Yakima Valley Museum

Irrigation

The Journey of an Apple

The Yakima Valley in the late 1800s was not a very appealing place to develop an agricultural industry. With only eight inches of annual rainfall, our valley is a virtual desert, and, after the short-lived sheep and cattle ranching boom of the 1870s and 1880s, the valley floor was an over-grazed wasteland. Despite the volcanic soils and flood deposits excellent for growing plants, the Valley was as semi-arid environment with its grasses gone and sagebrush rapidly taking over.

Historic Photo of building an irrigation canalBut our valley had the potential for a great agricultural industry. The land only needed to be cleared, cultivated, and provided with water to produce some of the highest fruit yields in history. The Yakima Valley landscape was graded and cleared of sagebrush to prepare the ground for orchards. In the early days before tractors, this was accomplished with horses and plows ...and human hands.

After the introduction of the tractor and other motor vehicles to farming technology, the job of clearing the land and maintaining the cultivated orchards got easier. Yet, in many parts of the Yakima Valley, where steep hillsides and narrow ravines made tractor use impossible, something new was needed. And something new was invented right here in the Yakima Valleythe Lindeman Tractor. In 1939, Jesse Lindeman modified a John Deere tractor specifically for use in Yakima Valley's unique orchards. The tractor's wheels were removed and it was refitted with tracks, allowing the vehicle to climb and traverse the precipitous valley terrain and squeeze between and below the narrow, low orchard rows. This first "Lindeman-John Deere Orchard Crawler" was tested in the Congdon orchards and was soon in mass-production.

Once the surface is prepared, virgin orchard land must be fumigated to get rid of pests. To maintain soil quality, orchards must be disced and fertilized annually to aerate the earth and replenish Nitrogen and Phosphate. If all this is done, the land is ready...just add water!

The Yakima, Tieton, and Naches rivers run through the semi-arid Yakima Valley. They are fed by the immense Cascade Mountain watershed, which receives over 100 inches of annual precipitation. Transporting the water from the waterways to the valley floor was a formidable challenge.

The irrigation of the Valley was first accomplished by individuals to irrigate their own crops. The first irrigation canal is credited to Chief Kamiakin of the Yakama tribe; he built a ditch in 1852, near the Ahtanum Mission, to irrigate his garden. Some settler families followed his lead, but the job of bringing enough water to the dry valley floor for all the farmers was too immense a task.

Historic Photo of irrigation canalIn the early 1880s local entrepreneurs, both singly and banded together, began a series of privately financed irrigation companies. James Gleed was one of the first; he started the Naches Irrigation Canal Company in 1881. After the arrival of the railroad, the need for irrigated acreage grew, and the Northern Pacific Railroad hired Walter N. Granger, who had successfully irrigated dry land in Montana, to bring an "Agricultural Eden" to this desert valley. The Sunnyside Canal project began in 1890, and by 1892 water was first used by the new settlers from the main canal.

But even with railroad money and wealthy investors from the east, only limited amounts of land could be irrigated in this manner. What was needed was a massive public project. After passage of the Reclamation Act of 1902, the Federal Government became involved with the irrigation of agricultural land in Central Washington.
 

The Yakima Project, begun in 1906, built six reservoir dams at the headwaters of the Yakima, Tieton, and Naches Rivers between 1909 and 1933. It also created large canals to carry water to orchards and fields. The Tieton Project was one division of the Yakima Project. The Tieton Canyon, where the canal was to be built, could only be reached by pack train, and the difficult task of canal construction was indeed a job for the federal government. In May of 1910 the new canal began bringing water to new trees and seeded fields that had

Irrigation worker's camp

 

The Roza division of the Yakima Project diverts water from the Yakima River at the mouth of Yakima Canyon. This water is transported, via concrete tunnel, through two mountain ridges on its way to the lower Yakima Valley. The diversion dam also generates the power needed to pump the irrigation water to higher ground. The Roza Project was begun in 1938 and completed in 1951.

See more historic irrigation photos on the Yakima Memory website.
 

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