Historical Report #2
The Settlement of Lewiston
Imagine yourself transported backward some 14,500 years. You're clinging to a rock on the side of a mountain in southern Idaho, like that of the view of Red Rock Pass pictured above. You've become transfixed by the cataclysmic flood below you. Through millennia, that prehistoric leviathan, Lake Bonneville, had been exerting incredible amounts of pressure on the northern embankment of its upper arm in what is presently Cache Valley, Utah. Now, it has burst headlong through a breach in the sandstone wall. Niagaras of water are thundering over the edge--159,000,000 gallons every second, the biggest flash flood in the planet's history. Soil and rock and plant material tumble along before the torrent that crashes north to pour like a cataract into the Snake River. Spumes of mist rise three hundred feet in the air. The ground trembles. The noise is like the roar of a dozen freight trains.
Before the year is out, the 19,800-square-mile Lake Bonneville will have dropped some 350 feet. Through successive such breaks over the millennia, it will drop again and again, leaving behind it the extensive bars, benches, and deltas that make up the larger part of Utah.
Move forward into historic time and we find that the tranquil subsidence–Cache Valley–left behind by Lake Bonneville's departure, is made up of a fragile surface of alluvial material, coarser near the mouths of the canyons, finer in the middle. A piece of flat land that we now call Lewiston lies between the Cub and Bear Rivers in the northern half of the valley. At one time covered by some 700 feet of water, the area has under its surface soil a stratum of heavy, compact clay more than 100 feet thick, compressed into impermeability by the weight of water millennia before.
Stabilized eventually by colonies of grasses, forbs, and woody plants, Lewiston soon boasts a surface soil of fertile sandy loam, built up from successive deposits of organic matter shed by the plants over the years. Bison range this area as well as other parts of the valley, and aboriginal tribes come to hunt them for meat and skins. Practicing a primitive form of range management, these tribes burn off the woody plant material to encourage growth of grasses and attract more bison. Soon what is known as Lewiston is nothing but grasses and forbs, lush and green in the spring, dry and nourishing for late fall grazing. But the ecosystem is fragile here–held in delicate balance by small concentrations of both animals and nomadic hunters.
Further on in historic time, settlers from southern Utah come into Cache Valley searching for summer pasture. In the northern half of the valley, they see a flat piece of lush grazing land lying higher than the nearby Bear and Cub rivers. Since pumping water up from the rivers is not an option at this time, cultivation is ruled out. But pasturage here looks good, and they bring their herds in. A decade later, settlers along the eastern mountains come up with the same idea, and this flatland becomes, between 1851 and 1870, a grazing common for not only settlers south of the valley but for herds and draft animals from nearby communities as well.
Enter four homesteaders in 1870, Peter and Everett Van Orden, Robert Wall, and John M. Bernhisel, who apply for four quarter sections of land here. One gets the impression this hardy group knew very well the size of the job ahead of them: Their homesteads were a small part of some 36 square miles of soil which, while fertile, was without water for irrigation, mired in mud in the spring, scoured by wind in the summer, and choked with sand in the fall.
The first irrigation canal from the higher-elevated Worm Creek in Idaho, dug with incredible effort, brought life-giving water, but not nearly enough to carry them through the growing season. More settlers moved in and often the water entering a canal would disappear to a trickle by the time it reached the fields farthest away. One can almost see the frustrated throwing-up of hands as these fields were abandoned to pasture and cultivation continued closer to the water source.
And, of course, there was the mud. It didn't take long before Lewiston had become a large community of farmers, and the extra water they used for crops during the summer–however deficient for their needs–pooled inexorably in the already high water table. Far into June fields were awash and unable to be cultivated, roads were lakes, boardwalks were laid down for children as walkways to and from school. Some of them rowed there in boats. A descendent of these early settlers, Edis Taggart, said that his grandfather never unharnessed his horses in spring, for he was out at all hours pulling wagons from mud holes that measured up to three feet deep.
Through soil cores taken during the Agricultural Experiment Station's Lewiston drainage study done in the 1940s and 1950s, drainage engineers found that the clay stratum actually cupped in places. As shown below in a profile included in this study, this impermeable layer, in some areas as close as a foot below the surface, held water, as Edis put it, "like a saucer," and there was no place for it to go.
