Canal Stories

“Morris Wilson Jr. was the first ditch rider. Will Hinton served as ditch rider for 21 years, and Will Ruesch rode for 20 years. When Frank Lee was ditch rider, his Daughter Dixie often rode with him. Several times she took her father’s place when he was sick or away. At one time she rode every day for three weeks. She is the first female to ever draw a play check from the canal company.

Through the years, there have been several canal breaks. Some were caught by the canal riders and fixed before they could be a major problem. Others occurred, perhaps soon after the canal rider had passed. The leak started out as a trickle, then a small stream, but soon became a garden stream, then a canal stream, and then a major break. Some of these breaks washed out the entire canal for two or three rods, cutting huge gullies in the mountain side. These gullies had to be filled in before the canal could be replaced. Sometimes it took two or three weeks to get water back in the canal, causing crops to burn and farmers to haul water for thirsty animals, or drive stock to the river each day.

In more recent years the trouble spots were replaced by cement. Teams of horses were hitched to special carts which were filled with bags of cement, gravel or barrels of water. Then the horses pulled the cart up the canal bottom to the break where the workers mixed the concrete. The workers unhitched the cart and lifted it around and hitched it to the horses again for the return trip. At one major break a local contractor, Russell Limb, loaded his jeep with bags of cement, gravel or barrels of water and drove up into the canal and then far up the bottom of the canal to the break. There they unloaded the load, then the men picked up the jeep and turned it around and the driver drove back down for more loads of material. When the last big break occurred, special dump beds were built on two of his jeeps. Ready mix concrete was dumped into the bed, and the driver drove up into the canal, headed downstream, then backed about a mile up the canal bottom where he dumped the load, and drove out where the next jeep was already loaded with another load and waiting to back up the canal to the break. This continued until the entire area at the break was repaired. This was the first use of modern machinery on the canal. Over the years, there hasn’t been very much trouble with the canal, and as more and more of the canal was cemented, it got much better each year.

In 1985 a new diversion dam was installed on the Virgin River just below Virgin by the Washington County Water Conservancy District, and a five and a half foot diameter pipe nine miles long was installed in the Virgin River bed from the dam to Quail Creek Reservoir. This 500 acre reservoir, holding 40,000 acre feet of water, is in Hurricane city limits. It is designed to fill with river water during winters and released during summers to serve Washington and St. George, allowing more water to be taken out of the river in the summer for Hurricane. It has become a boaters playground favorite.

On May 15, 1985, eighty one years after the canal was finished, water flowed through the upper canyon part of the canal for the last time. A spur was fed off the main water pipeline and dumped into the canal just below the Sulphur Springs. Water continued to feed the canal across the face of the hill and into all the ditches and canals throughout the valley. Another spur was installed and pipe was laid out the Airport Road to feed the new and Hollow Reservoir when it is completed. This 960 acre reservoir will hold 50,000 acre feet of water, having a much larger surface area. Every day that water flowed through the canal, a ditch rider rode the entire length of the canal checking for leaks. He did more than just ride and watch. It was his job to see that the water came through so he repaired leaks by tromping rags, weeds, or cedar bark into any holes. The muddy water helped keep the canal sealed. Should a heavy storm come up, no matter how black the night, the rider had to depend on the surefootedness of his horse, and give him the reigns as he rode to the head of the canal to turn the water out of the canal. He also had to keep the canal free of debris and weeds.

Frank Lee, a ditch rider, said he was cutting grass from the canal banks, standing in the canal with a scythe. As he grabbed a clump of grass on the canal edge, he saw a rattlesnake head sticking out of the grass in his hand just above his fingers. He dropped the scythe, and as the snakewrapped itself around his arm, he used both hands to squeeze it to death. He was so frightened that he was paralyzed, but continued to squeeze the snake. He finally got the scythe again and cut off its head, although by this time the snake was already dead. He had squeezed the snake so tightly and for so long that for the next two days the muscles in his arms ached. He later confided to his son that he was wearing hip waders in the canal, and although no canal water got into the waders, his pants were wet that day. Frank rode ditch for eight years. On October 8, 1958, he lassoed a log floating down the canal. While dragging it from the canal, down the steep canal bank, the log slid into the hind legs of the horse, frightening the animal; causing it to buck. Frank was thrown from his horse. Suffering from a punctured lung and broken ribs, he managed to get on his horse again and ride for help, but he died in the hospital later that day.

 

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