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Ditch masters

By on October 25, 2020 in Columnist with 0 Comments

Shotwell brothers often called upon to bring water to thirsty orchards

Rod Molzahn

By Rod Molzahn

Mike Horan described the Wenatchee Valley of 1889 in a 1906 Christmas Edition of the Republic newspaper. “To begin with, there was all the sunshine you could use, lots of land that was worthless, plenty of water with no way to get it to the land, and no money … While all of us knew that the place ought to be alright, there seemed no way to make it so.”

The Shotwell brothers, Jake, Joe and Harvey were determined to get water to the land and make it “alright.” Irrigation was the answer and ditches were the means to make it happen. 

Irrigation ditches came in all sizes and lengths from less than a mile to the Highline Canal at 16 miles. Some were the work of an individual farmer built to water their fields and no more. Most were built by groups of neighboring farmers using their own dollars and labor to serve up to five or more homesteads. No public funds were used to construct any of the ditches in the Wenatchee Valley.

Small ditches were often no more than a trench hand dug with pick, shovel and muscle power. Larger projects made use of horse drawn scrapers and plows. There was no power equipment or electricity. 

Water couldn’t be pumped from the rivers so the systems had to be gravity powered. A civil engineer was often needed to determine how far up a stream the water needed to be diverted to provide a downhill route to the river level farms at the end of the ditch. 

If the ditch had to cross gullies and canyons or skirt around a rock face, as was often the case, wooden flumes were built to pass water over and around obstacles. On rare occasions piping was used in place of a ditch, though that was expensive.

The Shotwell brothers were involved in the construction of several irrigation ditches in the upper Wenatchee Valley. 

Harvey Shotwell was superintendent, engineer and surveyor for the construction of the 12-mile long Peshastin ditch that took 12 years, 1889 -1901, to build. 

The ditch takes water from the south bank of Peshastin Creek, two miles above its mouth. It irrigates farms down the south side of the Cashmere Valley. The ditch and flume system was constructed by farmers served by the ditch. They got shares in the ditch in exchange for their labor. 

In 1891, Jake Shotwell homesteaded 160 acres on the north bank of the Wenatchee River just below Brown’s Flat (Monitor). That same year he began construction of a ditch from the Wenatchee River to his land. 

Wendall Stevens, who owned a mercantile store on Miller Street in “Old Town” Wenatchee, had a ranch below Shotwell’s and prevailed on Jake to extend his ditch to the Stevens’ land. 

A deal was struck when Stevens agreed to provide food for the construction crew throughout the project. With well-fed workers, the ditch was completed by the end of 1891, delivering water to both ranches.

Jake had a lot of water available, much more than was needed for his and Stevens’ lands. 

After preliminary surveys done by Jake’s brother, Harvey, it was clear that the ditch could be extended to bring water to all of Burch Flat, below Ohme Gardens and, with a pipe on a trestle bridge across the Wenatchee River, water could also be delivered to the north end of the Wenatchee Flat. It was also clear to Jake that he couldn’t afford to do that by himself. 

Jake presented his plan to real estate developer, Arthur Gunn, who owned much of the Burch Flat land. 

Gunn was impressed and very interested in increasing the value of his land. He presented the plan to J.J. Hill and the Great Northern Railroad. Hill also liked the plan and agreed to provide financing for the project. What was good for the town was good for the Great Northern. 

The Gunn Ditch to Burch Flat and the pipeline across the Wenatchee River were delivering water by 1898. A year later 5- and 10-acre tracts with water rights were selling for $140 per acre. Everyone was happy.

In 1895, Jake Shotwell bought 320 acres of excellent land on the north side of the Wenatchee River between Cashmere and Monitor called Warner Flat. With a southern exposure and a gentle slope to the river it was prime agricultural land if it could be irrigated. Without water it was not worth much. Jake had a plan.

He divided the land into 20-acre parcels and sold them in exchange for the buyer’s labor on the biggest ditch yet in the Valley. 

Jake’s brother, Harvey Shotwell, did the surveys for the proposed canal. It ran from a headgate on the north (left) bank of the Wenatchee River a quarter mile west of Dryden to just above Monitor. It was a sizable undertaking. 

The men began with enthusiasm. The work broke their shovels, picks and plows but not their spirit. They reached Cashmere before losing the will to go on. 

Ben Chapman, one of the 20-acre men, summed it up. “What broke our backs was the hill opposite to Cashmere. To build a flume around that mountain, or tunnel through it would have taken a lot of money which we did not have.” 

The work stopped and the ditch went unused for nearly two years until M.O. Tibbets arrived on the scene. 

Tibbets purchased several tracts of land of considerable size on the north side of the Wenatchee River above Cashmere. He acquired, from Jake Shotwell, the rights to the ditch including the out-take at Dryden to its end at Cashmere where he rerouted it to his newly purchased acreage. 

With that water, Tibbets developed fine orchards and pastures. 

Jake Shotwell had to wait several years before an opportunity came for him to profit from his 320-acres on Warner Flat. 

In 1899, Alonzo Collins Jones, soon to be Cashmere’s first mayor, bought a small orchard in the midst of what would grow to be Cashmere. He saw quickly that Mission Creek would not supply enough water for his trees. “What water we had came from Mission Creek, which had a habit of leaving our ditches dry when the need of water was most urgent.”

Jones knew he needed help and went to propose the plan to Joseph Shotwell, brother to Jake and Harvey and uncle to Jake’s son Harry. 

Joe Shotwell had settled in the Cashmere area in the late 1880s and had some of brother Jake’s land on Warner Flat. Joe Shotwell borrowed surveying equipment from his brother, Harvey, and A.C. Jones did the survey and drew plans for the ditch. The out-take was one mile above Cashmere and the ditch, as planned, would be a short, easy one-and-a-half miles long. 

They hadn’t gone far when they were approached by a contingent of farmers from the Monitor area. Their orchards were growing larger, their trees were getting bigger and their water needs were growing with them. 

They wanted Jones and Shotwell to extend the ditch by 5.5 miles to their ranches. That added distance was over difficult terrain needing expensive flume work. The Monitor men swung the deal when they offered to provide labor and financing for the extension. 

The work began in earnest. Water was delivered to Cashmere lands on June 7, 1902. By the spring of 1903 the seven-mile ditch serving 700 acres reached Monitor.

During the same years that the Jones/Shotwell ditch was built, the Highline Canal was also constructed. It used the same out-take near Dryden that Harvey Shotwell had found and followed the same route surveyed by Harvey for brother Jake’s 320 acres on Warner Flat.

Historian, actor and teacher Rod Molzahn can be reached at shake.speak@nwi.net. His third history CD, Legends & Legacies Vol. III – Stories of Wenatchee and North Central Washington, is now available at the Wenatchee Valley Museum and Cultural Center and at other locations throughout the area.

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