Idaho History

Boise’s vast irrigation network took time, money, expertise

A crowd gathers at the New York Canal diversion dam on Feb. 22, 1909.
A crowd gathers at the New York Canal diversion dam on Feb. 22, 1909. Idaho State Historical Society

Building the complex system of irrigation canals to bring water to thousands of acres of farmland in Boise Valley was an epic achievement that took most of a century. The pioneers in Idaho irrigation rarely had the money to start and finish a project as it was envisioned and were always looking for investors. Many of those who backed Idaho projects were Easterners who had never visited Idaho.

The Idaho Tri-weekly Statesman reported regularly on the progress made by one group after another to get water to their land – their successes, failures and frustrations. Jerome B. Walling, the acknowledged pioneer in diverting water from the Boise River to irrigate farm land near Boise City, was remarkably successful, but others did well on a smaller scale. In June 1875: “Mr. Ed Bryon has succeeded in completing a ditch from above Maynard’s, on Boise River, to the Warm Springs Ranch. ... From this ditch he can irrigate about 350 acres. This is the same undertaking of which there was some talk last summer, but was then considered impracticable. Mr. Bryon has, however, been successful in accomplishing this valuable piece of work.”

By far the grandest project yet conceived for using water from Boise River got its start on June 23, 1882, when New York investors incorporated the Idaho Mining and Irrigation Company. They hoped to recover enough gold dust from Snake River sites to pay for all or part of the cost of building what has been called the New York Canal ever since.

Arthur D. Foote, the talented company engineer who was superintendent and general manager of the New York Canal Company, told the Idaho Statesman in May 1884: “The work will go on and there is not a shadow of doubt that the canal will be built as fast as circumstances will permit. It may be set down as one of the certainties of the early future that the Boise River will be made useful in reclaiming and opening to settlement the immense area of fertile land between the Boise and Snake Rivers. The work of constructing the canal will proceed somewhat slowly this season from the fact that the heavy work in the canyon near the point where the water is taken from the Boise must be done first and that the actual location of the line of the main canal can only be made as the work progresses. A large amount of money will be required to carry on and complete the work, but Mr. Foote and others who are in a position to know, entertain no doubt that the capital will be available as fast as needed.”

The Statesman envisioned future uses of the New York Canal that went beyond irrigation: “The water from the canal can be utilized at any desired point for driving mills and other machinery, and the rich placer mines on Snake River are only waiting for the water which the canal will furnish for operating them. It becomes evident that the importance of this enterprise to Boise City and to this section of Idaho cannot be exaggerated. ... The land which the canal will make ready for occupation and cultivation will furnish homes for thousands of people, and there will be facilities for manufactures and numerous private enterprises yet unthought of.”

Foote surveyed a 75-mile stretch of Boise Valley in 1883 for a massive New York Canal system that included 5,000 miles of lateral ditches. While the canal was being pushed slowly westward, several thousand additional acres were opened to agriculture in 1887 by the extension of the Walling Ditch along Hill Road. The early Ridenbaugh ditch that started not far east of the city was extended westward to Nampa in 1889 by the Kansas Ditching Company with “an improved ditching machine, which will enable them to do the work much more rapidly than by the old method of ploughs and scrapers.” The New Era grading machines the company used were each drawn by 12 horses, reminding us that the age of gasoline-powered tractors, trucks and automobiles was still more than a decade away.

Next week we’ll share more of the Boise Valley irrigation story.

Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email