5. Triumph of the Gilpins

“Of course I have got a great respect for scientifically educated gentlemen, and I am always very much interested in their researches and all that, but you can not satisfy an ordinary man by any theoretical scheme or by any science.... ‘One man can see in the ground no farther than another, unless there is a hole in it.’ ” (Senator Moody of South Dakota before the House Appropriations Committee, June 4, 1890.) 1

THEY WERE LAYING for him when he appeared before the House Appropriations Committee at the beginning of June. Though he had stout friends as well as enemies, he faced a general Congressional disappointment that the survey had not achieved more in its nearly two years of life, and a specific Western irritation at the closing of the public domain. Somewhere in the room, too, was an echo of Cope’s charges of power grabbing and incompetence, an air of personal mistrust that Powell had rarely met before. On the whole, he had enjoyed Congressional confidence, but the committee which had summoned him now was not reassuring. It was watchful. And in the room, present as guests at their own request, were the whole Irrigation Committee of the Senate, headed by Stewart.

What he gave them was a set of facts, but the facts had been selected in the full knowledge that he would be sharply questioned, and that the questions would center on topography. He outlined the history of the legislation and the preliminary plans which he had on request furnished before any legislation was passed, and he took pains to note that Stewart and Teller had been central in that agitation. From the beginning, Powell’s estimates of cost and duration had been based on the necessity of the topographic map: the Public Lands Committee, the Appropriations Committees, and everyone else concerned had discussed and approved his estimates in the full knowledge of what they implied. He quoted them their own approval from the printed record. He outlined the relationship between the topographical work of the Geological Survey and that of the Irrigation Survey, showed them his budgets in each case, showed them how he had kept his Geological Survey mapping to eastern states and mining regions and his Irrigation Survey topography to western agricultural and water-storage lands. The two operations, he insisted, had been kept scrupulously separate, though in the long run they would be combined to produce the master atlas of the country. He showed them on skeleton maps what he had done and what he expected to do, and when the visiting Senators could contain themselves no longer they interrupted the committee proceedings and threw questions at his head. The two who came at him hardest were Stewart and Gideon Moody of South Dakota.

They wanted to know who had defined the “arid region,” and implied that it was a fiction of Powell’s own, designed to get him extra powers.2 They were bitter about Representative Symes’ amendment to the 1888 Resolution, which authorized the withdrawal of all arid lands. South Dakota, said Senator Moody, was not arid land. He denied rainfall statistics and resented slurs against what had from its first settlement been a rich and productive wheat belt.

They doubted the necessity of his maps. Why must a pressing need for irrigation works wait years for the completion of a fussy preliminary survey? Why couldn’t the obvious reservoir sites be selected at once, a decent allowance being made for error, and the topographical survey be completed at leisure by the Geological Survey’s crews?

Also, what did he say to the fact that both Dutton and Nettleton, two of his own experts, had testified before the House Irrigation Committee that a topographical map was not necessary for selecting reservoir sites? That one hurt, because Dutton, one of Powell’s closest friends and collaborators for fifteen years, his left hand, his heir to the Grand Canyon study and his director of hydrography now,3 had from the beginning doubted Powell’s right to use Irrigation Survey funds for topography, and on questioning had reluctantly said so. The tight loyalty of the bureau had been cracked, the Table Round had produced its Gawain, the Twelve their Judas. That defection was ominous, but Powell could not have known it yet, with the Senators still after him.

What, they asked, did he know about the West? What did he know about South Dakota? Had he ever been there? When? Where? For how long? Did he know the average rainfall of the James River Valley? Of the Black Hills? They refused to understand his distinction between arid and subhumid, they clamored to know how their states had got labeled “arid” and thus been closed to settlement.

And what about the artesian basin in the Dakotas? What about irrigation from that source? So he gave it to them: artesian wells were and always would be a minor source of water as compared to the rivers and the storm-water reservoirs. He had had his men studying artesian wells since 1882; they were incapable of doing a tenth as much as hopeful Dakotans said they would. If all the wells in the Dakotas could be gathered into one county they would not irrigate that county.

