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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Historic irrigation canals that watered the valley’s origins and gave kids unsanctioned swim holes will be focus of museum talk and fundraiser

Irrigation canals once stretched for miles across the Spokane Valley. Scattered remnants still can be found.

In the late 1890s, separate projects began to open the flow of lake and river water to settlers, who were arriving to plant orchards or start farms. Those canals also offered unsanctioned summertime swims for children.

The largest project, called the Corbin ditch, was developed by railroad magnate Daniel Corbin, who with others created the Spokane Valley Land and Water Company in 1899 to develop irrigation and sell land with water rights.

The Corbin ditch was completed in 1907 with a system of 54 miles of ditch, flume and canals carrying water.

The Spokane Valley Heritage Museum plans to present, “Flumes, Ditches & Canals, the Irrigation Story,” for its 19th annual fundraiser and history program. It’s scheduled 1-3 p.m. Oct. 28 at CenterPlace Regional Event Center.

“People can expect to learn about how water actually became the birth of the valley, so to speak,” said Jayne Singleton, museum director. “There was water everywhere – the river, the lakes – but before Corbin undertook his amazing project to irrigate the valley, water wasn’t readily available.”

Corbin was a mover and shaker in the late 1800s and early 1900s, Singleton said.

“It was a very ambitious effort to establish water supply for potential farmers, bringing people to the valley from back east and other parts of our country. You couldn’t farm without water, so we had all this water and no way to deliver it.”

Around that time, others were looking into the challenge of how to bring water to more parts of the valley.

Singleton said a separate project diverted water out of Liberty Lake to irrigate Greenacres in 1903 and 1904. The newly formed Greenacres community eventually had 16 miles of ditches, watering 1,400-plus acres for orchards that were beginning to dot the countryside.

Yet another irrigation project took water out of Newman Lake to irrigate Otis Orchards. But the Corbin ditch’s source was the Spokane River, starting at a point where previously Frederick Post had established a mill, Singleton said.

“When that was abandoned, that was available for D.C. Corbin to utilize as the head gates for the Spokane Valley and Water Company ditches,” she said. “The Corbin irrigation ditch is more the vernacular as what the community called it, because it was associated with Corbin, but it was technically Spokane Valley Land and Water Company that established the flumes, ditches and canals.

“It flowed into the valley, took a turn at what we now know as Cabela’s, then the ditch went along the north side of the valley just about to Millwood. There is still visible ditch in a number of places, particularly up on the hill behind the Hutton Settlement, which I don’t encourage anyone to go look. That’s on private property.”

Without the water, the valley wouldn’t have become known for its widespread apple orchards and its “Hearts of Gold” cantaloupes. But there’s another shared memory, one Singleton hears often from people when they visit the museum.

“Irrigation ditches to children meant summertime swimming, so that’s part of it,” Singleton said. “It wasn’t just water for crops; it was water for summertime cooling off. All the time I hear that from people. You were not allowed to swim in the ditch, but people did it anyway.

The ditches have long inspired questions, she said.

“Many, many people who come into the museum either share stories about the ditch, flumes or canals, or they talk about swimming in them, or they say, ‘Hey, I’ve got some irrigation ditch on my property, do you know anything about it?’ It’s still very much a conversation that takes place, and people want to know, what’s this all about?”

“So it’s a beginning, not the geological beginning, but the hydrology of having so much water and the aquifer beneath us that gave rise to all the other history made possible by the water being delivered.”

Singleton said that by around the early 1960s, the Valley saw a transition from the open water ditches and irrigation canals to the Bureau of Reclamation’s tall water towers for containment and easier maintenance.

The event’s tickets are $20 a person. Although reservations are required, that fee can be paid at the door, Singleton said.

Call the museum at (509) 922-4570 to reserve seats, or buy tickets ahead during museum hours 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday at 12114 E. Sprague Ave.