The Pacific Northwest Forum
Volume 8, Number 4, Pages 2-13
Fall, 1983

The Big Ditch and the Mcintosh Red: Early Boosterism in Montana's Bitter Root Valley

By Robert William Hadlow

Robert William Hadlow is a student at Carroll College in Helena, Montana.

Montana was one of the last frontiers of the United States to experience migration from the East and Midwest. For newcomers, the Bitter Root Valley(1) of western Montana, an eighty-mile-long valley bordered by mountain ranges on the east and west, was a paradise for those who worked the land and profited from agricultural commodities. The long growing season in the valley permitted the raising of many varieties of fruits, vegetables, and grains.

Many communities were established in the valley during the last half of the nineteenth century. A few have become important urban areas. Florence is twenty miles south of Missoula; Stevensville, twenty-seven miles; Victor, thirty-four; Corvallis, forty-two; Hamilton, forty-seven; and Darby, sixty. All these towns lay near the Bitter Root River, a major tributary of the Clark Fork of the Columbia.

Stevensville-area apple production began in earnest in the late 1870s. Area residents raised mainly crab apples, but experimented with many varieties. The idea of raising apples, though, as a profit-making enterprise did not occur until the 1890s.

One of the more popular varieties in the valley was the McIntosh Red. The McIntosh was chosen because it ripened extremely well in the Bitter Root climate. The early frost, usually in early September, sets the tartness of the apple, making it very flavorful. Other varieties more native to the Yakima Valley in Washington did not adapt well to Montana's short growing season. By the turn of the century, many of the valley's apple producers began exhibiting their produce at state and regional fairs and expositions. This furthered the idea that Mclntosh apples could be a major crop of the valley.

The problem of obtaining enough water to irrigate croplands and orchards was a major problem for the farmers. Marcus Daly, the Copper Baron from Anaconda, understood this need. A small canal had been completed in 1883, prior to Daly's interest in the irrigation of the valley. It provided water to the benchlands east of Grantsdale and present-day Hamilton.(2) The source of water was Skalkaho Creek, which flows from the Sapphire Mountains, along the eastern side of the valley.(3) Daly had a series of canals constructed to provide water from the Bitter Root River to an even greater area of the benchland. This project of the 1890s also added many acres of arable land to his large estate, the Bitter Root Stock Farm. Plans were also made for a greater extension of these canals to provide water for more of the benches, but with Daly's death in 1900 the plans were abandoned.(4)

The next few years showed no expansion of Daly's canals, but representatives of the Federal Government inspected the valley to determine whether the area would benefit from a large irrigation project. They decided that it would be beneficial, but they declined to fund a project because most of the affected land was privately owned.

In 1905 a group of Chicago financiers headed by W.I. Moody, and encouraged by Frederick D. Nichols and others from the local business community, began purchasing benchland on the west side of the valley. They hoped to create a sizeable apple orchard from this land which had previously been cleared of timber by the Anaconda Copper Mining Company (A.C.M.) logging operation. The A.C.M. Company operated a lumber mill sixteen miles down river near Hamilton. The orchard company constructed a small canal from nearby Tin Cup Creek as a source of irrigation water.(6)

Hauling steel pipe for the inverted siphon across the Bitter Root River. Pipe is 72 inches in diameter.

Bitter Root Historical Society

The company, now being called the Como Orchard Company, began advertising orchard tracts to university men and women of the Chicago area. Many were attracted by the offer which stated that they could purchase developed orchard land for a price only slightly higher than that for raw land. The investors also entered into a unique agreement for "not only sale of small tracts with a contract to care for them for five years, but also to harvest and market the crops thereafter for one-tenth of the net profit." This idea was well accepted by many of the investors, who came to the valley during the summer vacation months to view what they had purchased.(7)

The Chicago financiers then contracted with a prominent, young architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, to design and construct a large clubhouse surrounded by a dozen bungalows. These dwellings would be erected on land adjacent to the orchards to provide living accommodations for the investors. The community took the name of University Heights.(8) The investors could then spend their summers at the clubhouse with plenty of time for fishing, hiking, and other pasttimes.

