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Hurricane Canal and Zion Vistas

St. George Jeepers Trail Report - November 8, 2016

Hurricane Canal and Zion Vistas

Twenty five vehicles assembled at the La Verkin, Utah, Maverik on a glorious, bright sunny morning for a trip to view the historic remains of the La Verkin canal, Hurricane canal, Virgin River Valley and Zion National Park. The trip was arranged and led by Mike Hess, a La Verkin resident. This trip afforded us the opportunity to view the results of the industry, determination and perseverance of the early pioneers.

Glen Higgins with his and Tobey's brand new Rubicon. The photo below is the "before," and photos in subsequent trip reports will highlight the "after." 

Below, Mark Bennion plays his air violin for friends. 

Carol Steck visits with her friend, Andy Christensen

Mike Hess explains some of the history of the old irrigation canal, seen running along the base of the cliff.

Mid twentieth century recollection of the local history - Part 1

"La Verkin lies on the north banks of the Virgin River opposite Hurricane, and three miles south of Toquerville. The Zion National Park-Grand Canyon Highway (State Highway 9) bisects the town, while the La Verkin Hot Mineral Springs, a popular bathing resort, is located in the Rio Virgin Canyon immediately south of the community. Rich farmlands make up La Verkin bench between La Verkin Creek on the west and the Hurricane Fault on the east.

The origin of the name is somewhat confusing. In a letter from John Steele and J.C.L. Smith to the Deseret News, dated 26 June 1852, La Verkin Creek is referred to as the "Leiver Skin." Perhaps it originally was "Beaver Skin"; it would have been easy for pioneer writers to transpose an "L" for a "B." Others, however, say that La Verkin is a corruption of the Spanish "La Virgen," referring to the nearby Virgin River. Whatever the source of origin, early Washington County Court records also list the creek as "Leiversking." In time it was shortened to La Verkin.

The La Verkin bench was observed by Erastus Snow when his party explored the Virgin River Valley from Zion Canyon to Santa Clara during the fall of 1861. They were attempting to locate lands suitable for the Cotton Mission farmers. Snow opined that Virgin River water could be conveyed to the bench land, however, the others felt that the labor involved would be too expensive.

Almost thirty years later, Thomas Judd and Thomas P. Cottam had a survey made and started work on a canal. In June 1889 the La Verkin Fruit and Nursery Company was incorporated with a capital stock of $25,000.00. Its objectives were to establish nursery orchards and vineyards, to manufacture wine and liquor, and to promote fruit raising, stock raising, and general farming.

Work on the canal and tunnel was most difficult; a major part of the canal was made through the solid rock limestone of the precipitous cliff wall, other portions through talus slides that had broken off the limestone ledges above. A tunnel through the Kaibab limestone escarpment east of the bench was eight hundred feet in length. It was worked on from both sides, and when the two crews met, the sections fitted together almost perfectly. A row of lighted candles from each end was used as a mark to keep the lines straight as the men on both sides of the ridge drove toward the center. They built a dam two miles up the river from the place where the tunnel penetrated the mountain. Water was turned into the ditch in April 1891. 

Leaks in the canal where it coursed through gypsum formations plagued the project. When cement became available, the worst of the leaking places in the canal were cemented, and the canal gave less trouble.

It wasn't until 1898 that a townsite was surveyed and brothers Joseph and Henry Gubler as well as James Pectol came to La Verkin with their families. The town flourished and gradually grew into an area of fruit production, turkey growing, and dairying.

The Southern Utah Power Company agreed to enlarge and cement the canal from the west entrance of the tunnel to the dam in exchange for the right to carry water in the canal to its power plant in the Virgin River canyon west of La Verkin. Later, in the 1980s, the open ditches in La Verkin were converted to a closed pressurized system.

Bubbling up beneath the ledges of the point where the Virgin River breaks through the Hurricane Fault are the warm mineral waters of the La Verkin sulfur springs. On October 15, 1776, Father Dominquez, Father Escalante, and their party of ten, with their saddle horses, pack horses and the cattle they had brought along for food, arrived at the west bank of Ash Creek, near the site of La Verkin. Father Escalante recorded that they were especially pleased at the small fields of maize and well-made irrigation ditches, and a well-made mat with a large supply of ears of green corn upon it. The Indians who lived here sustained themselves by planting maize and calabashes. Along Ash Creek, the explorers found pleasant groves of large black cottonwoods, willows and wild grapevines. Fathers Dominguez and Escalante probably visited the sulfur springs, since they named the stream the "Rio Sulfureo." The Indians regarded the hot springs as sacred and healing spaces, available to friend or enemy. The grounds were preserved as a peaceful sanctuary for everyone. The springs became one of the first recreation spots for the early Mormon pioneers. They dammed up the springs sufficiently that people could bathe. During the years of canal building, the waters soothed and comforted the men who swung the picks and pushed the wheelbarrows. 

