1. Disaster on the Great Plains

TAKE THREE acts of God.

In the West the winter of 1886 clenched and loosened and clenched in blizzard and cold snap and January thaw, cold again, blizzard again. Sometimes after sundown the sky was the clear green of forty below, and sometimes wind reached down out of the north to whine across the flats. Snow moved before it, dry as sand, light as smoke, shifting in long ropy trails, and white coned against clumps of grass and the broken clods of fields, long cone and dark hollow formed in furrows and the ruts of wagon trails, and deeply, with edges like scimitars, around the corners of shacks and sod-dies. In some of the shacks, after five days, a week, two weeks, a month, of inhuman weather, homesteaders would be burning their benches and tables and weighing the chances of a desperate dash to town — lonely, half-crazed Swedes, Norwegians, Russians, Americans, pioneers of the sod-house frontier. Sometimes they owned a team, a cow, a few chickens; just as often they had nothing but a pair of hands, a willingness to borrow and lend, a tentative equity in 160 acres of Uncle Sam’s free soil, a shelf full or partly full or almost empty of dried apples, prunes, sardines, crackers, coffee, flour, potatoes, with occasionally a hoarded can of Copenhagen snus or a bag of sunflower seeds. More than one of them slept with his spuds to keep them from freezing. More than one, come spring, was found under his dirty blankets with his bearded grin pointed at the ceiling, or halfway between house and cowshed where the blizzard had caught him.

Still farther west, out on the dry plains, the short-grass country, there were few shacks, but ranch houses crouched in the shelter of the river-belting cottonwoods along the valleys of the Powder, the Belle Fourche, the Cheyenne, the Niobrara, the Republican and Solomon and Smoky Hill. The ranchers were warm enough, their stocks of wood and shaly lignite sufficient even for such a winter as this. In some of them, men whose names adorned Burke’s Peerage pigged-it between hunting trips with their Scottish or American managers.1 But out on the ranges where a single company might own three or four hundred thousand acres, and control as much more by owning its water or fencing in with its own land large chunks of the public domain, the cattle drifted, and where the snow was deep found nothing to eat, and where the brown grass was blown bare found the wind. With ice-coated backs humped to the wind they were pushed off the flats and into the bottoms and the drifts, or they were forced like logs in a sluggish current along the lines of fences until they packed together in the corners, unwilling to turn again into the wind that had driven them there. Riders going out when winter finally released the land found them by the hundreds uncovered by the thaws, longhorns or Oregon cattle, sometimes even whiteface and Angus from British breeding stock. They lay like carefully packed fish, their bellies bloated huge, mouths open, vents blown and distended as if poles had been run through them, stiff legs jutting from the swollen bodies like the wooden legs of toys. Flies were busy on the eyeballs, and the spring-revived carrion beetles were so thick sometimes in a carcass that it seemed to move.

The winter of 1886, the end of the big bonanza of the cattle industry, the point upon which the “cattle bubble” broke in London and Dundee and Aberdeen. British companies, taking advantage of the disaster to correct their inflated “book count” of cattle, reported as much as 65 per cent loss of their herds. Even an honest report would have shown a 15 to 30 per cent loss, enough to break some companies and weaken all but the strongest, both British and American. The cattle interests which had gone a good way toward engrossing the Great Plains were not precisely stopped in their tracks, but they were slowed down, their power and their will to fight for their privileges temporarily weakened. And not only the cattle interests but the nesters, squatters, pre-emptors, homesteaders who like young Hamlin Garland had hopefully planted their strad dlebug markers on quarter sections in the salubrious early years of the eighties, could take a warning. They began to comprehend how little stood between the Plains and the North Pole, and it began to be clear that neither their “improvements” nor their mortgages — the two things that all homesteaders had in common — could shelter them from the loneliness and the cold.2