This idea of using outside capital as the catalyst for new ventures in the Bitter Root became increasingly popular. Samuel Dinsmore, another land developer of the area, decided to fulfill Marcus Daly's dream for an irrigation system that could help reclaim the east side benches of the valley. The benches east of Corvallis and Stevensville had the potential for becoming prime orchard land if irrigation could be introduced there. Dinsmore interested W.I. Moody, F.D. Nichols, and investment bankers in Chicago to help him raise capital for a huge irrigation project. Moody came out to the valley to inspect the proposal canal site, along with the water supply and the acreage that would benefit from it. During the summer of 1906, Dinsmore Irrigation and Development Company was formed.(9) Many people believed that this project might cause the Bitter Root Valley's population of 15,000 to swell quickly to over 100,000.(10)

Construction of the irrigation ditch began shortly after Moody had inspected the land. The first objective was to build an earthen dam at the lower end of Lake Como. This lake, situated west of the Como Orchard Company in the Bitter Root mountain range, would supply an ample amount of water to the system. The dam would increase the lake's natural capacity fourfold.(11) At the same time, construction was progressing on the first seventeen miles of the canal. This was a slow and costly chore because the canal had to cross the valley from west to east of the river. This was accomplished by using a huge metal siphon. Once on the east side of the valley, the ditch would follow a northerly course.(12)

Shortly, the Dinsmore Irrigation and Development Company was renamed the Bitter Root District Irrigation Company. With this, all legal formalities for funding the project were complete. The actual excavation of the "Big Ditch," as it was to be known by locals, was accomplished with a large steam shovel. When deep ravines were encountered, trestles were constructed, and wooden flumes were then placed on top of the trestles as part of the canal. The rough terrain caused many delays in the excavation. A major setback occurred when one of the trestles collapsed under the weight of the steam shovel. The shovel was then disassembled and reassembled on a new site. This process consumed much time and money. The B.R.D.I. Company soon realized that costs had been underestimated and that additional capital could not be raised.

On 26 November 1907, the A.C.M. Company filed a suit against the ditch company to recover $29,224.18 in unpaid bills for lumber, coal, and groceries that had been purchased from the mill and A.C.M. Company store in Hamilton.(13) Not only local residents, but also investors who had purchased land further down the valley, worried about completion of the canal. Without the water, those who invested in land would not be able to raise McIntosh Reds and receive their expected profits. In late December 1907 the receiver of the B.R.D.I. Company planned to dispose of the company's assets.(14)

On 2 February 1908 Moody returned from Chicago with a feeling of optimism. He had conferred with the principal owners of the company and received support from them to continue the Big Ditch project. Vast advertising campaigns were started in the East to help gain additional monetary support for the irrigation project. Moody had to work quickly because the receiver planned to sell the assets on 3 March.(15) A minority stockholder of the company delayed the sale of the assets by having a restraining order issued, but this was later overturned by a district court judge in Missoula. The B.R.D.I. Company assets were then sold to another investment firm in Chicago. The ditch company was then reorganized as the Bitter Root Valley Irrigation Company, retaining W.I. Moody as a board member.
Completion of nearly sixty miles of the canal was to be accomplished by April 15, 1908. But, this section of the ditch was not finished until the spring of 1909. Soon after this, water was turned into the ditch from Lake Como, supplying 15,000 acres along its sixty mile length.(17)

With another extensive advertising campaign to stimulate interest in the canal project, the idea of extending the canal to the Three Mile Creek benchland was born. This extension would make the canal over seventy miles long, from Lake Como to north of Stevensville. W.I. Moody and his associates believed that with this addition the canal could provide water to the most productive land in the valley. This last, short section was completed in 1910, and was to provide irrigation water for an additional 30,000 acres of agricultural land.

A view of the flume across McKinney Gulch.

Bitter Root Historical Society.

During the summer of 1909, the B.R.Y.I. Company made plans for a new townsite with adjacent McIntosh apple orchards. The town, named Bitter Root, would be located three and one half miles northwest of Stevensville. Frank Lloyd Wright, the architect of the Como Orchard Company's University Heights, was commissioned to design hotel and housing plans for the new town. Construction to the Bitter Root Inn began in 1909, and would provide lodging facilities for the prospective land-seekers who were expected to arrive. The Sunny Side Orchard Company subdivided 2,500 acres of land adjacent to Bitter Root.(18) The developers of the town boasted that the town would be very modern; with a large water storage reservoir and twenty fire hydrants it would be well equipped for fire protection. The former Senator William A. Clarke, head of the Missoula Light and Power Company, agreed to provide electricity for the development. A brick power plant was constructed near the inn, with Bitter Root receiving electricity in 1910, one year before Stevensville.(19)

With the extension of the ditch and the Bitter Root Inn nearing completion, another extensive advertising campaign was started. Boxes of Mcintosh apples and other locally raised fruit were shipped to Chicago and other larger cities. Many brochures told of how a person could invest a small sum of money in a choice parcel of land, plant Mcintosh apple trees, and then wait. In five years the trees would bear fruit that would be promoted with agricultural products of other investors, to be sold all over the world. All of this sounded like the perfect opportunity for anyone with a few dollars to spare. A passage from the book, Montana Genesis, describes the typical endeavors of the land promo tours to persuade potential owners to purchase orchard tracts.