Early settlers baptized their children in the warm waters at this point of the river. Sheep men dammed off the lower end of the springs for a dipping vat before the days of sheep-dip. The mineral water appeared to be good for the scabies. Washington County built a wooden bridge across the river below the springs, but floods washed it away. A second bridge was also destroyed. In 1916 the county replaced the wooden bridge with a steel one, and later a high arched span was built a short distance downstream.

Today the springs have been developed into an attractive "spa" with seven comfortable little pools in the grotto area. A swimming pool, dressing rooms, and restrooms are provided and there is a bed and breakfast facility for families on vacation.

For many years La Verkin town was a part of Toquerville precinct. It later came under county jurisdiction with its own justice of the peace and constable. In November 1927 residents and voters petitioned the Washington County Commission to constitute the town as a corporate body--an action that was granted that same year.

La Verkin presently is a growing, thriving community with paved streets, modern sewage system, an excellent elementary school, many beautiful new homes, and an expanding business section--all located in a magnificent scenic area."

See: Daughters of Utah Pioneers, Washington County Chapter, Under Dixie Sun (1950); Andrew Karl Larson, I Was Called to Dixie (1961); Angus M. Woodbury, "A History of Southern Utah and its National Parks," Utah Historical Quarterly (Vol. 12, 1944).

Wesley P. Larsen 

Bonnie Allred, Mark Bennion and others examine some of the deep limestone cracks and fissures in the area. 

One of the hazards of leading the group is that being in front, you are most liable to intercept flying objects. The below golf ball, evidently embedded in Mike Hess's windshield may have come from a hard drive from the St. George Golf Course or perhaps from a practice swing of one of the Jeepers during our break. 

Dramatic views of Zion National Park 

We stopped at another vista of the old Hurricane Canal. 

HISTORY- Part 2

"The Hurricane Canal begins at a diversion dam constructed on the Virgin River at a place known as the Narrows. The dam is a combination of existing river boulders and infill boulders that were placed without mortar. The dam was washed out twice before successfully withstanding floods and high waters. Later concrete was poured to help stabilize the dam. 

The canal follows along the south side of the Virgin River in a westerly direction running along the face of the Virgin River Canyon walls for a distance of approximately three and one-half miles. It then leaves the canyon and turns south along the west slope of the Hurricane cliffs for a distance of approximately three miles where it leaves the cliffs turning west to provide water for the fields located on the Hurricane Bench. 

The pioneers blasted a total of twelve tunnels and constructed six wooden flumes, most of which have been replaced by metal flumes. The canal is laid out on a twelve foot wide shelf of conglomerate and lime rock, and in one place gypsum. The inside dimensions of the canal are eight feet wide and four feet deep. Frequent floods and landslides have washed out portions of the canal, but it is kept in good repair. A rider makes regular trips along the canal to inspect for breaks and carry out maintenance work. 

As the canal flowed past the town along the Hurricane Cliffs it provided water for part of the community as ten cisterns were located along the canal to collect and hold water. With the completion of a more modern water system, the ten cisterns were abandoned.

The canal still follows the same course as when first completed in 1904. Located high above the Virgin River the canal can be followed on foot only with difficulty and the exercise of extreme caution. The narrow trail and sheer drops to the canyon bottom limits access to the canal. 

The construction of the Hurricane Canal is one of early Utah's proudest stories of pioneer determination. Built completely by hand, the 7.5 mile canal clings to the sheer walls of the Virgin River Canyon before leaving to follow the Hurricane Fault and then encircle the flat farmlands of the Hurricane Bench. The canal took eleven years and $60,000 to build, most of the capital being represented by the labor of men who paid for their shares in the canal company by working on the canal during the winter months. The completed canal brought water to 2000 acres of parched bench land and created the now successful village of Hurricane, Utah. 

