Did you miss the other parts in our series?
Here are links so you can catch up and read them all
Part One – Where we detail the physical aspects of the lake and the earliest records of exploration
Part Two – In which we will begin to look at historic lake levels and the different natural factors which have caused Eagle Lake to rise and fall… including earthquakes!
Part Three – In which we retrace our steps and take a look at the various attempts to tap the lake, including 3 tunnels you never knew existed!
Part Four: In which we find out where all of this water was supposed to be going! Featuring the lush garden regions of Amedee, Standish and Litchfield.
Part Five: Where we watch as Leon Bly takes on the lake, and chronicle the 90-year aftermath of the project.
Everywhere we go these days people are talking about the Bly Tunnel at Eagle Lake. We all read the pertinent articles in the Lassen County Times, try and absorb facts and figures and listen to the arguments in what has become an incredibly divisive issue.
Why does this particular controversy raise the ire of so many? Just attempting to put a lot of these facts down in writing is a scary proposition given the extreme nature of the arguments. We have tried to exhaustively track down as many prima facie documents as possible, relying on the opinions or studies by experts.
Along with those opinions we hope to give you our own SusanvilleStuff primer on the colorful history, unique geology and over 150 years of political battles surrounding California’s second largest natural lake.
Part Four – In which we find out where all of this water was supposed to be going! Featuring the lush garden regions of Amedee, Standish and Litchfield.
Inadequate precipitation in our region required settlers to use irrigation for agriculture, at first simply diverting water from streams, but in many areas demand outstripped supply and plans were put into action to build reservoirs and store the water for use during the parched summers.
In the second half of the 19th century private and state-sponsored storage and irrigation ventures were pursued but often failed for lack of both money and engineering skill.
Irrigation projects like those at Eagle Lake were known as reclamation projects. The concept was that through irrigation settlers would be able to would reclaim desert lands for human use.
The very first project proposed at Eagle Lake by A.W. Blair in 1872 was to ‘reclaim’ the entire lake! The lake bottom was to be completely drained and used as farm land. Just imagine the ecological nightmare which would have followed had the company managed to raise the $1,000,000 it needed to proceed.
Here in the Honey Lake Valley, according to a brochure from Captain Merrill’s San Francisco office, there were 400 thousand acres of mostly dry sagebrush land that in the eyes of the settlers could be turned into a lush green paradise, rivaling the central valley in crop production, if only there was a way to bring water to the desert.
In November of 1878 a group of settlers from the east coast made their home near Honey Lake lured by the promise of succulent fields, but the hardscrabble existence they found when they arrived whittled down the group to only the hardiest.
Advertisements from the Honey Lake Land and Water Company claimed, “The soil is a dark sandy loam of great depth and richness and retains moisture well. With water it will produce anything known to the temperate zone. This land has lain fallow for centuries and now that the Honey Lake Land and Water Company have undertaken to reclaim it that section of the country will be a perfect garden in less than five years.”
In 1881 construction of a hotel and general store began at Belfast and, according to Fariss and Smith’s History of Lassen County, in the spring of 1882 Merrill and his partner, Senator Marker of Nevada, laid out a town covering 640 acres.
F&S say that 3,000 shade trees were planted, “which will soon be an ornament to the streets of the new town, through which it is expected that the Reno and Oregon railroad will pass.”
…it is expected that a thriving village will quickly spring up, to be, perhaps, in a few years, the metropolis of the county.
Merrill named the proposed city after Belfast, Maine where he spent his youth, worked in the shipyards and was married.
In 1893 the Nevada State Journal reported that, “The Eagle Lake Land & Irrigation Company have inaugurated a comprehensive system of irrigation which in conjunction with the Susan River system will in a few years transform the sagebrush plains into waving grain and alfalfa fields.”
“From Geo. A. Dodge, one of the enterprising citizens of the valley, the JOURNAL reporter learned that there are about 250,000 acres of land in what is known as Honey Lake Valley, this includes the lower or northern part of Long Valley and about 30,030 acres in Nevada, which can be irrigated and cultivated.”
