At Long Last, Yelm Gets Its Ditch – Each Property Owner Did His Bit
By Prescott, Edgar. Nisqually Valley News, Janaury 26, 1989
After fumbling through a drawer in his desk, James Mosman handed me a sheaf of papers. “I have written a report of the construction of the irrigation canal,” he said. “I’m the only remaining member of the original company. I didn’t want the story to get lost.”
The report read as follows: “The Yelm Irrigation District is comprised of some 6,000 acres of comparatively level land of which about 4,300 acres are easily irrigable. The land is of glacial formation and therefore gravelly in texture. The topsoil is black and from one half to three feet in depth. In 1910 a few of the landowners conceived the idea that irrigation of this land would greatly increase its yield and thus provide home for many more families.
“Five of us made a trip to look over an irrigation system which was serving a similar formation; and we employed L. M. Rice of L. M. Rice and Co., Engineers, Seattle, to go over the land and advise us as to the feasibility of irrigation. Before we realized, we had contracted a $4,000 engineering bill.
“The engineers recommended the construction of a main canal, eleven and a fourth miles long, three and one half feet bottom width, one to one and a half feet slope, five feet deep with an average grade of two feet to the mile – sufficient to deliver 50 section feet of water. They estimated the cost at $76,000, which was about $40,000 more than we had anticipated.
“We called a meeting of land owners, but only a few of them were willing to organize into an irrigation company. The rest of us went ahead. We issued stock in proportion to the number of acres each stockholder owned. Then we drew up a water contract and endeavored to get owners of prairie land to agree to take water from the company when the system was completed. Some 3,300 acres were place under contract, and the company endeavored to finance itself by issuing bonds against these contracts.
“We filed for water at a point on the Nisqually River, Section twenty, Township sixteen North, Range three East; but when the engineers arrived, they found that the level at the point was the same as that of the point of delivery to the land. The next day we went up river to a small clearing known as the Frank Hendrick’s place and filed again for 400 second feet of water. This time the levels showed an elevation of some 28 feet above the delivery point.
“After the engineers had located the ditch line, we endeavored to secure the necessary rights-of-way. These we acquired only after months of litigation and cost already due for survey, we met by assessments levied against stockholders.
“We employed another engineering company to stake the line by stations and determine the exact yardage to be excavated. The service cost us another $1,000. We then prepared a prospectus and presented copies to several contracting firms for bids.
“A wooden pipe company of Ballard became interested. They suggested that we use wooden pipe for the full length of the ditch and estimated the cost at $83,000. They tentatively agreed to accept $110,000 worth of our bonds at a discount of 15 percent plus 7 percent interest; but when we sent a representative to Seattle to complete the deal, the attorney turned it down. The bonds were secured only by water contracts, he said and these were not valid until water was delivered to the land.
“Finally we met at the home of L. M. Rice and discussed the feasibility of doing work ourselves. We knew the yardage to be excavated for each station. Each of us, we decided, would clear the right-of-way and excavate a length of ditch in proportion to the number of acres he had under contract with the company. That evening we drew lots for positions. The Salsich Lumber Co. of McKenna agreed to furnish lumber for the construction of flumes.
“Most of us were established in our campus by March 12, 1912. Clearing the right-of-way progressed satisfactorily, but excavation proved to be a problem. The land was rocky and difficult to work. The cost of labor was a steady drain on the pocketbooks of those of us who had to pay. Men got sick: horses died. General discouragement set in, and before long we concluded that some better way had to be found to remove the dirt.
“We considered hiring a steam shovel and we contacted several companies, but without exception their answers were the same: The ditch was too narrow. It would have to be enlarged to allow the machine to operate in the bottom. This would mean that the yardage to be removed would be increased several times, and the cost would become prohibitive. “We discussed buying our shovel, but a majority of company members rejected the plan. As a result the more stubborn of us organized the Yelm Construction Co. We purchased and 18 ton five eighth dipper Bucyrus Shovel at a cost of $4,500. It arrived in Yelm on Oct. 13, 1912.
“We put Chester Thompson in charge and allowed him to select his own crew. He established camp about a fourth of a mile up the right-of-way, and on the first of November he started work. Day after day the shovel crawled up the ditch on rails that had to be moved ahead at each setting. Two years passed before it reached the point of intake. Then on the day Thompson was to cut into the river, the Stone Webster people filed an injunction, and work stopped until sanctions were removed.
“Then began the job of puddling. This proved to be a long and costly process. A considerable distance of ditch was located on the side of a canyon where the formation was very porous. At one point, just about the Bolt camp, this was particularly true. When the shovel crew cut the ditch, workers reported that wind came through the bottom and sides strong enough to lift their hats.
“By damming the ditch we maintained enough water to float a scow which we built from flume lumber. This we loaded with dirt and sand which we spread on the sides and bottom of the ditch. The water finally flushed through.
“Lower down we encountered the same problem. The last nine miles through the prairie were a constant fight. We tried everything – scows loaded with sand and dirt, centrifugal pumps washing the upper bands to get dirt where it was needed, horses dragging fir trees down the ditch. When we got to Longmire meadow, it looked as though we had gone as far as we were going to get. This stretch, about a fourth of a mile, was on the north side of a gravelly hog back which separated the two Longmire meadows. The water that got that far spread out into a lake.