ORGANIZATION

Early residents of the area settled on the small bottom lands of the upper Virgin River Valley and elsewhere, but the erratic floods of the river diminished the available land while expanding families increased the need for more farmland. As some families began to move out of the area in search of new lands, others turned their eyes to the Hurricane Bench. If farms could be established here families could remain together and lands would be freed from the threat of flood. But water was essential to this expansion, and few thought a canal was possible. In the 1860's, Erastus Snow (who Snow Canyon State Park is named after) and pioneer surveyor John M. MacFarlane explored the area and decided a canal was not a feasible undertaking. Brigham Young's son John came to the valley in 1874 with the idea of a canal to take water out on the bench, but after a quick survey decided it was impracticable and went home. The little towns of Virgin, Mountain Dell, Duncan's Retreat, Rockville, Grafton, Springdale, and Toquerville, prodded by their need for new land, continued to wish for some way of getting water to the bench despite the seeming impossibility of the task.

Finally, two men from the area, James Jepson and John Steele, decided in 1893 that a dam and canal could be built and began to interest others in the project. By the end of June a committee of six had been formed and, after investigating the canyon, returned a favorable report. The Hurricane Canal Company was soon created and the first meeting held in Toquerville Hall on July 11, 1893. August 25 brought another stockholders meeting, this time to hear the preliminary report of County Surveyor Isaac MacFarlane. He reported that the canal could be constructed, that it would have to be about 7.5 miles in length, would require a dam fifteen feet high, and would irrigate about 2000 acres. Although MacFarlane did not estimate costs, his report was accepted. The meeting then moved that the company incorporate the begin construction. J. T. Willis was appointed superintendent of construction on November 15, 1891. 

CONSTRUCTION

Every reporter and historian who has visited the canyon of the Virgin River and the canal site comments on the impossibility of appreciating the difficulty of the undertaking. The steep canyon walls are chiefly lime rock and conglomerate which would often slide down the sides of the canyon after excavation was begun, burying the canal route under additional tons of cover. In other places fills had to be made with loose rock or a flume on trestle-work built across the opening or gap. There was no road into the canyon during the first year so all materials for canal and dam construction, as well as tools, bedding and food had to be carried in by hand.

Most of the work was done between November and May when farm chores were less demanding. Workers camped at the construction site and transients were often put to work for their board. Construction tools were quite simple. Except for a short distance near the dam, it was not possible to use horse teams with plows and scrapers so most of the work had to be done by hand. Wheelbarrows, picks, shovels, crowbars, and hand-driven drills were the basic tools used in the construction of the 12-foot grade or bed for the canal which was 8 feet wide and 4 feet deep.

Canal company shareholders built the canal by the contract or piecework method. The working survey marked off the route in 4-rod lengths, then carefully estimated the cost of construction for each length. These lengths or stations were taken up by stockholders working out their stock payments at $2.00 per day. The survey estimates allowed 15 cents per cubic yard for earth excavation, 75 cents per loose rock and gravel, and $1.25 for solid rock. When workers could demonstrate that the estimates were incorrect, adjustments were made.

Building the dam turned out to be much more difficult than originally anticipated. Specifications called for a structure seventy-five feet in thickness up and down the river, and five feet higher than the bottom of the canal. The river is about forty feet wide at the place called the Narrows where the dam was built. The sides and bottom of the river are solid rock, the north side was a solid limestone cliff over 100 feet high and on the south was a rock that rose nine feet to a shelf above the river. The site was ideal for a dam, but inexperience with construction and the raging floods of the Virgin led to several disappointments.

The plan was to use the shelf on the south side for a spillway and during the winter of 1893-1894 huge rocks were blasted from the sides of the canyon and dropped into place as an anchor. Smaller rocks were then used to fill in and complete the dam. The finished structure looked sturdy enough and the canal company paid the Isom Company $1150.00 for its work. About a year later flood water came surging out of the Narrows, picked up the dam and left the huge boulders strung along the river below the dam site.

For its second attempt the company secured a big pine log from the Kolob Mountains north of Virgin and laid it across the river by setting one end into a hole in the limestone cliff and the other into a slot cut into the south shelf. Juniper posts were then laid with their butts on the log and their tops upstream in the river and the whole mass weighted down with rocks. This dam held for about a year until another flood lifted the log and its load of juniper posts and rock out of its mountings and carried the timber downstream.