Prospective investors were given railroad tickets to Missoula and were met there by hired chauffeurs in big Locomobiles; they were brought to the inn and housed as guests of the company in comfortable rooms; they dined on the choicest steaks and chops and fresh local fruits and vegetables; and they were given their choice of free drinks served by attractive girls employed in the barroom of the inn , The red-carpet treatment, be it noted, was for prospective buyers. Those who had already purchased their land before coming west were met in Missoula but taken directly to their orchards and unloaded and that was that.(20)

Many who purchased land also built houses of the type designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. A German Lutheran church was also established and a building completed.(21) Others purchased land and made arrangements with friends to care for it.

Before and during the Sunny Side Orchard-Bitter Root townsite promotion, other promotions of Bitter Root Valley agricultural land did occur. Hamilton hotel owners were turning people away because their rooms were occupied with landseekers. Investors from all over the United States were flocking to the valley. The Western News even announced that "investors from the famous Hood River Valley of Oregon had bought orchard land in the Bitter Root (Valley)..."(22) This statement implied that although suited for almost any agricultural endeavor, the Hood River Valley failed in the art of raising choice McIntosh apples. If this were true, then the best place in the world for growing McIntosh apples would be in the Bitter Root Valley.

By 1914 the rosy prospects of the Bitter Root Valley Irrigation Company began dwindling. Local creditors filed claims against the company. The major problem, however, was that landowners were finding they could not afford to pay for the water from the Big Ditch that they used on their orchards and croplands. A view held by many stated: "Replace the private, profit-seeking corporation, owned by absentee stockholders with a municipal or public corporation, owned and controlled and operated by themselves." A public opinion letter also stated that "Mutualization is the only solution."(23) Another concern of the landowners was that they were not receiving enough water for their land. The irrigation system definitely needed to be enlarged, but funding was not available.

In late February 1916 a $5 million bankruptcy case was brought against the irrigation company; foreclosure was imminent. Conditions worsened by 1917 with the company borrowing $20,000 just to pay its current expenses.(24) In the months to follow, the courts ordered that the property of the B.R.V.I. Company be transferred to banking interests in Missoula so that the claims of the Chicago financiers could be settled.

Meanwhile, the Montana-Utah Sugar Company was planning to build a beet sugar refinery in Hamilton. It seriously considered purchasing the assets of the B.R.V.I. Company so that water and land could be made available for increasing sugar beet production in the valley. But constant feuds between the Montana-Utah Sugar Company and the Great Western Sugar Company in Missoula dampened this idea.

Display of vegetables and fruit from the Bitter root Valley.

Bitter Root Historical Society.

In February 1918 the B.R.V.I. Company officers hoped that excess land held by the company could be leased. The income from the leases would help keep the company solvent. The courts blocked this idea because the Big Ditch badly needed repair. Portions of the trestles, flumes, and concrete linings would have to be replaced. The company had to raise additional funds to complete this job. In the mean time, water users worried that the canal would not operate for the 1918 growing season. Many were planning large crops to help the war effort. The receiver then issued receiver's certificates as a way to encourage funding for the repair work.(25)

On 4 April 1918 the front page story of The Western News was headlined: "Arson Plot Frustrated," A farmer living on the Hamilton Heights benchland found fuel oil and tinder under a wooden flume of the ditch. A burned out torch lay nearby. The arsonist was never caught, but there was widespread speculation that he may have been a pro-German or a member of the Industrial Workers of the World.(26) The farmers were genuinely worried about the possibility of having no irrigation water for the growing season. If the arsonist had not failed, the agricultural potential of the valley's land would have been ruined.(27)

This incident may have led farmers of the benches to reassess their views concerning the B.R.V.I. Company and the water provided to their lands via the Big Ditch. Within a week after the arson incident, farmers from the Three Mile area northeast of Stevensville agreed to pay their water taxes in advance so that the irrigation company could immediately have working capital for its current expenses. The receiver thought that $5,000 would be needed along with the $20,000 from the sale of receiver's certificates.(28) Another more serious problem could arise if water could not be run through the canal. If the ditch were left empty for the summer, the hot sun would crack the wooden sections of the canal flumes. If water ever flowed through the system again, much of it would leak out. The system then would have to be completely overhauled.

