Authors dig into a big piece of Baker’s history
There is no pleasure quite like slouching into the embrace of a soft chair, flipping to the first page of a book, and realizing, in that instant, that the whole of the tale awaits, as faithful as the best dog you ever knew.
It’s like starting a vacation.
Or standing on the front porch of the girl’s house who you finally forced yourself to telephone, and she said sure, she’d love to go to the movie with you.
This glorious anticipation seems to me especially rich when the book has to do with real places that I’ve been to, and plan to visit again.
I was, then, unusually eager to get into Mike Higgins’ and Leo Tipton’s new history: “Ditch Walkers and Water Wars: The Life and Times of the Eldorado Ditch in the Gold Fields of Eastern Oregon.”
That’s quite the title.
But then the Eldorado was quite the ditch.
Even in a region such as ours, where the semi-arid climate means it’s necessary to supplement nature’s waterways with manmade channels if you want to get the water where it’s needed, the Eldorado Ditch stands out as a feat of construction.
Having once been a small boy I am familiar with, and still harbor an affinity for, all manner of earth-moving endeavors.
(Small boys tend to be inveterate diggers; my son Max, who’s 2, has a plastic shovel of which he is distressingly fond. He sometimes tries to sneak the thing into his crib, and he has on occasion shrieked when it was pried, only after great exertion, from his chubby little hands.)
That workers, using the rudimentary tools and techniques available in the 1860s and 1870s, could carve a ditch across a goodly section of southern Baker County strikes me as a story worth telling.
And Higgins and Tipton, who are cousins as well as Baker County natives, did a fine job indeed of telling it.
This is due largely because in researching their book they acted not merely as historians but also as archaeologists.
In addition to spending dozens of hours poring over musty records in the “catacombs” at the Baker County Courthouse (their term, and an apt one, it seems to me), the pair hiked the whole 140 miles of the Eldorado, searching for remnants left by the work crews.
As nearly as they could, anyway — the intervening century and a half of logging and firefighting and road-building has erased, or at least obscured, sections of the ditch, as the authors discovered to their occasional frustration.
Still and all, the book is about as thorough a history as we’re likely to get of this Oregon landmark.
I don’t think it’s overstating things to say that the story of the Eldorado Ditch is in a sense the story of Oregon.
Certainly Higgins and Tipton examine elements which distinguished the settlement of many parts of our state, among them the lure of gold, the importance of lumbering, farming and ranching, and the vital role of Chinese immigrant laborers.
At the book’s core, of course, is the competition for water, a situation which continues to spawn plenty of headlines in our digitized era.
(Ask any farmer in the Klamath Basin, for instance.)
William H. Packwood and the other pioneering entrepreneurs who made the Eldorado Ditch a reality certainly didn’t worry about bull trout or water temperatures or turbidity, nor did they have an over-bearing federal government forcing them to do so.
But they were well-acquainted with the sorts of trouble, both civil and criminal, that can arise when too many people are clamoring for a resource that’s too scare to fill everyone’s bucket.
The story of the Eldorado Ditch is one of lawsuits, sabotage and the conflict between the miner, who knows his time to cash in is short and so gives little thought to long-term planning, and the farmer, who plans to earn his livelihood from the land for the whole of his days and must have water to do so.
I felt at times a twinge of melancholy while reading this book. The story of the Eldorado Ditch is a sad one, it seems to me, if only because the enterprise, despite the immensity of the toil and treasure invested in it, fulfilled its purpose for a relatively short time, the ditch being in effect abandoned by 1925.
Happily, though, such was not the fate of every canal hacked into our obstinate soils during the heyday of ditch-digging, roughly 1862-1880.
Packwood, who seemingly had a financial finger in every profitable pie in Baker County in that era (and some that were not so profitable), took a lead role in building the area’s first major ditch, the Auburn.
It was named for the town which was the first county seat and, for a couple of years after its founding in 1862, was the second most populous place in the fledgling state.
The ditch’s purpose was identical to that of the Eldorado — to bring water to placer and, later, hydraulic mining operations.
But unlike the Eldorado, the Auburn Ditch, once its initial use had petered out, embarked on a second career, one in which, well over a century later, it’s still engaged.
Officials in Baker City, the upstart that supplanted Auburn as Baker County seat (Baker City town fathers having spirited away the county records under cover of night, so the story goes), decided, after acquiring water rights from the ditch owners for municipal use, to lay the pipeline in the ditch bed and cover it with dirt.
Today the water that flows from Baker City’s faucets follows the same route that Packwood’s crews forged at a time when, most of a continent away, the Civil War was threatening the country’s very survival.
All that pick-and-shovel work was pretty important, as it turned out.
And thanks to Higgins and Tipton, we understand better than before just how monumental that task was.
Jayson Jacoby is editor