Because the water table rose so close to the surface, salinity and alkali problems worsened as irrigation increased, and the more waterlogged fields, once fertile, became alarmingly unproductive. The settlers nevertheless soldiered on through these setbacks and, by the early 1920s, had dug deep open drainage ditches to carry away some of the water.
Meanwhile, the wind blew. The soil, already unstable from the burnoff of woody plants and heavy grazing of the resulting grass and forbs, was now being cultivated for needed crops which made a bad situation worse. By late June, sand was shifting in the teeth of the wind, and grain and sugar beet seed wound up a field or two from where it was sown. There were even songs written about the constant wind in the West, one of which laments, "The wind like fury here does blow/ That when we plant or sow, Sir/We place one foot upon the seed/And hold it 'till it grows, Sir."
Nevertheless, crops were harvested--delivered to the railroad or sugar factory by teams of horses doggedly slogging through hub-deep sand. Straw helped. Laid a foot deep on top of the sand and mixed into it by the passage of draft animals and wagon wheels, it eased the hauling a bit. In town, streets were sprinkled regularly–first to keep the sand from blowing, then to lay the gravel dust.
It was in 1919 that the city started laying gravel, hauled by horse and wagon from the city's gravel pit in the eastern foothills, near High Creek. Hauling gravel soon became off-season work for the farmers, often providing the only folding money they'd receive during the year–35 cents a yard, two yards of gravel in a wagon-load, two loads a day.
Loading gravel, unloading gravel–it became a way of life, working on the roads. Oh, yes, the gravel was sucked down in the spring mud the next year. The men just went ahead and laid down more. The rough surface it created was hard on the horses' hooves, since it was just spread out on the road. What the city needed was a grader.
On July 7, 1923, the minutes of Lewiston City's Trustees read, "$1 paid to S.F.Wiser for telephoning Chicago for grader." This grader, pictured above and now standing in the west end of the Lewiston City Park, was pulled by a four horse team during summers after things dried up. Two men were needed–one to drive the team and one to work the heavy steel mechanism.
By the time the roads dried out in June, the soil had become the consistency of concrete, so in front of the grader, two more men worked a steel plow pulled by another four-horse team to loosen the soil. This type of labor went on until Lewiston began paving the city's streets in the 1940s and 1950s.
The mud problem in the fields continued, however, for it wasn't until the late1940s that more sophisticated drainage systems were being planned, using tile drains. One system is mapped in an early drainage study done for Lewiston by the Agricultural Experiment Station in the 1950s. Today, even after decades of work on drainage, waterlogging problems in some parts of Lewiston are still troublesome, especially during wet springs. But they're nothing like the problems experienced in the past.
Lewiston's irrigation system was augmented by water from the Bear River in 1914. Through the next two decades, with much trial and error, delivery of this water was improved and modified until today there is, during most years, a comfortable surplus. The onset of sprinkling, now almost universally practiced in Lewiston, helped lower the water table and increase productivity, since it not only uses less than half the water needed for flooding fields and thus lowers the water table, but also tends to wash alkali out of the soil.
What of the scouring winds, the blowing sand? In the 1950s, Milton Bernhisel, in his History of Lewiston, reported the wind problem as diminished considerably. Lewiston now has trees, woody plants, and buildings enough to help blunt the winds sweeping across the valley from the west and south, but as Edis Taggart points out, the soil is heavier now, too, having increased in humus over the more than one hundred years of fertilizing and plowing in plant material.
The obstacles faced by the settlers working Lewiston's land from 1870 to the early 1900s seem in retrospect to have been very nearly insurmountable. Problems had a habit of not going away. No sooner had the farmers made some sort of accommodation with one setback than another one reared its head. Just the sheer physical labor needed for simple day-to-day tasks is enough to make present-day agricultural workers shudder.
Moreover, drainage, wind, and soil instability were only part of the difficulties these early Lewistonites experienced. There were the other, valley-wide problems of grasshopper plagues, killing spring and summer frosts, and unexpected droughts.
"What made them go on?" I asked Edis.
"How could they give up?" he replied.
"Everything they had was sunk here in the soil. They had to go on;
they couldn't give up."