Indians long inhabited the region of the Bitterroot Valley using the plant which is now Montana’s state flower, and for which the valley is named, as an article of food. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark encountered the region’s Indians, who they named Flatheads, when their exploration brought them into the Bitter Root Valley in 1805.
After Lewis and Clark’s expedition hunters and trappers began increasingly passing through the region, and in 1835 a group of Canadian voyagers from the Hudson Bay Fur Company entered the valley in the hopes of establishing trade with the Indians and extending the fur company’s power. These trappers and traders exposed the Flatheads to the Christian religion.
In 1839 a delegation of Flathead Indians, headed by a Frenchman named Ignace LaMousse, went to St. Louis, Missouri with the intention of bringing a priest back to their homelands. Thus, in 1840 the group headed toward Montana with Father Pierre Jean DeSmet, who had agreed to go with them. However, upon reaching the Gallatin Valley in Montana, Father DeSmet decided that for his mission to be successful he would need help, therefore he went back to St. Louis for assistance. He arrived in the region of the Bitter Root Valley in 1841 with Father Pointa, Father Mengarine, carts, wagons, seeds, horses, mules, oxen, and some small tools. That fall the Flatheads assisted the priests in establishing the first white settlement in the region, helping to build the St. Mary’s Mission, which included houses, shops and a chapel. Construction of this Mission also established the town of Stevensville.
The spring of 1842 saw the priests’ first attempts at farming in the region. They planted crops of oats, wheat, and potatoes. That same year the Hudson Bay Company brought the first cows to the region from their post at Fort Coleville, Oregon. Soon after, the region’s population grew as other settlers entered the valley.
Saw and gristmills were built nearby the Mission. The burs for the gristmills were transported from Belgium around Cape Horn to the Columbia River, and then brought by riverboat and then wagon to the Bitter Root Valley. With these burs came Father Ravalli, after whom, years later in 1893, Ravalli County was named.
In 1850 Major John Owens bought St. Mary’s Mission and all its improvements for $250. Owens then built a substantial fort of sun-dried bricks within which he ran a trading post, which supplied Indians and settlers. This fort also supplied the nucleus around which the region’s population continued to grow. Settlers not only went to the fort to get supplies, but also to seek protection from attacks by the Blackfoot Indians. As the population grew, so did the region’s need for agricultural development. As time passed trappers and hunters became traders who lived by trading with the immigrant trains heading to Oregon.
A few more years passed, and the valley’s agricultural demands continued to increase with the establishment of nearby mining communities, which sprang up shortly after the discovery of silver and gold in western Montana in the 1860s. Additionally, construction camps for the workers building the Northern Pacific Railway also provided a market for food grown in the Bitter Root Valley.
It was during this era of growth that small works in the valley irrigated the area’s staple crops, which were the same crops established years before by the priests at St. Mary’s Mission. Father DeSmet had predicted that the valley would someday be heavily settled, and that irrigation would not be a problem because of the regions numerous rivulets and streams.
Marcus Daly, a very wealthy copper king, arrived in the Bitter Root Valley in 1887. He acquired an extensive estate, built a magnificent mansion, and founded the town of Hamilton, which was named after his employee, James Hamilton, who surveyed the first plats. His arrival marked the expansion of irrigation activities in the valley. He enlarged and expanded the already existing Hedge Irrigation Ditch, and bought the Republican Irrigation Ditch. He also built a canal from the Bitterroot River to lands near Hamilton, reclaiming thousands of acres of bench land on the west side of the valley. He developed plans to extend the irrigation system to the east side of the valley as well. However, his death on November 12, 1900, halted these plans.
The same year as Daly’s death, another man became involved with irrigation in the valley. Samuel Dinsmore succeeded in establishing an irrigation company known as the Dinsmore Irrigation Company, for which he provided aid with his own money for options and surveys. He hired H.S. Lord to survey the area on which he planned to build the Dinsmore Canal. This canal was to be taken out of the Bitterroot River’s west fork, on the west bank fourteen miles above Darby, Montana. His plan was to run the canal twenty-two miles along the west side of the Bitterroot River. Here the plans called for the construction of a 4,800-foot pipeline to meet a point just north of Harland Creek. In later years this point proved to be directly opposite the Lake Como Reservoir site, however, Dinsmore’s plans did not include a storage reservoir at that time.
After six years of planning and surveys, Dinsmore’s finances ran low. He traveled to Chicago attempting to attract eastern capital. In 1906, he interested several wealthy men in his irrigation project. These men invested their own money in the irrigation project, which revitalized the work on the canal system. The company’s capital increased to $3,000,000, and Dinsmore changed the name to the Bitterroot District Irrigation Company. W.I. Moody, one of Dinsmore’s investors, conceived the idea of storing water in Lake Como. Thus, it was 1906 before that feature was added to the project’s development plan.