The second act of God also began, on parts of the wheat frontier, in 1886. It too was a lesson in meteorology, but it did not come like a frantic, continued lashing from Heaven as the winter had. It was a slow starvation for water, and it lasted through 1887, 1888, 1889, into the eighteen-nineties. Homesteader hopes survived its first year; in fact, the speculative prices of land in eastern Dakota continued to spiral upward, and the rush to Indian Territory took place in the very heart of the dry years.3 By the second year the marginal settlers had begun to suffer and fall away; by the third the casualties were considerable. By the fourth it was clear to everybody that this was a disaster, a continuing disaster. What began in 1886 was a full decade of drouth, the cyclic drying-out that Powell had warned of in 1878. But since the late sixties increasing rainfall, with only one short drouth, had persuaded the westward-moving nation that settlement, sod busting, and tree planting modified the climate, evaporated more water into the air and milked the clouds down again as rain, made something out of nothing. A year’s drouth could not shake that belief, two would not seriously damage it, three or four would not by any means destroy it. Nevertheless the rumble of dissatisfaction and the clamor for help — government help — would begin early. Within a very few years it would become articulate in the Populist movement, and for a brief while radical agrarian politics and the economics of Henry George would bend the stubborn trend of American institutions. As stump-speaker and propagandist, busted-homesteader Hamlin Garland would help lead that last protest of the doomed Jeffersonian yeoman. But John Wesley Powell would have a better chance to do something practical about insuring the continued existence of the arid-belt farmer than any other man, and he would be angrily misunderstood and bitterly fought for his pains. Better than anyone else, he understood what was happening in the subhumid and arid lands, and he knew that not the railroads, for all their sins, nor the speculators and landlords, for all of theirs, nor the banks, for all of theirs, should be called the only villains. What was wrong was more basic: wet-weather institutions and practices were being imposed on a dry-weather country. But the settler did not generally understand that; what he wholly and completely comprehended was merely the result, the act of God, the human reality of drouth on the Plains.

There, a cabin had characteristically neither tree nor shrub nor grass.4 Standard practice demanded that the yard be made “mud-proof” and fireproof by throwing the soapy wash- and dishwater out religiously until the whitish earth glared like an alkali flát, which it was. As summer came on and the green of spring faded, Hamlin Garland says, “the sky began to scare us with its light.” 5 From that sky like hot metal the sun blazed down on bare flats, bare yard, bare boards, tar-paper roof. Anything metal blistered the hands, the inside of any shack was a suffocating oven, outside there was no tree or shade for miles. There was no escape: east, west, north, south, July, August, September, the sun burned into the brain, the barrenness and loneliness and ugliness ate at man and woman alike but at woman most. Three hundred and sixty degrees of horizon ringed them, the sky fitted the earth like a bell jar. They smothered under it, watching the delusive south or east where thun derheads formed and heat lightning flared in the evenings. For a while they could watch the rain-directions with hope. After one ruined crop, or two, or three, their watchfulness was a kind of cursing from a circle of Hell. The prairie sloughs that in the good years had grown tules and sheltered mallards and teal were dried up, the ducks gone somewhere else. Windmills brought up sand. Only the chinch bugs multiplied. And down from the unseen mountains to the west the air currents that made their climate poured across the powder-dry plains and dust rose up ahead of them a hundred, two hundred, four hundred feet high. Grim-faced leathery women, seeing the cloud coming, slammed down windows and shut doors, and the family gathered inside with the thin, exciting smell of dust in their nostrils and wordlessly listened to the wind and watched the small gray drifts grow on window sills, below the doors.

What could be wonderfully beautiful in June, green and half flooded with runoff ponds grassy to their edges, blooming with primroses, withered into an utter desert, shriveled and dried up and blew away with the hopes of its settlers, with the nasturtiums by the doorway, the dried tendrils of sweetpea clinging to the store-cording against the wall.

Rain, Cyrus Thomas had said in 1868, follows the plow. By now Thomas was one of Powell’s best archaeologists, an authority on the Ohio mounds and on the Maya codices. By 1888 he presumably regretted the opinion he had hazarded twenty years earlier on the strength of popular belief, local records, and the clear fact that since settlement the rainfall had increased and the streams had run larger. By 1888 he knew better. So, to their sorrow, did a good many others.

The third act of God was a sort of afterthought, as if to demonstrate that all human action is related, and that whatever men do to control their environment must be multiple and reciprocal, part of a related system, a link in what the philosophers call the infinite regressus of causes.

Twelve miles above the city of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Canal Company in 1852 had dammed the South Fork of the Conemaugh River to form a storage reservoir sixty or seventy feet deep and seven hundred acres in extent. On May 31, 1889, after weeks of steady rain, the dam let the first leak through. Within seconds it was melting away like sugar; within minutes, in one convulsive act, it emptied fifty thousand acre-feet of water into the valley below. Twenty feet of brown water surged over Johnstown and obliterated it. It obliterated eight surrounding villages, it swept up houses, barns, sheds, horses, cattle, chickens, people, and washed them headlong down the valley. Hundreds of people drowned in the first wall of the flood. Hundreds of others, clinging to bits of wreckage or desperately swimming, were driven against the timbers of the Pennsylvania Railroad bridge, and there by ones and twos they began to pull themselves to safety. Then the bridge caught fire and burned them to death in the midst of the waters.