The third time proved the charm. The pine log was recovered and put back in its slots and junipers again placed with their tops upstream. This time two layers of rocks were placed on the juniper logs and then the whole mass was woven together with heavy galvanized wire. The dam held. It had taken about six years and three attempts, but there was now water available for the canal to carry.

If the dam was difficult, the canal was only more so. Carving a twelve foot bed out of solid limestone or loose conglomerate was hard and dangerous work. Time dragged on and work progressed slowly. Landslides wiped out months and even years of work, tunnels had to be blasted through solid rock, flumes on trestlework were built to span open spaces like Chinatown Wash. Winter after winter passed and still the canal remained uncompleted. Discouragement began to overtake the workers until by 1901 only seven or eight men were still working on the canal. As progress came to a standstill, the canal board realized it must find the cash necessary to supply construction needs or work would stop altogether.

Stockholders had considered asking the L.D.S. Church for help as early as 1898, but four more years of effort passed before the canal company decided the assistance was essential. Finally, in 1902 James Jepson, one of the originators of the canal, went to Salt Lake City for an audience with Church President Joseph F. Smith. After a brief but determined exchange between Jepson and Smith, Jepson returned home with the $5,000 cash the canal company needed.

The stimulus of Mormon Church support and the $5,000 cash were sufficient to renew the spirit and the treasury of the company and work again went ahead. On August 6, 1904, eleven years after the canal was begun, water flowed over the dam spillway, through the canal and onto the Hurricane Bench. 

SETTLEMENT 

When the company formed in 1893 each share of stock entitled the owner to one acre of farm land with primary water right and an equity in a town lot. Both fields and town lots were distributed by drawing, a sort of pioneer land lottery. Individuals were restricted to a twenty acre maximum because the company wanted to keep the size of stockholdings down to a size men could afford to carry (numerous assessments were levied on the stock to help defray canal construction expenses) and also to make it possible for all men, young and old, to get farms and homes rather than just a few wealthier men owning all. The only exception to the twenty acre maximum was made for men with grown sons who were each allowed twenty acres.

With water on the bench, the 11-year-old company stock could finally deliver what it had long promised and farming on the new lands began almost immediately. Some grain was raised in 1905 (some fields producing fifty bushels of wheat per acre) and in 1906 Mr. and Mrs. Thomas P. Hinton moved into a wooden granary to become the first residents of Hurricane. Other stockholders farmed their lands by camping during the week and then returning home for the weekend. Ten families established homes in Hurricane in 1906 and although there was still trouble with the new ditch breaking, a rather common event until the structure settled, the new lands of the Hurricane Bench proved themselves well worth the struggle to bring in irrigation water. 

CONCLUSION

If the Hurricane Canal is considered within the securlar framework of technological history, a somewhat analytical perspective becomes possible. As an engineering accomplishment, the Hurricane Canal can hardly be compared favorably with earlier canals, be they Egyptian, Roman, Medieval, or even early American. The Hurricane Canal is perhaps best seen as the recognition of necessity. New lands and the water to irrigate them were essential if families were to stay intact. To bring water to those lands a canal had to be constructed, Once that necessity was recognized, the rest followed as a matter of course. While one may marvel at men willing to accomplish their goals by using rather primitive hand tools in the midst of a rapidly industrializing society, it is their determination and not their engineering prowess which should be most admired."

-Source: WASHINGTON COUNTY HISTORICAL SOCIETY (Washington County, Utah)

With the establishment of the Washington County Water Conservancy District, the bulk of the Virgin River irrigation canal has been abandoned. The district supplies irrigation water in a pipeline from the diversion dam and in return uses the surplus water to fill Quail Lake reservoir. When the water reaches town it is distributed in a closed-pipe system. 

More trail vistas 

Views looking down into the Rockville area and Virgin River Valley. 

Pine Valley Mountain in the distance

Although not in the National Park, the Eagle Crags dominate the landscape south of Zion and Rockville. The craggy southern spires are located on BLM land adjacent to the park, a rock peninsula extending north from the large Canaan Mountain complex. Difficult to access and unknown to the tourist crowd, Eagle Crags is great destination to escape the Park crowds and gain some unique views into Zion. 

A view of a faint new moon rising near the Eagle Crag peaks. From here it was on up the trail to Smithsonian Mesa, air up and head home. Another wonderful, scenic day on the trail in beautiful southern Utah. 

Submitted by Bud Sanders