However, throughout 1907 and 1908, problems with the project’s construction continually plagued the company. In 1908, a receiver’s sale took place. The Assets Realty Company, which was comprised of bondholders, bid on the property for $50,000 plus attached liabilities of $512,000. The bondholders then needed to secure the cooperation of the valley’s citizens in order to gain control of the property.
To this end, the Bitter Root Valley Irrigation Company was organized; work on the project’s main canal continued. Under this company, by 1909, 56 miles of canal had been built, the dam to help store water in Lake Como saw significant construction, and the company sold 15,000 acres of land in anticipation of the project’s completion. By 1910, the canal was 80 miles long, and all the bench lands between Missoula and Stevensville, Montana had been reclaimed.
Lake Como Reservoir was formed by placing a dam across the outlet of the natural lake. The dam consisted of a 2,500 foot long earthen embankment. Its maximum height was 65 feet above the original creek bed and 50 feet above the original lake level. At the dam’s north-end, they placed a 75-foot wide, 11 foot deep, reinforced steel concrete spillway. The spillway’s original capacity totaled 2,400 cubic feet per second with an emergency capacity of 8,400 cfs. Upon completion of the dam, the company had invested a total of more than $6,000,000 in this irrigation project.
From the very beginning, the project’s developers knew that the key to their success was an ample water supply. This they found in Lake Como, which is fed by Rock Creek, which in turn is fed by the large snow packs from the high mountain country. They believed control of the waters of Lake Como would assure their irrigation project of success. The company planned to release 700 cfs of water from Lake Como Reservoir into Rock Creek and divert it at Rock Creek Diversion Dam (a rock-filled wooden structure constructed across the creek) into the Main Canal one mile below the reservoir.
The canal passed through steep mountain slopes, over the 4,000 foot wide Sleeping Child Canyon, to continue on and pass over creeks, gulleys, ravines, deep gulches, and pass through rocky cliffs. This rough terrain required several wooden flumes and siphons to move the water through the canal to its destination.
However, even at the start of its operations, the irrigation system experienced breaks in the canal and extensive seepage. Initially, total water loss from leakage, seepage, and evaporation was upwards of twenty-five percent. Despite this high rate of water loss, however, the water that did reach the bench lands, rapidly increasing the agricultural development in the Bitter Root Valley.
Thousands of acres of newly irrigable land were purchased by newcomers. These newly settled lands became the subdivisions of East Side Addition, Hamilton Heights, Home Acres, Mountain View Orchards, Summer Dale, Thousand Acres, and University Heights. Each of these divisions saw the construction of golf courses and large inns. Additionally, many of these divisions planted acres of McIntosh Apple orchards.
Intense advertising was done to attract even more people to these lands occurred, boasting that land selling from $200 to $300 per acre could earn net returns of $5,000 for each ten-acre plot. The Bitter Root Valley Irrigation Company even offered a development plan for undeveloped lands. This plan consisted of a buyer paying $300 per acre for land and having the company care for an orchard on that land for five years, after which the company represented the land as being self-supporting. At that point, the buyer could either settle on the land or have the company continue to care for the orchard for an agreed upon price. After this development, the land was considered to be worth $500 per acre.
However, even the sale of project land to growing numbers of settlers could not keep the Bitter Root Valley Irrigation Company out of financial trouble. On January 3, 1916, the company filed for bankruptcy. Although the actual legal litigation in the bankruptcy case took several years, the demand for farm products brought on by World War I made continual operation of the irrigation project necessary. As a result, from 1916 to 1920 the landowners, under court jurisdiction, operated the project.
When litigation proceedings finally came to an end, the original investors lost close to $4,500,000, and the project was sold to other private interests. These new private interests organized the Ravalli Water Company, and petitioned the court for the creation of an irrigation district.
The company’s original petition, dated January 7, 1920, included the signatures of 594 landowners representing 17,389 acres of land. In the end, however, this company too was unable to meet the project’s financial obligations. It was then that the farmers themselves took over the project.
In December of 1920, the Bitter Root Irrigation District formed as a municipal corporation under Montana law. When the district organized, it consisted of 25,067 acres, of which 18,240 acres were irrigable lands. However, this was deemed too much land, and the district was reduced to 16,665 acres.
A $600,000 bond issue was sold during the years 1923-1924 under state irrigation law. The district used proceeds of the bond issue to make payment for the canal system and reconstruction of the project works. The reconstruction work on the system involved adding concrete, installing steel pipes, and replacing about half of the project’s wooden flumes with earth fills.
Additionally, they repaired all remaining flumes. At all pipelines, they placed reinforced concrete intakes, and constructed a modern spillway at Como Dam. They also constructed concrete waste ways and siphons at the East Side Crossing and placed new concrete and steel turnouts for the Main Canal. Finally, they overhauled the original lateral system which consisted of just over 77 miles of unlined laterals.