Thursday, June 6, 2013

An Early Kansas Irrigation Plan

It was the Fall of 1882 and things were dry in SW Kansas.  Two brothers came up from Spearville with a plan to irrigate BIG from the Arkansas River in Gray County.  They dreamed of a large irrigation canal and a series of peripherals that could water quite a stretch of land.  They surely had ideas, but what they lacked was capital.  For the funding, they turned to a millionaire acquaintance from their erstwhile home town of Rochester, NY - one Asa Soule.

Mr Soule was known as the Hops Bitter King who had made his fortune selling a patented syrup made from bitters, hops and alcohol that was guaranteed to cure whatever ailed you.  He was also a man who wanted to grow his fortune, so he moved to Gray County and invested heavily into the brothers' plans, as well as land and city lots. 

The main canal of the Eureka Irrigation Canal Company was 96 miles long and was dug along the North side of the Ark River through both Gray and Ford Counties.  The workers on his canals were mostly farmers working while not farming.  It took two years to complete it, but unfortunately, the project hit major snags upon its completion - including flood damage to the diversion dam, very leaky soils and very undependable river flows.

The whole undertaking was soon known as Soule's Folly, but he managed to sell it to foreign investors.  Over the ensuing years the canal changed hands a number of times but never became a profitable venture. It did, however help lure many settlers into the region on the expectation of irrigation water - most of whom managed to stay on.  It also set the mindset for surface water irrigation that would persist for a long time - at least until groundwater was developed. Vestiges of the canals can still be seen if you know where to look.

Irrigation in SW Kansas today is strongly groundwater based.  For a good look, visit the Southwest Kansas Groundwater Management District No. 3.


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