The significance of the Johnstown flood was riot, though between two and three thousand people died, the horrible efficiency of God’s ill will, as if Ararat had erupted and engulfed the Ark. What was significant was that at Johnstown, as in the Jim River Valley or out on the Wyoming range, men found themselves at the mercy of natural forces just when they thought they had them most under control. The Johnstown flood was a footnote to the lesson the western drouth had taught or was teaching. Water was the key to life, particularly in the West; water from heaven could fail, and continue to fail for years on end; water from the earth or from the rivers, therefore, was the only recourse; but water from the rivers meant dams, and dams might mean impounded waters hanging in constant threat above other johnstowns.6 The problems of water were all related; what happened on the upper Missouri might affect Louisiana; saving farmers in the Dakotas might aid or injure barge owners in St. Louis. Moreover, water was not only a necessity of life: in proportion as it was essential it was a matter of rights and properties, and for the equitable handling of those interests there were virtually no laws.

Nobody loved a good chaos better than John Wesley Powell. If he had known nothing whatever of conditions in the West, had had no experience whatever with irrigation and the arid lands, he would have been tempted to try his hand at ordering this one. But he did know, and he had the experience — no one so much of it. The decline of cattle-company power, the drouth, the clamor for help, came like an inevitable fulfillment of his prophetic report on the arid region. He had amplified, but not changed, his notions of what might be done. When Big Bill Stewart of Nevada was returned to the Senate in 1887 on a platform of free silver and irrigation, he fitted the plot like a St. John the Baptist, saying, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord.”

Senator Stewart was one of many manifestations of change in the temper of Western Congressmen — or in the temper of the public which elected them. Not even a Congressman could by 1888 avoid the perception that the land laws as they were constituted worked not for the small settler but the land speculator and the large landlord, and that the “landlord system like that of Ireland” which they had prophesied if Powell’s Arid Region proposals went into effect was rapidly coming into being under the beneficent protection of the Homestead Act and the Desert Land Act. And few could avoid, by 1888, the uneasy guess that settlement had a little overreached itself in the subhumid eastern edge of the arid belt. It was there, where agriculture had been eminently possible in good years, and where the soil was probably better than anywhere in the entire United States, that the drouth hurt worst. The really arid country hadn’t lured many homesteaders, and those who had established themselves had generally done so by some homemade irrigation system. But the subhumid belt had thought itself above irrigation; its public representatives had always blown fuses when it was hinted that their territories did not bask in God’s smile. They were less inclined to blow fuses now, and more inclined to hunt out dependable sources of water to supplement the gentle rain from Heaven.

Early in the 50th Congress the new temper was strong enough and united enough to pass through both houses a drastic bill repealing the Desert Land Act, the Timber Culture Act, and the Pre-Emption Act — a repeal which if it had actually become law would have prepared a wholesale reconstruction of the land laws. It did not become law because it failed in conference committee. But , another sprout from the same seed sprang up at once. On February 13, 1888, a Senate Resolution asked the Secretary of the Interior to report on whether or not he thought the Geological Survey should be asked to survey and segregate irrigable lands and reservoir and canal sites in the arid regions. That resolution, the work of Senator Stewart, Senator Teller of Colorado, and others of the “irrigation clique,” was passed on immediately by Secretary Vilas to Major Powell and to the Acting Commissioner of the Land Office, S. M. Stockslager. Mr. Stockslager was “unable to see any urgent necessity” for such a survey. But Major Powell, confronted with an opportunity for which he had waited a full decade, rose to the Secretary’s letter like a starving cat to a sardine.7The conclusions of his Arid Region had not been changed but only aggravated by ten years of settlement. The smaller streams were no longer a consideration, because by now they were mainly utilized; if action had been taken ten years ago much wasteful development could have been prevented. Now the only course was to concentrate on the larger streams, on reservoirs and storm-water basins, because “utilization of the large streams by owners of small tracts must wait until large numbers of the holders of small tracts can be induced to settle simultaneously... and be further induced to engage in the corporate or co-operative enterprise necessary to construct great headworks and canals.” On those larger streams, in other words, his co-operative irrigation districts were still possible; a survey could still be made ahead of any extensive settlement, to avoid complication by squatters’ rights and vested interests. And while it was true that the longer such a survey was held off the more knowledge could be brought to bear on it, the conflict with vested rights would grow more serious with every year’s delay. The sooner the irrigable lands could be surveyed, therefore, the better. And there were additional reasons for a survey beyond the central and urgent one of irrigation. One was the effect on flood conditions in the lower courses of the great rivers. To take water out for irrigation above, on the headwaters, meant lessened floodcrests and reduced quantities of debris to jam the lower reaches. “For every acre reclaimed to agriculture in Montana another acre will be reclaimed in Louisiana.” The urgency of the need was only increased by the difficulties: to relate the problems of water along great river systems raised tough problems of federal and state and individual rights, whole nightmares of inadequate and contradictory law. But the longer those problems remained unsolved, the less chance there was of solving them.8

From the very first moment when the opportunity opened, Major Powell thought of it as far more than an opportunity to bring water to the burned-out farmers of the subhumid belt or the future farmers of the arid regions. He thought of it as part of the “general plan” he had fought for in 1878, and that general plan was even wider now than it had been then. It had begun to incorporate whole river systems, the greatest on the continent. If he did not at first offer to organize the human control of the Missouri-Mississippi or the Colorado or the Rio Grande, such control was implicit in his thinking from the very first, the plan was there, and it was a complex and inclusive one whose parts fitted together and whose engineering was so vast that only the massive machinery of the nation could undertake it.

