Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Spearfish could well have become "Evansville"

Spearfish Creek rises in South Dakota just north of O’Neill pass, not far from the Wyoming border.  It flows a scenic route, winding through Spearfish Canyon and streaming some 40 miles before it empties into the Redwater River.
Paul Higbee
But measuring the 40-mile length is the wrong way to really measure Spearfish Creek,” said writer Paul Higbee last night (12/6/11) during a presentation to the Spearfish Area Historical Society about the historic irrigation system that permeates the valley beyond the mouth of Spearfish Canyon.
The more important measurement is the 3,000-foot drop over that 40 miles,” Higbee noted, citing a five-inch drop every 100 feet on its route northward to the Redwater. 
Joining Higbee for the presentation was life-long resident Billy Evans, whose grandfather -- Robert Evans -- was the moving force behind the elaborate and valuable irrigation system developed in the valley around Spearfish.
An Irishman, the elder Evans cut his teeth in the irrigation business in Montana. Using that knowledge and experience, he set about to provide the vision and reality of what would become a viable irrigation system for more than a century -- one that remains an important part of the economy.
Billy Evans told about the earlier irrigation exploits of his grandfather in Montana and described in some detail the process by which the Spearfish irrigation system was planned and constructed in the 1870's.
Originally, according to Evans, there were 12 ditches crossing the valley, eventually irrigating some 3,700 acres.  He even brought along an irrigation shovel, flat-ended rather than pointed, to allow mud to slide off.  It’s a shovel he said he used for some 40 years.  He told about the fresno, a larger tool specifically designed to move the earth necessary for creation of the ditches.  Too large to haul in for demonstration, the device is shown in this video about the Spearfish irrigation project.  And you'll find additional photos and other Spearfish history in our Spearfish Gallery.

Billy Evans with his ditch shovel
Billy Evans provided a bit of background about unique aspects of Spearfish Creek.  Beyond the sharp decline in elevation that provides the driving force behind the irrigation system, much of the creek lies over about a 40 to 45-foot bed of gravel.
The water runs so fast, and the gravel on the bottom become so cold in the winter, that Spearfish Creek freezes from the bottom up.”  It’s that same gravel-bottom feature that allows the creek to literally recharge itself along its channel.
Evans shared stories from the turn of the last century when Homestake Mine purchased land across the area and secured water rights to help support their operation.  Those were challenging times for the many valley farmers who were struggling to make Spearfish valley an even more productive source of farm products for the region.
Another big challenge came in about 1970 when the interstate highway was constructed across the valley.  Original plans for the freeway would have routed it right through the heart of town and would have severed many ditches.
“At first, they were going to route it around Lookout Mountain, but then changed their minds and planned it right through town,” said Evans.
Through the efforts of Walter Dickey, Josef Meier, Ray Runnings and others, I-90 finally was routed up along a hillside to the east and ended up crossing only a couple of ditches.

Robert Evans wasn’t the only Evans family member to have a significant impact upon Spearfish.   Paul Higbee noted that Evans’ grandmother, Sarah (Pettigrew) Evans was the first teacher in Spearfish and had a deep commitment to not only education, but to the arts as well.
To be sure, the Evans family contribution to the community was enormous. And according to Higbee, current Spearfish mayor Jerry Krambeck has opined that Spearfish could very well have been named “Evansville.”
Cecil Whitlock with his prize
This is not the first time that the Spearfish irrigation system has been a topic for the historical society, and chances are it won’t be the last.  The system continues to be an integral part of the local economy and will likely remain so for years to come.
A bit of additional excitement took place following the program when Cecil Whitlock was presented with a large framed "then and now" photograph of Spearfish.  His raffle ticket won him the prized Paul Horsted item, which was among the many rare photos Horseth included in his book "The Black Hills: Yesterday and Today."  Horsted donated two framed photographs of Spearfish, for which we are very grateful.  And our congratulations to Cecil Whitlock!

The next meeting of the Spearfish Area Historical Society will feature Vernon Davis reconstructing the history behind the old Spearfish stockade -- including a bit of additional insight into one of Vernon’s ancestors, Johnny Spaulding.  That meeting is set for 7:30 p.m., Tuesday, January 3rd, 2012.