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Carlsbad Irrigation Project

Carlsbad Irrigation District
Carlsbad Vicinity, Eddy County

National Register of Historic Places, SRCP #408
Statehood period of significance: c.1890-1912
Associated themes: Agriculture; Irrigation; Federal Government
Images: 1) color image of Pecos River Flume, HPD files

Developed before and after statehood, the Carlsbad Irrigation Project in the lower Pecos Valley reveals the tension between private interests and the federal government in developing large irrigation projects. Regardless of who was managing it, the irrigation project greatly boosted population and agricultural output in the Pecos Valley, creating important milestones on the road to statehood.

Resembling an industrial-era version of a Roman aqueduct, the 1903 Pecos River Flume spans the river of its name with a series of elliptical concrete arches. Like those ancient channels, southern New Mexico’s concrete flume signaled the ambitions of a nascent irrigation empire, promising to turn 1,000,000 acres of desert into agricultural greenery.

The project started as a private enterprise in the territorial period, with the federal government taking it over prior to statehood and using the new power of the United States Reclamation Service to complete it. Even with statehood achieved, the federal government continued to manage the irrigation project—as it did many others across New Mexico and the Southwest.

Before the Carlsbad Irrigation Project, the Pecos Valley near the future city of Carlsbad consisted of an un-dammed river meandering through Chihuahuan Desert. But in 1888, a group of prominent Anglo settlers, including Charles B. Eddy and Pat Garrett of Billy-the-Kid fame, had an idea to create an irrigation empire in the lower Pecos River Valley.

Up until that time, Eddy and others were mainly ranching, but also toying around with private canals, tapping the Pecos and its tributaries to irrigate small tracts of land. In 1887, Garrett and Eddy had put their ambition to paper, forming the Pecos Irrigation and Ditch Company, with the stated goal of building a large, complex irrigation system along the lower Pecos Valley.

The founders and their associates represented a trend in the West to build large-scale irrigation works to “reclaim” semi-arid land once considered un-farmable. Although geographers and geologists warned against farming west of the 100th Meridian — a line representing the boundary between the moist East and the arid West — private entrepreneurs pressed on, believing that dammed rivers in the desert could be harnessed to re nourish arid lands.

Initially, the federal government took a laissez-faire approach to these private irrigation developments. And with the federal government’s implementation of the Desert Land Act of 1894, permitting private companies to build irrigation systems in semi-arid western states, the act did more to encourage the disposal of public lands for reclamation than to regulate these developments. This piece of federal legislation encouraged the Pecos Irrigation and Ditch Company and others, as stated in the nomination, “to explore the economic and engineering possibilities of western reclamation.”

On July 18, 1888 Eddy reorganized the project as the Pecos Irrigation and Investment Company, to include harnessing water for “the colonization and improvement of lands.” The organization now included newspaper promoter Charles Greene and a group of Chicago investors, and established branch offices in that city and Colorado Springs. The company initially worked in the Roswell area, but shifted south to Carlsbad (then named Eddy), where Charles Eddy had built private canals.

Through solicitation, the company attracted a growing number of backers, most significantly, James J. Hagerman, a Colorado Springs capitalist experienced in financing railroads and mines. Hagerman had been exploring similar opportunities in the upper Pecos Valley. Hagerman reorganized the company in 1890, making himself and Eddy its principal promoters. To achieve their vision, they began constructing a series of dams across the Pecos River, starting with Avalon Dam, a long, low rockfill structure built in 1889-90, which fed a series of canals, all unlined and hastily built. With the advance of the irrigation works came a substantial program of town development and land promotion.

In an 1889 report, Governor L. Bradford Prince praised the Pecos Valley irrigation program, stating “No one can even imagine what New Mexico will produce when her immense acreage of fertile soil is brought under cultivation through enterprises of this kind.”

The original system was nearly complete by 1890, delivering water to new fields of orchards and farms. However, as stated in the nomination, “the system was hampered both by its rapid and inefficient construction and the lack of a storage reservoir on the Pecos.” The company attempted to solve the storage issue by building in 1893 another long rockfill dam (McMillan Dam) to increase the system’s capacity.

Reversing the step forward, a severe flash flood during that summer destroyed Avalon Dam and damaged the uncompleted McMillan Dam. Hagerman used his own personal funds to quickly reconstruct both dams, but the difficulties of continual flooding and unrealized expectations became a drain on the finances and enthusiasm of Eddy and Hagerman, resulting in the former leaving the company in 1895. Later, Hagerman turned his concentration to irrigation development near Roswell.

After repeated failures and prolonged discouragement, the Pecos Irrigation and Investment Company petitioned the federal government to take over the enterprise. Yet before being assumed by the newly formed United States Reclamation Service, the company replaced its flimsy wooden flume with a substantial reinforced concrete structure, creating the project’s visual legacy.

As part of the original system, the first Pecos River Flume — a long wooden structure supported by trestles — channeled water along the Main Canal from one side of the Pecos River to the other, leading many years later to Ripley's Believe It Or Not! bestowing it the honor of the “World’s Only River That Crosses Itself.” The 1893 flash flood took out this structure, which was replaced in-kind the following fall. The replacement structure became deteriorated and was predicted to collapse. To replace the most visible water delivery structure along the system, the company hired a Chicago-based civil engineer, Thomas Taylor Johnston to design a new flume.

Born in Piqua, Ohio in 1856, Johnston graduated with a civil engineering degree from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 1877, after which he entered employment with the U.S. Corps of Engineers, working on hydrological surveys of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. He later conducted hydrological studies for the Chicago Sanitary District and designed an innovative water works plant for the City of Memphis. Starting in the late1890s, Johnston designed a number of hydro-electric power plants, including facilities in Idaho, Washington and Indiana. Johnston began work on the Pecos flume in 1900.

For the replacement structure, he designed a reinforced concrete aqueduct carried over four 100’-wide arches with a massive canal trough above having the capacity to convey 1,500 cubic feet of water per second. Completed in 1903, the 497’ long, 47’ high structure was considered the largest irrigation flume in the United States. But another severe flood damaged the flume a year later, washing out the river’s banks and undermining its foundation. It took two years and the federal government’s involvement to repair the structure.

According to the nomination, “it was rapidly evident to all concerned that the system’s only hope for survival was its acquisition by the federal government’s newly-formed United States Reclamation Service.” Established in 1902 under the Reclamation Act, the Reclamation Service studied the feasibility of water development — most often large irrigation systems — on federal land in the western states. Sale of excess federal land initially funded construction of approved projects.

Representing farmers along the hobbling irrigation system, the Pecos Water Users’ Association formed to advocate for government takeover of the Pecos Irrigation and Investment Company. And after another failure of Avalon Dam, the federal government took over the project in December, 1905, paying the Pecos Irrigation and Investment Company $150,000 for all its assets.

The Reclamation Service renamed it the Carlsbad Project and in 1906-07, reconstructed the canals to uniform width and grade, repairing also Avalon Dam and the Pecos River Flume. Federal involvement with the district intensified during the New Deal, when some of the major difficulties of the system were resolved with huge make-work projects. The federal government continues to manage the system, which irrigates approximately 25,000 acres of land in the Carlsbad area — far less than Eddy envisioned. 

While most of the dams and irrigation works have been reconstructed over the years, the iconic Pecos River Flume continues to stand as a monument to the grandiose plans of Eddy, Hagerman and others. As stated in the nomination, “while corporate irrigation in the Pecos Valley was ultimately unsuccessful, the experience of the Valley’s entrepreneurs served as proving ground for the embryonic field of reclamation engineering.”