He had a plan ready, and he presented it before Senate Committees and in close huddles with Stewart and the irrigation clique. Within a month they had pushed through both houses a Joint Resolution calling upon the Secretary of the Interior to examine “that portion of the United States where agriculture is carried on by means of irrigation, as to the natural advantages for the storage of water for irrigation purposes with the practicability of constructing reservoirs, together with the capacity of streams, and the cost of construction and the capacity of reservoirs and such other facts as bear on the question.” 9

Anyone pondering that resolution might well have been appalled not merely at how much it asked for but by the uncertainties buried in its phrasing. Where was “that portion of the United States where agriculture is carried on by means of irrigation”? In the opinion of most competent people, including Powell, it was roughly the whole country west of the 100th meridian. But the worst hardship from the continuing drouth was in the strip between the 97th and 101st meridians, the subhumid belt where heretofore agriculture had not needed irrigation. The arid Far West was still largely public domain, a fact which raised the whole question of the survey’s purpose. Was it to provide for each homestead in the still-open lands a guaranteed water right, and if so, how far should government benevolence extend? If the government surveyed and reserved reservoir sites and canal rights of way, was the government thereby, compelled to the construction of dams and the distribution of water? And if government did not, who would? And would private corporations or co-operatives be bound by the government’s surveys? Suppose they wanted to put a dam on a non-designated site? Did a mere joint resolution give anyone authority to compel them otherwise? Also, what might be the relationship of this irrigation survey with the General Land Office? And was it to be used merely for the information of legislators faced with the need of land-law revision, or was it a preliminary move toward government paternalism in what remained of the public domain?

To anyone easily appalled, the foreseeable future of legislation at once so sweeping and so ambiguous might have looked about as inviting as a snarl of barbed wire. Powell was not appalled in the least. Always one to take the utmost authority granted him by law, he now assumed the arid region to lie beyond the isohyetal line of twenty inches. This gave the Irrigation Survey authorized by the Joint Resolution two fifths of the United States to play in. He was quite aware of how the problem ramified, and knew that to do the things the Joint Resolution called for he would have to make a topographic survey, a hydrographic survey, and a preliminary engineering survey of millions of square miles. Yet he could still stand before committees and say he could finish the whole job in six or seven years if they gave him the appropriations. At first he thought it could be done for $5,500,000; later he raised his estimate to $7,000- 000.10 At only one point did caution enter. When Stewart and Teller, flushed with success, urged him to ask for a half million the first year, Powell demurred. There were not enough trained men available to make use of so large an appropriation.

And anyway Stewart and Teller and their helpers could not generate quite as much enthusiasm in Congress at large as they felt themselves. It took a considerable amount of finagling to get even a modest appropriation the first year, and that was gained by a method fairly familiar to Powell by this time. A rider was attached to the Sundry Civil Bill, over the protests of the Appropriations Committee, and by that means the Public Lands Committee was by-passed as Powell and Hewitt had by-passed it in 1879. When the Sundry Civil Bill came before the House, Representative George Symes of Colorado, sensitive to the anger of his constituents against land speculators, inserted an amendment that withdrew from settlement “all lands made susceptible of irrigation” by the reservoirs and canals which the survey would locate. The effect of this amendment was sweeping; it suspended all existing land laws for the irrigable lands. The worries that had led the conference committee to bury just that sort of repeal earlier in the session rose again. Great stretches of the best public land remaining would be reserved, settlers would be kept out, growth might be retarded, votes might be lost. All the forward-leaning disequilibrium of advance, progress, boom, growth, might be endangered. Symes himself began to waver, seeing what he had done. But there were so many members of Congress determined to end land grabbing that Symes was unable to withdraw his amendment though he wanted to. Finally Stewart and others in the Senate worked out a compromise. By another amendment the President was authorized to restore at his discretion, for settlement under the Homestead Act alone, any of the reserved lands.

The fears of free-land advocates were thus allayed, and the danger of speculation on the basis of the surveys apparently checked. On October 2, 1888 — a date that would be bitterly remembered — the Sundry Civil Bill went through with an appropriation of $100,000, and Powell had under his direction not only the Geological Survey and the Bureau of Ethnology and much co-operative work for the state surveys, but an Irrigation Survey more explosive in its social and political implications than all his other work combined.11

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