Senator Moody thereupon remarked that he did not favor putting money into Major Powell’s hands when Powell would clearly not spend it as Moody and his constituents wanted it spent. We ask you, he said in effect, your opinion of artesian wells. You think they’re unimportant. All right, the hell with you. We’ll ask somebody else who will give us the answer we want. Nothing personal. “Our people in the West are practical people, and we can not wait until this geological picture and topographical picture is perfected.” Nothing personal.

Senator Stewart had already made it personal in the morning session. “Every representative of the arid region — I think there is no exception — would prefer that there would be no appropriation to having it continue under Major Powell.”

Nevertheless, that opening round was Powell’s. On June 9 he was able to write with full optimism to Elwood Mead, then state engineer of Wyoming, “The Appropriations Committee of the House of Representatives have given me my full estimate for the Irrigation Survey. I have reason to believe that the appropriations made this year will be several times greater than they were last, but, of course, until the bill finally passes I cannot state this positively. Whatever the appropriation is, however, I am expecting to have you on the work in accordance with the plan already understood by us both. I write this simply to let you know that the prospect for a large appropriation is good and I hope to have the work prosecuted with vigor.”4

Hunting for any stick to hit him with, Stewart and Moody tried to get the whole Irrigation Survey transferred to the Department of Agriculture, but could not muster sufficient support. Meanwhile, confident that most of his opposition had been aroused by the slowness of his survey, and sure that as soon as lands began to be certified and returned to settlement the clamor would subside, the Major marshaled his arguments and awaited the second round before the Senate Appropriations Committee. He was a tough man for a committee to discountenance, an urbane and cool and well-informed witness, and he was without doubts either about the rightness of his program or of its ultimate acceptance. Still, he could hardly have stepped into that Senate committee room on July 2, 1890, without his neck hairs prickling. The subcommittee on the Sundry Civil Expenses Bill — Chairman Allison of Iowa, Gorman of Maryland, and Hale of Maine — he knew of old, and did not fear. But also in the room were the visitors from the arid region: Allen of Washington, Carey of Wyoming, Moody of South Dakota, Paddock of Nebraska, Power and Sanders of Montana, Reagan of Texas, and Stewart of Nevada. They might have struck even the cool and intrepid and hopeful Major Powell as perilously like a hanging jury.

The tone of the meeting5 was set by the earliest questions. Both Hale and Allison examined the propriety of Powell’s being “the source and fountain of information” for the Presidential proclamations that would sometime return land to settlement. Their clear implication was that his powers were excessive, that he was in a position to tell the President what to do and that he had taken over the proper duties of the General Land Office. Powell replied that his survey had no effect on the duties of the Land Office except to suspend them temporarily. He justified the delay while the survey was completed because only accurate advance knowledge could prevent mistaken, impossible, or monopolistic irrigation schemes, inefficient use of water, confusion between upstream and downstream rights to rivers, and the failure of thousands of small homesteaders. He had not asked for the powers the law gave him. Congress had presented him with a job.

But where, they asked, did such a survey as he was conducting lead? Government science for informational purposes was one thing, but Senator Hale in particular was dubious about the government’s segregating land unless it intended to take over the whole business of irrigation. Powell replied that according to present law (the Desert Land Act) a homesteader must irrigate before he could obtain title, but couldn’t irrigate because he had neither the knowledge nor the money to build the works. Government must go at least to the point of assuring such a homesteader that irrigation was possible where he settled, and that the terms of the law could be lived up to.

Yet even that, as Allison forced Powell to admit, went a long way in the direction of government interference. Government would have to legislate the uses of water on those segregated lands, and would perhaps be forced into the construction of irrigation works and the full control of water. How could you control the water unless you built and operated the dams and canals? Major Powell thought control could be exercised if the government simply refused to sell or release lands unless they were irrigable according to the findings of the survey. No sane settler would take a chance out on the plains, far from the mountains and far from any actual or proposed irrigation works. That was how settlement could be controlled.

And that control of settlement, that exercise of supervision over the individual citizen, was what they had been coming at. Up to now, the land had been settled by unsupervised men in an almost unsupervised environment.

“Do you conceive that there is any risk or doubt,” Hale asked, “in the government’s assuming that relation and undertaking to deal with the flow and use of water in the great streams? Do you think it is better than to leave it to nature and the common incidents of human life?”