Another burden of the B.R.V.I. Company was an accusation made by a land speculator who thought she had purchased a particular piece of real estate in the Sunny Side Orchard Company. The tract was described as a choice parcel of land. With the aid of maps and diagrams, she then learned that what she had purchased was not what she had previously selected. Rather, it was land that she had considered to be poor in quality with little potential as a productive orchard.(29) Other occurrances like this, accompanied by the many other shortcomings of the irrigation company, culminated into a dramatic change in the operation of the Big Ditch.

Within a month the Federal Reclamation Service decided to rehabilitate and service the irrigation system of the B.R.V.I. Company, but the landowners were required to form an irrigation district. By a court decree, the Bitter Root Irrigation District was organized on 9 December, 1920.(30) With the expense of many years of court litigation, "original investors' losses totaled about 4 ½, million dollars."(31)

The landowners, those who owned land below the ditch and benefited from it, were levied annual fees for irrigation rights. A charge for each acre of irrigable land also included a fee for operation and maintenance of the canal system. In 1931 the B.R.I. District received funds to rehabilitate the whole irrigation system and to liquidate the private indebtedness of the district. The arrangement was made in a repayment contract with the Bureau of Reclamation.

Additional federal funds for work on the system were granted in 1936, 1948, and 1954.(32) At present, construction of a drain field at the end of the canal is in progress, a part of the continuing effort to upgrade the system for the benefit of users.

A maximum of 16,665 acres are now irrigated with water via the Big Ditch - much less than anticipated by originators of the project. Nonetheless, 696 landowners currently use the irrigation water, many more than in 1910. There is an $11 per acre fee for the water, and a $50 operation and maintenance fee assessed to each water user. The B.R.I. District is governed by a five-member board of commissioners along with the Bureau of Reclamation.(33)

A grand accomplishment for its day, the canal has enriched the valley for over seventy years. A question may be asked, though, as to what caused the major financial difficulties of the various companies involved directly or indirectly with the ditch. Following the 1924 fire that consumed the Bitter Root Inn, nothing was left of the tiny community of Bitter Root and the Sunny Side Orchard Company except the memories of a great plan that was never realized. Montana Genesis clearly describes, in essence, what caused this.

The land had been bought from the farmers (by the irrigation company) at $2.50 to $15 an acre, but when it was resold it brought from $400 to $1,000 an acre; and many weird tales have been told of some of the land deals. It was presumably a promotional scheme, and it succeeded.(34)

Hauling apples from the orchard to the packing house.

Bitter Root Historical Society.

What were thought to be sound investments actually produced small returns, if any. The novel idea of going "out west" to enjoy the fresh air and raise apples turned out to be a burden for many, Much of the land that was mentioned above was sold for taxes after the owners had left the valley. Others stayed and raised more stable, established crops like alfalfa, grains, and peas.

The Montana-Utah Sugar Company never completed the beet sugar refinery near Hamilton. All that reminds one of its near existence is a lonely, smoke stack. The Missoula refinery closed in the late 1960s, and the last year of sugar beet production in the Bitter Root Valley was 1978. The A.C.M. Company sawmill eventually was moved to Bonner, east of Missoula. The A.C.M. Company store has been divided and sold to various private parties.

One last topic is the fate of the University Heights community and the Como Orchard Company. This project, the catalyst for the Big Ditch and Bitter Root, has also faded away. The large clubhouse stood empty and was dismantled in later years. Only one of the bungalows remains. The professors and other university people went back to Chicago and the East, much for the same reasons as had the people of Bitter Root Valley, a reminder of the great "apple boom."

This boom was not unlike the many other examples of boosterism in Montana and West. Boosterism, the determination of the local people of a particular area to make their communities the most important in the region, was greatly emphasized in eastern Montana during the first few decades of the Twentieth Century. This was accomplished through promotion of "dry Farming," a technique designed to retain moisture in the soil of semiarid regions. The Homestead Act of 1862 and the Enlarged Homestead Act of 1909 were decisive factors of early boosterism of the West. Farmers could claim up to 320 acres of land for development.(35)

The droughts of the 1920 and 1930s caused many people of this region to simply give up and move elsewhere. Boosterism of the Bitter Root Valley, though akin to that of eastern Montana, differed in a few aspects. The focus of Bitter Root boosterism, though agricultural, was irrigated orchard land, whereas dry farmed, grassland prevailed in eastern Montana.

