The lead photo was taken from our first post-Colorado boondock site. Camped less than 20 feet from a precipice along the Virgin River Gorge, we indulged two extremes: a magnificent canyon right out the doorstep, and the distant stately walls of Zion. Out Goldie's Imax Window, mountain bikers ground away on the gnarly Hurricane Rim Trail cross canyon. The trail affords breathtaking-to-heart stopping glimpses into the Virgin's chasm, flirting within spitting distance of certain death. I had the distinct privilege of letting this trail ride me into the ground a couple of years ago; twas a sadomasochistic experience in self-abuse that's right up there at the top with other fond, but grueling memories. It was on that bike ride that I noticed a seemingly impossible manmade canal etched into the cliff face about midway down, and an apparent pathway along its edge. This posed four burning questions to my inquiring mind: Who? What? When? and for Christ's sake, Why?
On our first morning out, Bobbie and I decided to get to the bottom of the canal story—literally. We donned packs on a gloomy grey day and struck out from camp, probing the canyon's edge in search of a way down. After several false starts we finally found a steep but doable entry, and scrambled helter-skelter on marbles, through desiccated cacti and thorny bush, all the way down.
Once in the bottom, there was the obligatory wrecked vehicle—crumpled beyond recognition by a wild and woolly free fall to its final resting place. Thelma and Louise would be so proud.
We found another canal opposite the main one on our side of the canyon; it was smaller and looked more recent, but quickly succumbed to a landslide impasse. So we crossed over the Virgin, a mere trickle this time of year, to have a look at the ditch on the other side.
Hiking on what likely was some sort of long ago service road was easy enough, but it soon ended, cut off by sheer canyon walls of rock that forced us back to the north side. As we hiked along the Virgin I noticed flood debris in treetops some 20 feet overhead… a testament to frequent flash floods that ravage this canyon.
We knew from prior boondocks that there was a small dam upstream. Sure enough, a gate soon blocked our progress. "No Trespassing" and "Keep Out" signs decorated a chain link fence topped with a crown of razor wire for "good measure." We spied a trail and sign on the other side that appeared to extend upstream beyond the beginning of the main canal. I pulled out binoculars to get a better look at the sign. It read that the trail was built by Americorps… nothing about where it went or why it was there. We crossed back over the Virgin in to investigate, something that proved difficult due to dozens of house-size boulders littering the river bottom.
Once across, we scrambled up to the main canal; it had a narrow come-and-go path along a rather thin-walled outer edge that was intermittently supported by Anasazi style stacked rock. It was only then that the magnitude (stupidity?) of this seemingly dubious, over-zealous water diversion project hit home. Even to un-keen minds, it was obvious that the intent was to divert water from the Virgin at the dam and maintain a slighter grade than the river bottom—probably an effort to irrigate croplands higher in elevation around La Verkin and Hurricane. This later proved true, backed up by several articles I found on the internet.
It seems that Mormon settlers tired of yearly flash floods that wiped out bottomland crops along the Virgin. There was plenty of farmable land higher up on mesas, but how to raise irrigation water was a big problem in the pre-pump/electricity days of 1850.
After several feasibility studies, it was concluded that pulling off the monumental task of constructing a canal along a sheer-cliffed, unstable canyon—one prone to landslides and movement and rockfall—would be folly. But, as always, one mans folly is another man's "challenge."
It was easy for some 20-20 hind-sighted person like me to ridicule the idea of building a canal in such an unstable place. Why didn't level heads prevail? Who would fund such folly? Well, greed is a funny thing indeed…ask any po-boy looking to get rich quick. Share's sold like hotcakes and the project got off the ground in 1890.
As one might expect, the project was hampered by acts of nature. The diversion dam was flash flooded to smithereens a couple of times and had to be rebuilt, and rockfall and slides regularly wiped out as much as a year or two's worth of progress in an instant. Even when the canal stayed in place, it was plagued by blowouts and leaks. With setback after setback, the project was taking way longer than expected… which cost money. Funds ran dry as the surrounding desert, but it didn't deter the determined. An emergency funding appeal was made to the LDS Church in Salt Lake City. After much deliberation, a grant of $5,000 dollars was given and the project stumbled to conclusion.
It took 11 years and 60,000 dollars to get water to the highlands around La Verkin and Hurricane—cheap by today's standards. The shocking part to me was that the canal continued to operate into the 1990's. I would have lost that bet for sure. As we walked along the edge of a canal riddled with rockfall and blowouts, I assumed we were looking at Mormon folly—a failed pie-in-the-sky dream, a big fat stupid mistake. But somehow it worked, in spite of gravity, setbacks, and "high-water," gritty pioneers kept the aqueduct flowing against all odds for nearly 80 years.
My partially eaten hat is off to them.
Here are a couple of links to the complete story: