Big Horn Basin


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This Page: Powell, John Wesley Powell, the Reclamation Act of 1902.

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About This Site

Powell, Wyoming, 1909.

In the foreground is the Garland Canal which reached what was to become Powell in 1908. The two-story building with the flag in the front is the headquarters building for the United States Bureau of Reclamation in charge of the construction of the Shoshone Project for the Bureau. Upon the completion of the project and sale of the lands to settlers, the building became the headquarters of Shoshone Irrigation District. The building has since been moved and now houses the Homesteader's Historical Museum.

Townsite lot sale, 1909.

Reclamation Office, 1917.

Irrigation canal near Powell, undated.

In the background is Heart Mountain, the site during the 1930's of a Civilian Conservation Corps camp and during World War II of the Heart Mountain War Relocation Camp, discussed on a subsequent page During the war some 11,000 persons of Japanese ancestry were relocated from the West Coast and housed in the camp. It has been estimated that as many as 75% of those incarcerated in the camp were born in the United States and were, thus, American citizens. Some dispute exists as to the origins of the name Heart Mountain. Some contend that it is an English translation of an Indian name. Others contend that the name was a mispelling by John Colter who passed through the area of the name of an early trapper or military officer named Hart.

Town of Powell and Irrigation, approx 1909. Reclamation Service Photo.

As perhap suggested by the above photos, Powell was made possible by irrigation. As discussed with regard to the Buffalo Bill Dam on the Cody Road pages, in 1902 President Roosevelt signed the Reclamation Act which provided for governmental financing of large scale irrigation projects. Roosevelt in his 1913 An Autobiography explained the purpose of the Act:

On June 17, 1902, the Reclamation Act was passed. It set aside the proceeds of the disposal of public lands for the purpose of reclaiming the waste areas of the arid West by irrigating lands otherwise worthless, and thus creating new homes upon the land. The money so appropriated was to be repaid to the Government by the settlers, and to be used again as a revolving fund continuously available for the work.

Left, John Wesley Powell, photo courtesy of the Library of Congress
Right, Excavation steam shovel near Powell, approx. 1915

Roosevelt observed that the first to propose such irrigation in the West was John Wesley Powell:

While I had lived in the West I had come to realize the vital need of irrigation to the country, and I had been both amused and irritated by the attitude of Eastern men who obtained from Congress grants of National money to develop harbors and yet fought the use of the Nation's power to develop the irrigation work of the West. Major John Wesley Powell, the explorer of the Grand Caņon, and Director of the Geological Survey, was the first man who fought for irrigation, and he lived to see the Reclamation Act passed and construction actually begun.

Ninety-seven days following passage of the Act, the old Civil War major breathed his last. His old friend Alexander Graham Bell rushed from Nova Scotia to be at Powell's side, but arrived too late.

In many of its features, the Reclamation Act tracked the original proposals made by Major Powell in his 1879 Report on the lands of the arid region of the United States, with a more detailed account of the lands of Utah:

If the irrigable lands are to be sold, it should be in quantities to suit purchasers, and but one condition should be imposed, namely, that the lands should be actually irrigated before the title is transferred to the purchaser. This method would provide for the redemption of these lands by irrigation through the employment of capital. If these lands are to be reserved for actual settlers, in small quantities, to provide homes for poor men, on the principle involved in the homestead laws, a general law should be enacted under which a number of persons would be able to organize and settle on irrigable districts, and establish their own rules and regulations for the use of the water and subdivision of the lands, but in obedience to the general provisions of the law.

Thus, in Powell, Wyoming, John Wesley Powell's dream was fullfilled. A self-governing irrigation district was formed, settlers came to homestead small farms of eighty acres with the water rights as appurtenant to the land.

At first it was proposed to call the new townsite just north of the Shonshone River "Colter" after the early mountain man and veteran of the Corps of Discovery, but it was discovered that the name had already been applied to a railroad siding in Washakie County south of Worland. So it came to be that the townsite was named after John Wesley Powell whose foresight brought about large scale irrigations projects. Colter is, however, honored in the name of Colter Ave., US 14A, paralleling the Garland Canal.

Next page: Powell continued, Early stores and growth.