Powell’s answer was as blunt as he could make it. “You ask me the question, and I will answer. I think it would be almost a criminal act to go on as we are doing now, and allow thousands and hundreds of thousands of people to establish homes where they cannot maintain themselves.”

So the issue was clarified at its most statesmanlike level: the alternatives were uncontrolled settlement and the devil take the stragglers, or controlled settlement aiming at the elimination of the heartbreak and the casualties — Spencerian social evolution or willed evolution à la Lester Ward. The committee did not pursue the question, and did not examine the possible limitations and extensions of governmental and scientific direction of people’s lives, but they raised it. Or more accurately, the whole development of governmental science had already raised it earlier. Alexander Agassiz had testily attacked government patronage of science five years before,6 and he had had a clear idea of what he was attacking. The concept of the welfare state edged into the American consciousness and into American institutions more through the scientific bureaus of government than by any other way, and more through the problems raised by the public domain than through any other problems, and more through the labors of John Wesley Powell than through any other man. In its origins it probably owes nothing to Marx, and it was certainly not the abominable invention of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the Brain Trust. It began as public information and extended gradually into a degree of control and paternalism increased by every national crisis and every step of the increasing concentration of power in Washington. The welfare state was present in embryo in Joseph Henry’s Weather Bureau in the eighteen-fifties. It moved a long step in the passage of what Henry Adams called America’s “first modern act of legislation,” when the King and Hayden Surveys were established in 1867. It had come much farther by the time Powell answered Hale’s questions on July 2, 1890, and it would assume almost its contemporary look in the trust-busting and conservation activities of Theodore Roosevelt at the dawn of the next century. But what Powell and the earlier Adams and Theodore Roosevelt thought of as the logical development of American society, especially in the West, was by no means universally palatable by 1890 — or by 1953. It looked dangerous; it repealed the long habit of a wide-open continent; it recanted a faith.

Question: Why do both agricultural and irrigable lands have to be tied up while the survey is prosecuted?

Answer: No agricultural lands are tied up. Nothing east of the 102nd meridian is withdrawn in Kansas and Nebraska, and anything west of that line is arid. Reservation of all these arid lands is actually a benefit, not a hardship, for if they were not withdrawn the settlers on the North and South Platte would see all their water appropriated by upstream users, and no help for it.

Question (with senatorial bitterness): Do you really know anything about irrigable lands in the Three Forks country in Montana?

Question: Do you really expect us to believe that the survey — once it begins to produce results — can designate irrigable lands faster than settlers will take them up?

Question: How are settlers going to derive any benefits from “that beautiful map of the Major‘s” when no reservoirs or canals are actually to be built?

Answer: No homes are possible in the arid region anyway until irrigation works are built, yet the law demands that a settler build one. He should at least be assured that water is possible where he wants to set his house. And there is another thing: the sub humid zone is actually a more pressing problem than the arid lands, and irrigation works are just as necessary there. If irrigation is developed, the economic farm unit could be cut to 80 acres, or even to 40. The possibilities of water storage are shown on this map...

Question (by Senator Stewart): Can’t you state it independently of the map?

Having come growling out of his den, he mauled Powell around for a good hour. The survey, he said, had proved nothing that wasn’t already well known; the topographical work was useless because boundaries of reservoir sites and irrigable areas were not marked out on the ground and a settler could not tell whether he was on reserved or open ground (the Land Office maps would tell him, said Powell). Said Stewart, the maps were of no use to the hydraulic engineers, as both Dutton and Nettleton had testified. Results were a long way from justifying expenditures. Incompe tents had been given responsible jobs on the survey....

What had been a grilling became a tirade. At one point, after Stewart had interrupted all of his attempted answers for fifteen minutes, Powell told the Senator sharply either to stop interrupting his answers or to quit asking questions. They glared at each other.

Stewart: Now you have the whole country reserved...

Powell: Senator... You make a statement which you do not mean to make to me — that I have got the whole country reserved. ... I have not done it. I never advocated it. That reservation was put into the law independently of me. Yet you affirm here and put it in the record that I had it done....

Stewart: Are you in favor of its repeal?

Powell: No, sir. I think it is wise.

Stewart: Have you not insisted that it be maintained?

Powell: I have not insisted upon anything, but when asked my opinion as you ask it now, I have expressed it.

