“a valueless and horrible desert”

I’m puzzling over the real story of Oliver Meredith Wozencraft, the chap who was arguably the first person to imagine the large-scale irrigation of the deserts of the southwest with water from the Colorado River.

Oliver Meridith Wozencraft

Oliver Meredith Wozencraft

Wozencraft was a physician who came west in 1849 in search of gold and stumbled instead (apparently quite literally) onto the dream of irrigation of what came to be known as “the Imperial Valley”. But the details of the stumbling seem a bit murky.

The basic outline of the story seems clear. Headed for the gold fields of California in 1849, Wozencraft crossed the Colorado River at Yuma and headed with a small party aboard mules across what was a remarkably dangerous desert crossing. They nearly perished, but at some point in the crossing (or soon after?) Wozencraft had the insight that water from the Colorado River could be turned into the desert that had nearly killed him, turning useless wasteland into an agricultural paradise.

In an account written later, Wozencraft described it this way:

The heat was so intense that on the third day two of my men failed. It occurred to me, as there was nothing I could do there, to mount my gentle and patient mule, and at a distance of some eight miles I reached the border of the desert and water, with which I filled a bag and brought it back to them.

It was then and there that I first conceived the idea of the reclamation of the desert.

So is Wozencraft’s version recounted in the 1910 Story of the First Decade of the Imperial Valley, which anoints Wozencraft “Father of the Imperial Valley.”

Joseph Stevens, in his 1988 Hoover Dam: An American Adventure, has a little different spin on the tale. To hear Stevens tell it, it was Wozencraft who was near death, in a delirium of heat and dehydration, collapsed on the edge of the Alamo Barranco, an old dry river channel that would eventually be at the heart of irrigation schemes, a pre-built irrigation canal to carry water from the Colorado to the lowlands of the Salton Sink – the Imperial Valley. It was in this delirium that he conceived the idea of irrigating the desert, and there, Stevens points out, it would have died had not one of the  when one of the doctor’s companions “arrived at that moment with a full water bag; the man revived Wozencraft, hoisted him onto his mule, and led him back to Yuma.”

I’m not sure the difference between the two accounts is all that important, because whether Wozencraft did the rescuing or needed to be rescued, what followed seems not to be in dispute. Wozencraft abandoned gold for irrigation, and spent the rest of his days in an unsuccessful attempt to get the U.S. government to foot the bill. For storytelling, I sure like the second better than the first. Both seem to be quoting primary material written by Wozencraft himself. I’m chasing down the footnotes. I’ll let you know what I find out.

As a deeper matter of Colorado River storytelling, though, it’s worth thinking about whether Wozencraft really deserves credit for starting something, or whether he noticed something obvious (the strange geography of the Lower Colorado, which allows gravity-fed irrigation of the Imperial Valley) that others would have eventually pursued anyway.

Oh, yeah, the title bears explanation. The federal legislation Wozencraft eventually instigated would have deeded him a huge amount of land in the Imperial Valley:

about 1600 square miles in the basin of what is now and must remain, until an energetic and extensive system of reclamation is inaugurated and brought to successful completion, a valueless and horrible desert.

One more addition to my collection of quotes from people who historically undervalued this strange and wonderful place.


  1. Fascinating story, John. But of course he should get credit for discovering the obvious. Don’t you think that’s true of most great inventions or discoveries?

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