The project commenced in November of 1893, only five months after the first meeting between John Steele and James Jepson in Toquerville. Husbands and sons worked on the canal from November through March. Since these men all had farms back at their homes, they had to spend spring and summer preparing their farms and planting crops, irrigating and weeding their fruits and vegetables. Crops had to be harvested and peddled in the fall. This often necessitated peddling as far north as Salt Lake City. Money was needed to buy tools and blasting supplies and pay cash assessments as well as supplies for their homesteads. When frost destroyed crops men had to leave the area to find cash work to sustain their families, pay assessments and buy supplies. These were hard times.
Work on the canal was difficult. All the towns were on the north side of the river, and the canal was on the south side. There were no roads or bridges in the canyon, and men had to god own the steep canyon walls on the north, packing their tools, that even consisted of such things as an anvil and a forge, as well as their bedding, camp supplies and grub boxes with enough food to last a week. Then they had to ford the icy cold Virgin River whose hanks were always slippery. Seasonal floods made the passage more difficult. Camp was made int he open or under a canvas tarp stretched between rocks. Men had to sleep on the ground. Meals were cooked over a fire, as there were no stoves, and heat provided by an open fire. Drinking water had to be drawn from the river in buckets, and was often only floating mud. Workers had to gather water in a container and let the mud settle to the bottom before using the water on top for cooking, cleaning and drinking. During the winter months, the sun only shone down into the steep canyons of the river bottom a short time each day, and the cold freezing icy rains, snow and hail storms made life miserable. The only pieces of equipment in the canyon were picks, shovels, crowbars, wheelbarrows and hand driven drills. The workers would go into the canyon on Monday morning and stay there until Saturday afternoon, then returned to their homes for supplies and church services.
Someone once said that the names of the Sevier and Virgin Rivers were somehow mixed up, as the Sevier River is a mild, even-flowing, gentle river and the Virgin is often violent during flood stage.
Yes, these were hard times for the men, but the wives who stayed at home had added responsibilities. With their husbands working on the canal, they had to milk the cows, carry water to the stock, feed the cattle, do chores, raise the children, cook the meals and make and mend clothing. When their husbands returned Saturday night, they spent the weekend cleaning and mending his mud soaked clothing and cooking enough extra grub for another week at the canal.
There were over 300 men down in the canyon those first two winters. National tragedy became a local blessing. With a depression gripping the nation, miners out of work in Nevada drifted to the area for work on the canal. A few of them agreed to work the winter just for their grub. What a blessing this turned out to be for the canal project. Local men knew nothing of blasting tunnels through solid rock and these men were well trained at that kind of work. They taught the local men their skills. Powell Stratton recalls that these drifters also added to the morale of the workers. Many of them brought their harmonicas, banjos, violins, guitars and mandolins, and there were many good musicians, singers and story tellers among them. In the evening these men would often dramatize their stories and jokes, play their instruments, sing songs and dance. One campsite, a place with many boulders was called Robber’s Roost, because it looked like a robber’s camp. Another was named Chinatown, because when several of the men dug dugouts in the side of the wash to line in, someone suggested it looked like Chinatown. These names have stuck to this day.
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