Those who stayed through the trying times did succeed with what they planned. In the Bitter Root Valley, those who stayed after the apple boom helped to create a thriving agricultural area. Many former fruit growers sought prosperity through dairy farming or truck gardening. Others began raising beef cattle and grain crops, Still others moved closer to the valley's small urban area and became skilled at various trades, but a few commercial apple orchards are scattered throughout the valley.(36) An orchard producing pie cherries and an accompanying cannery is the only other larger operation involving fruit. At present, most landowners raise small herds of cattle or staple crops. The predicted population of 100,000 people has never been reached. The current census of 25,000 people is the largest recorded for the valley. Nonetheless, the Bitter Root Valley's experience with the apple boom of the early Twentieth Century represents an important step in the socioeconomic development of western Montana.


(1) The words "Bitter Root" have been combined as "Bitterroot" by some authorities. The two-word form will be carried throughout this paper.
(2) Hamilton was established by Marcus Daly in the early 1890s. It is located 45 miles south of Missoula and is the county seat of Ravalli County.
(3) The Sapphire Mountains border the east side of the Bitter Root Valley. The gentle mountains have elevations between 6,000 and 8,000 feet. The Bitter Root Mountains border the west side of the valley. These rugged mountains have elevations between 8,500 and 10,000 feet.
(4) Miles Romney, "The World Famous Valley of Bitter Root, Its Early History, Its Incomparable Resources and the Men who have Wrought Mightily in its Development," The Western News Magazine Supplement (Hamilton), May 1910, p. 7-8.
(5)Interview with Bessie K. Monroe, Correspondent for The Ravalli Republic (Hamilton), Hamilton, Montana, Summer 1982.
(6) "Two Remarkable Bitter Root Valley Orchards," The Western News Magazine Supplement (Hamilton), May 1910, p. 18.
(7) Ibid., p. 18.
(8) Interview with Bessie K. Monroe, Correspondent for The Ravalli Republic (Hamilton), Hamilton, Montana, 1982.
(9) S.L. Cappious, "History of the Bitter Root Valley to 1914" (M.A. thesis, University of Washington, 1939), p. 63.
(10) Romney, "The World Famous Valley of Bitter Root," p. 8.
(11) Frederick D. Nichols. "The Bitter Root Valley Irrigation Company," The Western News Magazine Supplement (Hamilton), May 10 1910. p. 25.
(12) The dimensions of the canal were 24 feet wide with six feet in depth as shown in Bitter Root Irrigation District History, compo Bitter Root Irrigation District, n.p., n.d., p. 41; Nichols, p. 25.
(13) The Western News (Hamilton), 27 November 1907, p. 1.
(14) The Western News (Hamilton), 25 December 1907, p. 1.
(15) The Western News (Hamilton), 5 February 1908. p. 1.
(16) Cappious, "History of the B.R. Valley," p. 63.
(17) Nichols, "The B.R.V.I. Co.," p. 25.
(18) Stevensville Historical Society, Montana Genesis (Missoula; Mountain Press Publishing Company, 1971), pp. 163-164.
(19) The Missoula Light and Power Company later became part of the Montana Power Company. William A. Clark was also a part of other enterprises as seen in Ben Griffing, "Street Cars of Missoula," Montana Historian, March 1976, pp. 24-30.
(20) Stevensville Historical Society, Montana Genesis, p. 168-169.
(21) Ibid., p. 192.
(22) The Western News (Hamilton), 13 October 1907, p. 1.
(23) The Western News (Hamilton), 7 January 1916, p. 2.
(24) The Western News (Hamilton), 2 August 1917, p. 1.
(25) The Western News (Hamilton), 7 March 1918, p. l.
(26) During World War I much anti-German sentiment occurred in Montana. In addition, the I.W.W., a radical union supporting socialist ideals, came under attack in the state because it was viewd as un-American.
(27) The Ravalli Republican (Hamiltonl, 5 April 1918, p. 1; The Western News (Hamilton), 4 April 191B, p. 1.
(28) The Ravalli Republican (Hamilton), 12 April 1918, p. 1.; The Western News (Hamilton), 11 April 1918, p. 1.
(29) The Western News (Hamilton), 19 September 1918, p. l.
(30) The Western News (Hamilton), 10 April 1974, p. 1.
(31) Bitter Root Irrigation District, p.41.
(32) Ibid .. p. 42.
(33) Interview with Eleanor Wolf, Secretary for the Bitter Root Irrigation District Office, Hamilton, Montana, 4 November 1982.
(34) Stevensville Historical Society, Montana Genesis, p. 162.
(35) Robert R. Swartout, Jr., ed., Montana Vistas: Selected Historical Essays (Washington: University Press of America, Inc., 1981. pp. 185, 203.
(36) Interview with Donald R. Graham, Superintendent of the Western Agricultural Research Center of the Montana Agricultural Experiment Station, Corvallis, Montana, 24 February 1983.