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Albuquerque Land and Irrigation Company

By Denise Holladay Damico

The Albuquerque Land and Irrigation Company, incorporated on December 31, 1897, and dissolved in 1921, was only one of many irrigation corporations which sprang up in New Mexico Territory in the 1880s and 1890s. Like most of the others, this company’s leaders had grandiose schemes which failed to come to fruition. What makes the Albuquerque Land and Irrigation Company notable is the legal record left behind by the struggles of the Pueblos and the Hispanic landowners and acequia parciantes who resisted the Company’s efforts to commoditize the waters of the Río Grande.

In 1887, the Territorial Legislature passed a law which made it easier for irrigation companies to incorporate, and which gave these corporations fairly broad powers – the companies could condemn land in order to construct ditches or canals, and they could appropriate any surplus water.

Ten years later, the Albuquerque Land and Irrigation Company sought to do just that. On December 31, 1897 a group of prominent Anglo-American attorneys and businessmen officially incorporated the company. They sought to build a 35-mile-long canal, diverting water from the Río Grande. The canal would begin 28 miles north of Albuquerque, on the lands of San Felipe Pueblo. It would go southeast from there “along and under the foot hills, through the city of Albuquerque,” ending south of the city on the lands of Isleta Pueblo. The proposed canal thus would cut through the lands of these Pueblos, and lands owned by Hispanos, all of whom also used the Río Grande to irrigate their own crops.

In January 1898, surveyors working for the company spread out over the proposed canal area. Resistance to the plan was immediate. Everywhere the surveyors went Hispanos and the Pueblo Indians physically prohibited entry on their lands. The company responded swiftly, taking Hispanos and the Pueblos of Santa Ana, San Felipe, and Sandia to court. The case involving the Hispanos was known as The Albuquerque Land and Irrigation Company v. Tomás C. Gutiérres et. al. Besides Gutiérrez, the other defendants named in the case included Pedro Griego y Apodaca, Jesús Zamora, Benito Jaramillo, and León Montoya. The case involving the Pueblos was known as Albuquerque Land and Irrigation Company v. The Pueblos of Santa Ana, Sandia, and San Felipe. Later Isleta and Santo Domingo also became involved in that case. Though these were two separate cases, during the course of the trials the various parties involved in the Sandia case agreed to “abide the result” of the Gutiérrez case, and that the outcome of the Gutiérrez case would decide the outcome of the Sandia case.

By February 8th, 1898, just five weeks after the company had incorporated, its lawyers had obtained a court order prohibiting the Hispano resistors from “obstructing and delaying” the survey. Following that order, both cases were moved from Bernalillo County District Court, where they had originated, to Santa Fe County District Court, due to what historian John Baxter describes as “intense feelings in the Albuquerque area.”

The cases went to trial that summer before Judge John R. McFie. The arguments used by both sides in the case reveal that the opponents – the people associated with the Albuquerque Land and Irrigation Company, on the one hand, and the people who opposed the Company's proposed canal, on the other hand – had very different points of view concerning the very nature of water and water usage.

The Company's lawyers argued that the Company's actions in seeking to survey and condemn the land for the proposed ditch were well within the realm of the law, an argument supported by the 1887 law allowing for the incorporation of irrigation companies and giving them broad powers of “eminent domain” - that is, the power to condemn land for uses in the public good, such as canals and roadways.

However, there was already an irrigation system in place, utilized by the defendants, the Pueblos and Hispanos, in the case. The defendants’ attorneys responded that the company had no concrete means of putting the irrigation scheme into action. The company did not actually have any customers – it had not negotiated any contracts with the intended customers to provide them with water.

A key point in the cases was whether or not there actually was surplus water in the Río Grande to be diverted into the proposed canal. This point was critical to the case because the Company could legally only build the canal if there was surplus water to be utilized. Everyone acknowledged that the Pueblos and Hispanos had an older claim to the river's waters, but the Company's lawyers asserted that there was enough surplus water flowing in the river to justify building the canal, which would have the capacity to carry 210 cubic feet per second. The Pueblo and Hispano defendants' attorneys argued that there was no such surplus. In fact, increased usage of the Río Grande's waters by new settlers in the San Luis Valley of southern Colorado helped contribute to the river running dry by the time in reached Albuquerque in June, 1894, and June, 1896. Though some water reached Albuquerque in 1895 and 1897, all of this water was “appropriated,” or claimed by other users, including the Pueblos and acequia users.

However, as the Company's surveyor and civil engineer Philip E. Harroun testified, new measurement techniques known as “river gauging” being employed by Anglo-American engineers at Embudo demonstrated that, in theory, the river carried some surplus, except during the summer months of dry years.

Judge McFie handed down his decision, which favored the Company, in the Gutiérrez case, in August. McFie acknowledged that “the present ditch system” (acequias) was “in some respects... very good” and that “so long as it is in existence its status and rights must be upheld. However, like many other Anglo-Americans who came to New Mexico in the latter half of the nineteenth century, McFie believed that acequias were “not an economical system.”

