below you and to your right, remember that looks can be deceiving. Although the river is sometimes little more than a dried-up trickle of water, Alice Gubler Stratton noticed that its calmness is "as deceiving as a soft padded kitten concealing its claws." A sudden rise in the river evidently claimed the life of a seventeen-year-old transient as he wandered to the water's edge. His footprints were found, but the boy was never heard from again.
The river's moodiness was not unknown to the men who faced the daunting task of trying to dam it. A rock dam was built during the winter of 1894-1895. It held for a year until a large flood "picked up the huge rocks in the dam as if they were pebbles and strung them along the river below the dam site"
The next dam was built from a pine log gathered from the Kolob Mountains. The log was laid into shelves cut into the rock on either side of the river and secured with juniper posts and more rocks. This one surely would hold...
However, another flood lifted the log out of its slots and carried the whole dam downstream once again. Finally, the log was placed back into its slots and layered again with posts and rocks, although the men added more reinforcement this time. The rocks and logs were bound together with wire. This third try was the charm and the dam held, allowing water to be diverted into the canal.
Along the canal, several diversion dams remain. These concrete structures were added later to control the flow of water through the canal.
"Their families were left in the care of the Lord,
Chinatown (at shack, not spike)
In the early years of the canal's construction, Chinatown served as the apartment complex for the workers and the hub of canal life. The workers dug their dugouts along the bank here and entertained each other with stories of the day's misadventures. The wash got its name when an observer looked at the many dugouts and remarked, "This looks like Chinatown." But, as more difficult times hit, the dugouts were deserted as many men lost faith in the project and traded or sold their shares, forfeiting their hours of labor. By the winter of 1901-1902, only seven or eight men worked on the canal.
It was not hard to understand their discouragement. The last mile of the canal would prove to be more difficult than the last 6 and one-half combined. The terrain was steep and much of the canal had to be built up from underneath. On March 27, 1902, sixteen-year-old John Isom, who was working his family's canal shares for his late father, was struck and killed by a falling rock as he walked home.
It was obvious that more specialized equipment was needed. Giant powder, a more sophisticated explosive than black powder, was needed to blast away rock and make tunnels, but funding was depleted. In February of 1902, James Jepson asked the Mormon Church to purchase shares in the Canal Company. The $5,000 of shares (which was, incidentally, the exact amount that the local wards had paid in tithing) helped the ailing Hurricane Canal Company financially, but more importantly, it revived interest and restored faith in the canal. Those who had formerly abandoned the work came back to see the project to its completion. Two years later, in 1904, the canal was completed.
The Church's contribution allowed the Canal Company to purchase giant powder, which was stored in this shed.
James Jepson Jr. recalls his visit with Joseph Smith:
"'President Smith, my company sent me here to make any kind of arrangement with you that I could make. . . We are not asking for a donation; we want you to take stock in our company, and I think we can promise you that you will get your money back in a few years. In the next place, we intend to finish this job whether you help us or not; but if we don't get your help, when it is done, it won't belong to the people who do the work. If we have to get the money from outside, it will belong to those from whom we have to borrow. . .'
"A motion was quickly made to have the Church buy $5,000 in stock in our company. There was a quick second, and without further discussion, the proposition carried. It was the happiest moment of my life."
"I remember hearing my father, Morris Wilson, tell of the discouraging winters in the canyon when the crew had dropped to its lowest ebb. He hauled many a ton of wood to the ledges at Chinatown to burn on the gypsum and limestone rocks. This crazed the surface, making it possible to get their crowbars and wedges in so the rocks could be broken with sledgehammers. Of course, it was hard work, but work never meant a thing to them. . . My father and his father understood that without water, land is valueless. I know that nothing is more important than procuring water for the fertile acres of our valleys."
