When the U.S. Army established Fort Boise in 1863, its mission was to protect emigrants on the Oregon Trail against attack by Indians. Covered wagons had been passing along the Bench south of the site of the future fort and Boise City since the 1850s, and at this point in their journey the travelers had already suffered mightily from the hot and dusty dryness of Idaho’s sagebrush plains. It is doubtful that any of these emigrants, who were mostly farmers from the Midwest, where the annual rainfall averaged 40 inches or more, dreamed that crops could be grown in a region that received only 10 to 12 inches a year.
Southern Idaho had good soil and plenty of sunshine, but settlers needed a way to divert water from the Boise River and other streams onto the land to help crops grow.
When Jerome B. Walling celebrated his 85th birthday in August 1894, the Idaho Statesman credited him with creating “the first irrigation ditch in Boise Valley.” Walling was a distinguished pioneer of Oregon before bringing his family to Idaho, having served in the first Oregon Territorial Legislature in 1849 as a representative from Yamhill County. It was Walling who laid out the new town of Amity, Oregon, helped choose its name and served as its first postmaster.
Jerome Walling was born in New York state in 1809; his wife, Sarah, was born in Ohio; and sons Nelson and Enos were born in Oregon.
In January 1869, the Idaho Statesman waxed poetic about the proposed “Boise City Water Ditch: The water will be brought in and Boise Valley will be made to blossom with gardens and trees and shrubbery as no other valley this side of California blossoms. Boise City too, shall be made to luxuriate in foliage and flower gardens and kitchen gardens, and look more like home and a place to live in than the present unsightly yards and lots of sagebrush and sand.”
On May 1, 1875, “Although there is plenty of water in the ditch on Grove Street, there does not seem to be sufficient current to turn the wheels.” These wheels were water-lifters that as they turned, carried buckets of water to crops on land 5 feet or higher above the ditch. “The water was turned into Mr. Walling’s, the upper ditch, on Wednesday. It was also turned into the Grove Street ditch the same day, but will not get distributed around town much before today.”
On May 4, 1875, Walling ran an ad in the Statesman: “HANDS WANTED. If Anybody Wants to Work and Take Their Pay in Water they will call on the undersigned. Parties are also requested to clean out their ditches and get ready to receive water. J.B. Walling.”
When the water was late getting from the river into the ditches, it was costly for some. In May 1877, “Water! Water! is the cry all over town. Both ditches are tardy in getting in water for irrigation purposes. The season is unusually early and gardens are suffering seriously. General Cartee thinks he will lose his whole crop of strawberries for want of water. The dry weather and wind have blasted a large amount of small fruit which water would have saved if it had been turned on ten days ago. There is a little water coming down from the garrison gulch into the upper part of town, but only enough for neighbors to quarrel over.”
Farmers near Middleton began digging a new canal that spring 16 feet wide and 6 feet deep. Moving that much earth with shovels was brutal manual labor, but since the horse-drawn Fresno scraper would not be invented until 1883, horses could only move earth after it had been shoveled into wagons.
In March 1879, Jerome B. Walling put a large force of men to work enlarging his pioneer canal. “The intention is to enlarge the ditch to a width of 10 feet, which will make it a very respectable size irrigating canal, and afford an abundant supply of water, not only for the greater part of the city but also for the large body of rich land below.
Walling, “the Father of Irrigation in Boise Valley,” died in 1897. He was 88.
Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.