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The Big Ditch


The history of Montana is rich with the tales of entrepreneurs and ambitious communities seeking ways to attract settlers. The early residents of the Bitterroot saw an opportunity when they noticed how well trees grew in the Valley. The logic was, if the native trees grew so well, then planted orchard trees would do just as well. They dreamed of a fruit growing region that would rival those in Washington State. The idea was to develop the orchards, then sell them to buyers out east.

They planned a huge irrigation system. The $3.5 million required to build the system was provided by investors from Chicago after the federal government turned down the project and attempts to raise the money locally failed.

Work on the ditch began. The dam at Lake Como was raised by 50 feet and by 1906, the first 17 miles of the 6 foot deep, 24 foot wide ditch was finished. The next 75 miles required siphoning and making flumes of the water across many canyons and creeks and under the Bitterroot River. By 1910, although there was still insufficient water, additional orchards were being planted up and down the Valley. Barrels of water were hauled in to water the seedlings.

In 1910, fruit from orchards planted in the 1890s was sent to the East in hopes of attracting buyers. The prospective buyers were treated like royalty—for a while. They were given train tickets to Missoula and met in chauffer driven cars. They were wined and dined in hopes of closing the sale. Once they signed, they were left alone to do as they please. The investors who bought before arriving weren’t treated as regally. They were met in Missoula, then taken to their orchard and dumped. By 1918 the Big Ditch Company was bankrupt and the Chicago investors foreclosed. Today few of the orchards remain. The land is used for other crops. The federal government took over the ditch and now sells the water to farmers and ranchers.


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