April/may 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 3
The Photographic Record of a Western Success Story
The river has its source on the western slopes of the continental divide in Yellowstone National Park, flows south through Grand Teton National Park, curves west in a long arc through southern Idaho, then turns north and west for its meeting with the Columbia River, 1,038 miles from its beginnings. The land along its southern arc is called the Snake River Plains, and at the southernmost point of the arc there is a place called the Magic Valley—unsurprisingly, for a kind of magic was done there more than seventy-five years ago.
Magic was needed. The Snake River Plains—arid, treeless, clotted with sagebrush—once was one of the most desolate spots on earth, a stretch that overlanders on their way to California and Oregon in the 1840’s and 1850’s crossed just as fast as tired feet and lame oxen would take them. “It is a land where no man permanently resides,” Washington Irving wrote in 1837, “a vast, uninhabited solitude, with precipitous cliffs and yawning ravines, looking like the ruins of a world; vast desert tracts that must ever defy cultivation and interpose dreary and thirsty wilds between the habitations of man.” And for most of the nineteenth century that was how the Snake River Plains and the Magic Valley would remain, waiting, like most of the arid West, for the outcome of one of the most far-reaching movements in American history.
The movement lay close to the heart of what Americans thought of themselves. “Cultivators of the earth,” Thomas Jefferson once wrote, “are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, and they are tied to their country, and wedded to its liberty and interests, by the most lasting bonds.” But by the last decades of the nineteenth century, the stunning growth of American industry had largely unraveled this fine vision of the yeoman farmer as the prototypical American; work now was in the cities; arable land in the East became scarce for a burgeoning population; American society seemed destined to degenerate into a division between working-class have-nots and upper-class haves, with nothing in between.
For many of those appalled by such a prospect, the answer appeared to lie in the lands west of the hundredth meridian, a country rich in rivers and soil but with an average annual rainfall of less than twenty inches. The solution, they reasoned, was simple: irrigation. Beginning in 1891 a series of annual and biannual irrigation congresses were held whose members issued the frequent cry of “a million forty-acre farms” as their goal, even though John Wesley Powell— whose 1878 Report on the Lands of the Arid Regions of the United States was, and still is, the most trenchant work on the subject—stood up before them in 1893 and warned, “I wish to make it clear to you, there is not enough water to irrigate all these lands; there is not sufficient water to irrigate all the lands which could be irrigated, and only a small portion can be irrigated. …” Powell was Cassandra in a nest of Pollyannas. Irrigation, the journalist William E. Smythe countered, would “widen the boundaries of civilization. ” On the “cornerstone of the Republic of Irrigation,” he said, “we will write: ‘Sacred to the Equality of Man.
The energy of hope expressed in these congresses ultimately led to the creation of the federal Reclamation Service (later the Bureau of Reclamation) in 1902. Its massive water projects would alter the face of Western America— although proving Powell correct in the process, and since large corporations ultimately came to control much of the federally irrigated Western land, suggesting that the “Equality of Man” did not necessarily follow. But on a much smaller scale, that hope also gave birth to a handful of private water projects which, if they did not transform the Republic, did create communities in whose outlines could be discerned a hint of the Jeffersonian ideal. One such community came to flower in the Magic Valley of southern Idaho, on the Snake River Plains.
Impetus for the Magic Valley project came with passage of the Carey Act in 1894. Among other things, this act provided for the cession of up to a million acres of federal land to any Western state willing to have it reclaimed through privately financed irrigation projects; the state would sell the land in parcels as small as forty acres for fifty cents an acre; the irrigation company would in turn sell “water-right” shares to the landowners to cover (with a suitable profit) the costs of construction, and then, as stipulated, would turn the irrigation company—or district—over to the water-share farmers to own and operate. The vagaries of climate and human cupidity being what they are, such developments were failures or swindles in many areas where they occurred; but not in the Magic Valley. In 1900 a group of Western and Eastern capitalists formed the Twin Falls Land and Water Company and began surveying the lands of the Magic Valley. In 1903 the state of Idaho contracted for the sale of 270,000 acres of land under Carey Act provisions. In 1905 a diversion dam on the Snake River—Milner Dam—was completed, and a canal, ten feet deep and eighty feet wide, began carrying water to the land. By the end of 1905 every one of the 270,000 acres had been sold; the solid new town of Twin Falls had been erected; and the Magic Valley soon exploded in a profusion of beans, fruit, alfalfa, dairy herds, and potatoes. Especially potatoes; even today, in steak-house restaurants all over the land, the “Idaho Potato” you get on your plate is likely to have come from the Magic Valley.
On hand from the very beginning was Clarence Bisbee— one of that nineteenth-century army of “historians with a camera”—who came to the town of Twin Falls in 1904, when it was barely more than a collection of tents among the sagebrush, and remained for more than twenty years to photograph the town, people, fields, and farms of the Magic Valley. From the thousands of glass-plate negatives he produced that now are in the possession of the Idaho Historical Society, we offer the selection on the following pages—the photographic record of a Western success story.