“The Eagle Lake L. & I. Company have a canal forty-six miles long that carries 700 inches of water, which experience has proved to be sufficient to irrigate 7,000 acres. The company intends to increase the size of the canal as occasion may require, as the water supply is unlimited.”
On these ranches, according to the article, “There can now be seen growing alfalfa, corn, wheat, potatoes, all kinds of garden vegetables, currants, gooseberries, raspberries and shade trees. Hence it is only a question of when water can be had in sufficient quantity, that the great majority of the lands of Honey Lake Valley, now covered with sagebrush, will be transformed into profitable farms, yielding products in as great a variety and as abundantly as any lands now being worked around the south and west.”
Let’s take a break from these dreams of transforming a semi-arid desert into a Shangri-La and look at a cold hard fact that meant none of this was ever going to work. Never. Not a chance in a million.
Dr. Robert Amesbury in Eagle Lake explains it far better than I could paraphrase, so we will include his explanation as it appears in his book.
Amesbury says, “A complete analysis of a sample of water in Eagle Lake in 1922 was made prior to any diversion through the Bly Tunnel. This showed a total content of solubles of 752 parts per million. This represented roughly a ton of solids per acre foot of water.”
“During the period of diversion through the tunnel from 1923-1935 the 295,000 acre feet diverted had a probable average soluble content of 410,000 tons! These are not the kind of solids that help already alkaline soil, by any means.”
“Water analysis done by Twining Laboratories in 1947 listed the water at the tunnel intake as fair for irrigation and at the tunnel outlet very poor. The water picks up salts as it passes through the soil at the entrance to the tunnel and the tunnel itself.”
After endless efforts by so many over the years to get the water of Eagle Lake to the Honey Lake Valley, even after the Bly Tunnel successfully diverted water, it came down to a simple matter of chemistry. What seemed to be a giant reservoir of fresh, clear water was in fact almost worthless for irrigating the already highly akaline lands around Honey Lake.
By the turn of the century Amedee was being touted as the Chicago of the northwest and W.E. Smythe founded the Standish Colony, a group of thirty people from New York who came to cultivate the colony’s tract of 7,000 acres.
Smythe said, “We hope to make this colony the ground for an experiment in a social and economical way. There is room in the west for the surplus population of the east, and many would willingly come if they had the means.”
Those means were provided by allowing settlers to develop their property on capital borrowed from the company.
In 1913 when the Fernley-Lassen Railroad made its way to Susanville, it opened up yet another opportunity for land speculators to revive the concept of Eagle Lake water irrigating the Honey Lake Valley. This time it was the town of Litchfield that was offered up as a farming paradise.
An enthusiastic Reno Gazette said, “While the cattle raising in the Honey Lake Valley is a very large industry in itself, it is not the only occupation of the present farmers, as the nature of the soil and the climatic conditions are such the best grades of fruits, potatoes, Concord grapes (such as can be grown in no other part of the United States excepting in the New England states), vegetables of every description and alfalfa of the finest quality are grown. These products find a ready market in the immediate vicinity.”
Rancher Frank Gibson said, “As to the location of the new town of Litchfield, there could not be a place where a town could start that could have as many natural indications for a prosperous and thriving town. I say this because I have been associated with the people of the valley for 17 years and think I have expressed the sentiments of the people, as some of them have invested in lots in Litchfield, which is bound to be the center for the matchless Honey Lake Valley.”
Seven years later, just prior to the opening of the Bly Tunnel, Charles Knight, President of the Reno Chamber of Commerce paid Susanville a visit and remarked on the great progress being made here.
“Irrigation, reclamation and general development of the surrounding country is uppermost in the minds of the Susanville people and in this they have the hearty co-operation of land owners for miles around.”
Knight asserted that Bly’s project would mean the irrigation of some 25,000 acres of land. Adding that, “when this becomes a reality one can hardly imagine what it will mean to Susanville and also to Reno.”
“Thousands of acres of the land will be cut up into small tracts and sold. This means that hundreds of new people will move into Susanville and surrounding country. This means prosperity.”
Tuesday we will conclude with the fifth part in our series – In which we will finally meet the man who’s name will forever be attached to Eagle Lake and learn everything there is to learn about his tunnel.