By Doug Oliver

One day in 1881 an Irish immigrant named John Gordon visited the Hunton Ranch in the Bordeaux area, and then later visited a ranch in the Uva vicinity. He was so enthralled by the looks of the area and the potential that it had, he moved his family from Greeley Colorado to a small claim he had made in the Uva area. After moving his family to Uva, he met with a very good friend of his by the name of John Carey at his ranch located on the North Platte River. During his conversation with Mr. Carey he made a suggestion to him that the Wheatland Flats had a great potential of creating a community similar to the Greely Colorado community.

With that suggestion to Mr. Carey, that put the wheels into motion for Judge Carey to organize a small party to investigate the Wheatland flats. A civil engineer named G.E. Bailey produced the first map showing the first canal system beginning at the mouth of the Laramie River Canyon, what is now known as the Wheatland Tunnel Diversion, then extending down through the valley until it crossed Sybille Creek by way of a flume, which would have to be constructed to allow the conveyance of the Laramie River water to be delivered into a canal system, known today as the No. 1 Canal. This canal is the main delivery conveyance system for the Wheatland Irrigation District’s water supply.

The survey of the Wheatland Flats area was completed in 1882 and early 1883. These final plans would become the basis of the present irrigation system, known as the Wheatland Project. In the summer of 1883 the promoters of the Wheatland Project realized the extent of the project and in August of 1883 organized what was known as the Wyoming Development Company in order to accomplish their objectives. Construction began on the Bluegrass Tunnel and also the No. 1 and No. 2 Canals in 1883, with a 2380 foot tunnel through a decomposed granite mountain that was completed in 1886. The Wyoming Development Company had organized its own construction company in order to begin the massive construction of the conveyance system for the irrigation project. The Bluegrass Tunnel construction project consisted of over a thousand Chinese workers that laid a small railroad track system from the downstream conveyance system, then up into the tunnel, and also down from the upper end, as progress was made in order to haul out the rock that needed to be removed during construction of the tunnel. They used an old case tractor on the lower end, and a water wheel on the upper end that ran an air compressor system that was used for drilling into the tunnel and allowed the blasting of the rock. As the rock was removed from the tunnel, it was hauled out in small train cars and placed on the banks of what today is the conveyance system for the Laramie River water being diverted through the Tunnel and conveyed downstream to Bluegrass Creek. Today, one can still see one of the tiny little huts that the Chinese workers built and lived in during the construction of the Bluegrass Tunnel and diversion dam in 1883 through 1886.

At the time when the Wyoming Development Company was putting together one of the largest irrigation projects in the nation, Wyoming was under a Territorial form of government.

The only means of securing a water right was to build the irrigation works and make proof to the Territorial Engineer and later to what is known as the Board of Control. In 1888 Elwood Mead was appointed the first Territorial Engineer due to some intense lobbying by the Wyoming Development Company’s engineer J. A. Johnson. Irrigation of lands within the project began before the Bluegrass Tunnel was completed using Sybille Creek water. When portions of the No. 1 and No. 2 Canal were completed, water was diverted for irrigation to some of the first lands under the project. The United States Secretary of Interior mutually agreed that the lands should be taken up under what was known as the “Desert Law”. This plan was put forth, that each Entrymen filed on 640 acres and applied the water to the lands, and received a patent for those lands from the government. This was a difficult process for settlers in obtaining the patent to their lands, because it was a very slow process to receive the patent from the government and delayed the settlements on the flats area. The Wyoming Development Company themselves planted about one thousand acres of farm crops each year just to proof up on their water right. They also turned water onto some 30,000 to 40,000 acres of prairie lands to preserve their water rights. The settlements finally began increasing in about 1894 and at the time, the price was put at $15.00 per acre for these lands, which included the water right appurtenant. These times during the settlement got so tough, the Wyoming Development Company was selling the lands to anyone no matter what the condition of the buyer was, just so they could get the settlers into the area, and it worked. They had many settlers come into the Wheatland Flats area from Kansas, Nebraska and Eastern Colorado during the most drought stricken times.

In Elwood Mead’s second annual report, he praised the Wyoming Development Company for their hard work and accomplishments. He expressed how they had made the lands so productive, and showed over 50,000 acres of land under irrigation by one of the best systems of canals, and ranked as one of the most important irrigation works on the continent.

A direct flow water right for 633 cfs from the Laramie River and 135 cfs from Sybille Creek with a priority date of May 23, 1883 was eventually obtained by the Wyoming Development Company. Soon thereafter they realized that the natural flows in the Laramie River and Sybille Creek went dry to early in the season to sustain crops that required water into September of each year. Wyoming Development Company began building Wheatland Reservoir No. 1 and the supply canal from Sybille Creek to the reservoir site in 1894 and completed it in 1896 for a storage capacity of 5360 A.F. and a priority date of 3-00- 1897 as adjudicated under a court decree. Reservoir No. 1 was enlarged in 1938 and again in 1958 for a total capacity of 9369.7 A.F. storage. In 1895 they filed a capacity and design map with the Wyoming State Engineer’s Office for Wheatland Reservoir No. 2. The permit to construct was issued on February 1, 1898 with the stipulation required by Engineer Mead that more acres must be found to irrigate. He was convinced that the Development Company would have more water than could be used on 58,000 acres. That’s when the company found two additional tracts of land, one known as the Bordeaux Tract with 10,000 additional acres, and one known as the Sybille Tract which contained 20,000 acres of land. The Wyoming Development Company soon found it was very costly ($162,000) in construction cost, and there would not be enough storage water to supply the Sybille Tract of land, so all development to this tract stopped. The reservoir construction created addition cost that the Wyoming Development Company could not handle, so the Wheatland Industrial Company was formed and financed the project. The Wheatland Industrial Company transferred the ownership of Reservoir No. 2 to the Wyoming Development Company upon completion of construction in 1901. Wheatland Reservoir No. 2 has a capacity of 98,934 A.F. and a Priority date of January 29, 1898. The lands that are tied to the water stored in Reservoir No. 2 took almost 100 years to complete the total adjudication process with the diligent effort of Frank Carr and Judy Cunningham of the Wyoming State Board of Control.

In 1929 a filing was made, and plans had already begun to build another reservoir for additional storage to be used on lands located on the flats. In 1932 the Wyoming Development Company and the Wheatland Industrial Company voted to turn the entire ownership and control over to a public entity in order to get drought assistance money to build Reservoir No. 3. That government money could only be used for the good of the general public and not by a private corporation. The public organization that was established would be known as the Wheatland Irrigation System. So the construction of Reservoir No. 3 began in November of 1934 and was completed in 1943 and has a capacity of 71, 318.8 A.F and a surcharge capacity of 28,952.2 A.F.

In 1947 the Wheatland Irrigation System incorporated under the name of Wheatland Irrigation District and was organized under Wyoming State Statues as a public irrigation district. The Wheatland Irrigation District was the first district to apply and receive the first trans-basin diversion in Wyoming. They purchased what is known as the Ringsby Ranch in the McFadden area, and transferred the territorial water rights from the Rock Creek Drainage to the Laramie River Drainage. In order to make this transfer a success, they had to build 11 miles of canal along with 2 siphons in order to convey the water to the Laramie River and onto Wheatland Reservoir No. 2, and then on down to what are known today as the Ringsby Ranch transfer lands.

Today, Wheatland Irrigation District owns 11 reservoirs and maintains roughly 120 miles of canals and laterals for their conveyance system that serves some 54,000 adjudicated acres of land.

I would like to thank Don Britton, manager for the Wheatland Irrigation District for allowing me to go through their archives of maps and letters and correspondences that they have stored in their vault.