As you climb out of Chinatown, you will see the Chinatown Spike, a section of trail that allows you to take a closer look at the Chinatown plume. This is not a loop trial, you must turn around and come back when you reach the end. For the next part of the trail, pay close attention to path along the side of the canal. This is the ditch rider's path. Imagine riding a horse along this narrow trail. Imagine coming up here at night, trying to beat a coming storm.
Ditch Riders (at end of tunnel)
As you climb in and out of the canal, you will use a path carved by the ditch riders over many years of riding their horses back and forth along this trail. It is the graveled path to your right when you are in the canal. When you are walking on the edge of the canal, imagine riding a horse across this narrow path. Ditch riders were especially important before the advent of concrete because a small leak in the canal could weaken the whole structure and cause a washout. A ditch rider had to ride his or her horse up the trail at all hours of the day and night. A small shack was provided for any overnight trips. Logs were attached the sides of the trail in some places to convince the horses that the trail was wider so the horses would not spook.
In 1958, Frank Lee lost his life during ditch-riding accident. As he was pulling a log from the ditch, the log bounced and struck the horse in the legs, causing it to spook. Lee was thrown but managed to ride the horse back into town, where he died later of a punctured lung.
Frank's daughter, Dixie Lee, became the first female ditch rider after accompanying her father on many rides. She once patrolled the canal for three weeks straight and was the first female to be paid by the canal company.
"Every day that water flowed through the canal, a ditch rider rode the entire length on the canal, checking for leaks. He did more than just ride and watch. It was his job to see that the water came through so he repaired leaks by tromping rags, weeds, or cedar bark into any holes. The muddy water helped keep the canal sealed. Should a heavy storm come up, no matter how black the night, the rider had to depend on the surefootedness of his horse, and give him the reigns as he rode to the head of the canal to turn water out of the canal."
"When people first go up there, they're scared half to death. Same way with horses. Shoot! Horses that are used to it don't pay any attention to it. You can ride them on those worst places as fast as they can go. They're not afraid any more than the ditch riders. But the new ones, they don't like it, I'll tell you."
Midway through Anderson's Trail (where you can see Hurricane)
After 11 years of hard, back-breaking and sometimes heart-breaking work, the canal gate was lifted and water flowed onto the Hurricane Bench in 1904. The canal irrigated 2,000 acres of the Hurricane Bench. On that day, the town of Hurricane was named. The land had been divided by drawing lots in 1896. All shareholders drew lots; no favoritism was shown to the Canal Company officers. By 1906, eleven families had come to live in Hurricane. Today, Hurricane is a thriving community of roughly 6,000 residents. It is the largest city in Washington County in length. Underground pressurized water pipes now give the city its water; in 1985, the canal was used for the last time as a community water source. Residents of the area can tell stories about riding inner tubes down the canal and through the tunnels. The canal, once the very lifeblood of this community, is now used primarily for flood control.
"The city of Hurricane stands, her neat homes flanked with lawns and flowers, where once chaparral, greasewood and rabbit brush grew. There are orchards, vineyards, and hay fields. Here, nuts and fruits flourish, even semi-tropical figs, pomegranate and Chinese dates, convincing proof of the vision of those who built the canal and made the town."
At Hwy. 59 Trailhead Author Andrew Karl Larson describes his walk along the canal:
"I went alone so that I could take time for careful and unhurried observation. In my mind's eye, I saw the huddled camp among the rocks at Robbers' Roost in the lonely winter evenings after a day's work with pick and drill, shovel and wheelbarrow; I saw the surging flood of muddy water roar out of the Narrows, sweeping everything before it and destroying in minutes the days of laborious work that went into the dam; I saw these men beaten down but never broken; I saw lonely women at home, keeping the family together and doing their husbands' and sons' work. I saw a man on horseback going north to the railroad station with hope in his heart; I saw his return in thankfulness to give report that put joy into the souls of his tired brethren.
"I returned from the trip, as anyone must, with a profound respect and even reverence for the men and women - for it was equally their accomplishment - who built the structure on the steep slopes of the canyon wall."