THE FIRST BIG WATER PROJECTS

"One of the large drain ditches leading into the Arroyo Colorado. Note width and depth. We have no rain water to drain off, but there is always a surplus of irrigation water in an irrigated country to be taken care of" From a 1909 Irrigation District scrapbook. Courtesy of San Benito Historical Society.

 

B.F. Yoakum had seen a vision of what this land was and could do, and even before track laying started, he thought of the upbuilding and development of the country. He first acquired 39,000 acres off of the west side of Withers' holdings, with the inclusion of an additional block to the east. Thomas W. Carter, a former grain merchant of St. Louis, had bought a considerable acreage. The why and wherefore of his coming, was his friend, B. F. Yoakum.

Out of this grew the formation, on August 23, 1903, of the American, Rio Grande Land & Irrigation Company, by the following parties: Thomas W.Carter, President; S. P. Silver, General Manager; Thomas W. West, Edwards Whitaker, S. W. Fordyce, E. C. Eliot and B. F. Yoakum. Then followed in rapid order additional purchases until they had an immense block of 104,000 acres, a tract ten miles wide east and west and extending for a distance of eighteen miles back from the river.

The American, Rio Grande Land & Irrigation Company had hoped to accomplish great things for the Valley, and they set about building the largest irrigation system in the world, an echo of the previous decade, with an engineering scheme which, for boldness of conception, breadth and scope, rivaled Lieutenant Chatfield's plan.

The outstanding feature of the Yoakum project was the plan for redeeming for cultivation thousands of acres by taking the waters of the Rio Grande through two long canals. Starting at a point about ten miles above what later became Mission, one of its canals led down the river, thus affording protection against overflows, while the other canal was to extend through Raymondville. Within the limits of this triangle they proposed to nourish more than 800,000 acres, while laying to the east of the triangle, between the Brownsville Railroad and the coast, there was a quarter of a million acres more, susceptible to the same treatment.

Preliminary investigation revealed that a fall of over one hundred feet could be had between the point they proposed to get out of the river and Raymondville, thus making a gravity proposition possible. Sam Robertson was engaged in making these surveys, and a famous engineer, John Hays Hammond, had been sent down to investigate the situation and report on its feasibility, when a legal decision was handed down, affecting the use of water for irrigation purposes in San Saba County, Texas. As a result, this caused the question of the legality of carrying water beyond the riparian rights to arise, and resulted in the immediate revamping of their plans, greatly reducing the river section and causing the abandonment of the entire Raymondville sector. They then set about to build a plant to take care of a quarter of a million acres, with immediate provision to irrigate 50,000 acres.

Sam Robertson was awarded the contract to grade the canals and laterals south of the railroad under the very comprehensive engineering plans of Chester B. Davis. Actual work was started May 1, 1905. They set out to clear a strip 500 feet wide through the brush from the river to the railroad, seven miles, for the main canal or principal artery of this vast system. This, with its width of 145 feet and ranging from fifteen to twenty feet deep, was in the superlative class, and it almost seemed as if they were preparing to detour the Rio Grande. From this branches and laterals diverted, in order to make fruitful a vast area, and by November 1, 1905, six months after the first spade full of dirt was thrown, this main trunk, with its capacity of more than 100,000 gallons per second, was completed.

Everything about this project was built to endure. The canals were solidly constructed, and the buildings, bridges, flumes, etc. were substantially built of concrete - all units of the pumping plant and power house being constructed with the idea of enlargement from time to time.

The engineers found a natural lake of about 350 acres at a strategic point on the river near their pumping station site, which they proceeded to convert into an immense reservoir, by encircling it with an embankment twelve feet high.

"Pumping Plant and Gravity Headworks, San Benito Land & Water Co."

Photo courtesy of San Benito Historical Society

This served a double purpose, first, that of a storage basin, supplementing the pumping plant in case of accident or break down, and second as a settling reservoir for the disposition of silt mud, and deleterious seeds that might be carried down in flood season.

The land was sold mostly in small tracts running all the way from ten to forty acres, water for which was to be purchased by the farmer at an annual rental. The American, Rio Grande Land & Irrigation Company soon opened their own experimental farm, and by January 1909, three thousand acres of the surrounding lands were in cultivation. Within the lapse of another year the district got an unusual "kick" out of the honor of producing the first bale of cotton in the United States for that season, grown on the Colonel S. W. Fordyce 220-acre farm, in charge of William D. Chadwick, just south of Mercedes. By 1911 the cultivated lands had grown to 8,000 acres.

The Yoakum project was held by the original syndicate corporation until 1921, when its control passed to Seay Brothers & Linz, of Dallas, Texas. These new owners made extensive improvements both in the pumping plant and the rebuilding and realignment of their network of canals. Out of the original tract, irrigation was now being furnished to about 90,000 acres, over 80,000 acres of which are under intensive cultivation, and the boundless acres under this project became the leaders in quantity of irrigated products - where from thirty to forty per cent of the output from the Valley's irrigation systems are now grown. At present, there are some 110,000 acres in the project, and this, along with the United Irrigation Company of Mission is the only privately owned irrigation system of any size in the Valley. To the American Rio Grande Land & Irrigation Company belongs part of the credit for having given the United States one of the most prosperous and fertile regions that is to be found anywhere.

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