The Company had incorporated legally under the terms of the 1887 law and McFie felt the law protected the older acequia system while providing for “a more modern and improved system for irrigation in the future.” This idea of modernizing and improving the centuries-old acequia system was common among nineteenth-century Anglos, who tended to see no problem with water allocation in New Mexico if it was properly managed. This point of view failed to take into account New Mexico's extremely arid climate and the fact that Pueblo and Hispano irrigators had been successfully managing the available water resources for centuries.

Documents from the Sandia case and Judge McFie's ruling indicate that by August, the Company's survey had already been completed. The terms of the agreement stated that the ruling from the Gutiérrez case would determine that of the Sandia case, thus favoring the Company.

Judge McFie's ruling said that the Company did have the right to condemn land along the proposed canal right of way and that the Pueblo and Hispano irrigators could not prevent this condemnation or the survey of the canal route. Both groups appealed to the New Mexico Territorial Supreme Court, but that court affirmed McFie's rulings.

The Gutiérrez case eventually went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which again affirmed McFie's original ruling. Strangely, the lawyers for the Hispano irrigators did not challenge the Company's assertion that there was surplus water in the river to be diverted. Instead, they focused on the 1887 law which allowed for the incorporation of irrigation companies. They argued that the act was invalid because it allowed for private companies to have the usage of waters which should have remained under the control of the U.S. federal government. However, on February 23, 1903, the Supreme Court rejected this argument and affirmed the New Mexico Territorial Supreme Court's decision, in favor of the Company.

Over the course of these trials, the Pueblos involved in the case had been advocating for their point of view through administrative channels in the federal government. On November 27, 1898, Wallace Hesselden, President of the Albuquerque Land and Irrigation Company, penned a letter to the Secretary of the Interior. In the letter, Hesselden wrote that he had read “news-paper reports that the Delegate to Congress from New Mexico has presented the Governors of three Indian Pueblos, San Felipe, Sandia, and Santa Ana” to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs and the Secretary of the Interior and that the three governors had made a protest “against the construction of this Company's canal.”

Although all the parties involved in the case spent a great deal of time, effort, and money and the Supreme Court decided in favor of the Company, the Company never actually built the canal. There is no mention of the canal in written histories of Albuquerque nor is there mention of the canal in the biography of Wallace Hesselden, president of the company. The Hesselden was prominent in Albuquerque society: Wallace Hesselden, sometime president of the Territorial Fair, was a successful stonemason who built the Bernalillo County court house and county jail and one of his sons, Louis, became a prominent Albuquerque architect.

The Albuquerque Land and Irrigation Company appears in the New Mexico Blue Book as an extant corporation in 1905. On June 14, 1921, however, the corporation was dissolved. A law that year automatically dissolved all corporations who had not regularly filed annual reports with the State Corporation Commission. Apparently, though the corporation still technically existed until 1921, it had not been active for some time.

The Albuquerque Land and Irrigation Company's grand scheme to build a water diversion canal through Albuquerque was never completed because the backlash to the efforts of private industry to commodify water in turn-of-the-century New Mexico was extreme. Though the court sided with the Company, their effort never came to fruition. It was not until the federal government in the early twentieth century made large scale water projects such as the Elephant Butte Dam public projects; that they began to flourish in New Mexico. Even so, older and smaller scale means of water transfer used by Hispanos and the Pueblo Indians have continued and remain in place and viable today.


1887: Territorial Legislature passes irrigation corporation law.

December 31, 1897: Albuquerque Land and Irrigation Company incorporates.

January 1897: Albuquerque-area Hispanos and Pueblos of Sandia, Santa Ana, San Felipe and possibly Santo Domingo and Isleta prevent Company surveyors from studying proposed canal site.

February 8, 1898: Court order prohibiting further interference with survey.

August 1898: District Court ruling for the Company.

November 27, 1898: Company president Wallace Hesselden writes letter to Secretary of the Interior regarding Pueblo interference.

February 23, 1903: US Supreme Court ruling affirms lower courts’ decisions in favor of the Company.

June 14, 1921: Albuquerque Land and Irrigation Company dissolved for failure to file annual reports with the State Corporation Commission.

Sources Used:

Bernalillo County District Court Records, Civil Case 4956, The Albuquerque Land and Irrigation Co. et al. v. Tomás Gutiérrez et al., January 17, 1898; Civil Case 4994, Same v. Pueblo de Sandía et al., February 7, 1898, New Mexico State Records Center and Archives (NMSRCA).

Santa Fe County District Court Records, Civil Case 3956 and Civil Case 3967, NMSRCA.

Gutiérres v. Albuquerque Land and Irrigation Company, 188 U. S. 545 (1903), available online at

Hesselden biographical file, Center for Southwest Research, Zimmerman Library, University of New Mexico.

John O. Baxter, Dividing New Mexico's Waters, 1700-1912. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1997, 93-96.

David Dreesen, “Founders of Albuquerque and Nineteenth-Century Pioneers of Albuquerque,” (available on microfiche at CSWR).