“There was no puddling material except at the east end of this part of the ditch, and there was no road to get a team and wagon to it. We managed to get a wagon to the top of the upper cut. There we disassembled it and lowered it, piece by piece, into the ditch where it was assembled and pulled by and horse along the ditch bottom to a place where dirt was available. Again we disassemble the wagon and turned it around before loading. By repeating this process for days we eventually lined the sides and bottom of the ditch to the point that it would carry water. After months of this kind of work, we shut off the water and the crew went over the entire ditch, repairing all the weak places.
“That winter the river flooded two feet over the intake, filling three hundred feet of the ditch with silt and gravel. Upper sides of cuts washed down. Side hills slipped and took sections of the new flumes with them.
“The prairie had water, but no laterals to distribute it, and the construction company was financially exhausted. The Selsich Lumber Co. about that time disposed of its holding to the McKenna Lumber Co., which was persuaded to give aid in the amount of $22,000 to be used to build the three main laterals and most of the sub-laterals.
“On June 16, 1916, the Yelm Irrigation Co. officially opened the ditch with about 25 second feet to distribute over the lands, celebrating the event with a large picnic. In 1917 the company asked the property holders on the prairie to form an irrigation district and take over its holdings. After six years of discouragement and hard work and the sealing of lasting friendships of men and women who had worked together to accomplish what we believed would be a benefit to many people, the company was dissolved.”
For several years celebration were held on the anniversary of the opening of the ditch. The second annual picnic, June 20, 1917, ended in near tragedy. The Tacoma Tribune of July 1, 1917, carried the story: “Collapsing on a steep hill side, a broken main flume nearby spoiled the Yelm prairie people’s second annual celebration of the opening of their extensive irrigation development Friday, but with the energy that has characterized the seven-year fight to overcome a handicap imposed by nature, Yelm men worked 15 hours to repair their break. At 4:40 o’clock Friday morning they went home confident that when the anniversary picnic was gathered in Rice’s grove, water would be flowing through a previously dry canal. “At 11:30 as the crowd assembled, the ditch began to fill, and in an hour a fine big flow was running down the lateral past the picnic ground, gaining speed and carrying the message of Yelm’s labor to the hitherto more or less unproductive soil. When the ditch was completed last year, water could not be run through it in time for the first picnic, and the men of the vicinity worked with more than ordinary vim that the second picnic might not be marred by a dry ditch.
“While an Indian flume walker was making his daily trip, he heard the timbers cracking under him, and he jumped. As he did so 120 feet of the flume broke away and rolled down the steep slope, softened into a slide by heavy rains. It was just after dinner Thursday that the Yelm men began work under exceptional difficulties. The big flume was in splinters, and had to be rebuilt upon timbers weighing as much as a ton. But just as the Yelm farmers have determined to develop their dry, porous’ prairies soil by irrigation, they determined to complete the flume before the next day, and with the aid of lanterns through the night they did it.”
“I had fried 10 chickens for the picnic the next day,” Mrs. Mosman said, “Jim came home about midnight and took them all to feed the workers on the flume.”
But the crowd did not go hungry. The newspaper account continued: “Seventy-two fried chickens, eighty cakes, a hundred pounds of pressed ham, seventy-five pounds of wieners, and ninety of the finest, juiciest pies that ever came out of an oven fell under the crowd’s ravenous assault.
“After the dinner, the crowd took seats in the grove for the program of addresses and songs. J.P. Martin, president of Yelm Commercial Club and also president of the Yelm Irrigation Co., welcomed the picnickers with thanks for the sacrifice they had made to attend.”
The last of the picnics was held July 21, 1929, at the time when the blackcap berries were at their best. The Nisqually Valley News carried the following report:
“The Yelm Ditch picnic held last Sunday at Goldsmith’s Grove was one of the most successful affairs ever staged locally. The crowd began to gather early in the day and continued until afternoon. “The morning program of races was supervised by Ray Norton and his helpers. Prizes of cash and merchandise were awarded the winners, and both young and old seemed to enjoy themselves.
“The attempt to feed the crowd resulted in considerable confusion. It looked for a while as though it might not be possible to take care of everybody, but more help was summoned, and the crowd was kept moving. Everybody was fed; and what a feed it was! Floyd Rice had the meat cooked perfectly. The crew of cooks under Mrs. James L. Mosman had the berries with cream and sugar, and the coffee and beans all ready; and the people sure did go for those blackcap berries. Most of them had never realized how delicious blackcaps could be, and when they tasted them, they simply went wild. Many made arrangement to have a crate or two delivered before they left the grounds.”
The article also commented that State Highway Patrolmen Koffel and Cole were on the job all day and handled the crowd of 1,200 cars and 3,500 people very nicely. A further indication of civic pride is quoted from the same article:
“Elory Chapman, and Olympia businessman attending the picnic, made the statement in Olympia the next day that Yelm was the liveliest community in the county, and the only one that was really doing things in a big way. Mr. Chapman claims that Olympia should build a road to Yelm at once. It is the only district with a future.”
James Mosman smiled sadly. “I reckon you might say that since then things haven’t been so good.”