Eventually Allison observed that Brother Stewart had been at Powell long enough, and was keeping the other brethren from their rights. The other brethren came in strong, most of them to secede from the arid empire, to challenge Powell’s rainfall figures, to attack his low opinion of artesian wells, and to shake their heads over the governmental paternalism he seemed to approve. They did not want individual initiative interfered with, they wanted the West taken care of by means of “natural conditions and natural enterprise.” Montana, the Dakotas, Idaho, Washington, denied his premises. Only Senator Reagan of Texas gave him strong support, citing the attempted water-grabs in New Mexico as reason for federal control, and proposing legislation based on Powell’s notion of the unified drainage basin. Powell had had a rough time, but he might have felt that he had held his own. Only Stewart and Moody had really crowded him, though the subcommittee proper had all been skeptical of too much extension of federal power, and Sanders of Montana had kidded Reagan, and hence by association Powell, with being a disciple of Henry George.

Against Stewart’s hostility, Senate suspicion of his too-great powers, and Western irritation at the freezing of land, he might even have won if his missionary campaign had paid off. But he got less public support than he expected. Apparently he underestimated the capacity of the plain dirt farmer to continue to believe in myths even while his nose was being rubbed in unpleasant facts. The press and a good part of the public in the West was against him more than he knew. His revolutionary proposals for arid-belt institutions had found only scattered supporters like Reagan and Elwood Mead. The American yeoman might clamor for governmental assistance in his trouble, but he didn’t want any that would make him change his thinking.

Another year, another appropriation, would convince them, Powell thought. But he didn’t get the year, he didn’t get the appropriation. By the same side door through which it had come into existence — by an amendment to the Sundry Civil Expenses Bill — Powell’s General Plan was pushed out. A Senate Amendment eliminated all the clauses dealing with reservation of irrigable lands, and thus threw the public domain open again, to the utter confounding of Powell’s hopes for reasonable planning. All entries made in good faith — and good faith was fairly easy to prove to most Land Offices — since October 2, 1888, were declared valid, though the number of acres a man could acquire under all existing land laws was dropped to 320. Hydrographic work was pointedly not mentioned, and since this appropriations bill was the sole authorizing legislation for the survey, hydrographic work was completely eliminated unless the Geological Survey wanted to undertake it.7 The appropriation, instead of the $720,000 Powell had asked, was $162,500.

To some it might have seemed only a temporary check, a sign of Congressional impatience with the Irrigation Survey alone. At least the chastisement was qualified, for the appropriation of $719,000 voted for the Geological Survey proper made it the best-supported scientific organization in the world. Powell was still Mr. Science, the High Priest.

And yet the reduction of the Irrigation Survey from a comprehensive and articulated General Plan to an ineffectual and aimless mapping of reservoir sites was the major defeat of his life, and the beginning of the end of his public career. Everything that happened to him from this point on was documentation of a decision already made, corroboration of his public decline from the peak of 1890.

For this General Plan that Congress had just stomped to death for the second time incorporated his whole knowledge and experience and faith. The possibility that sometime events would converge toward an opportunity was the end and excuse of many of his political alliances and fights and deals and all the interlocking activities of his bureaus from 1877 on. All science must eventually be practical; the Science of Earth and the Science of Man led to the same end, the evolving and developing of better political, artistic, social, industrial, and agricultural institutions, “all progressing with advancing intelligence to secure justice and thereby increase happiness.”8

The General Plan had been his vision of the way in which, by the help of science, justice and happiness could be guaranteed for the people and the region to which he was most attached. The opportunity had come unexpectedly, but it had opened up the dazzling possibility that the whole thing could be realized: that the waste could be stopped, the random and ill-advised mob of settlers directed by scientific knowledge and planning and steered into becoming colonists and communities.

But they hadn’t given him time. They had beaten him when he was within a year of introducing an utterly revolutionary — or evolutionary — set of institutions into the arid West, and when he was within a few months of saving that West from another half century of exploitation and waste. It was the West itself that beat him, the Big Bill Stewarts and Gideon Moodys, the land and cattle and water barons, the plain homesteaders, the locally patriotic, the ambitious, the venal, the acquisitive, the myth-bound West which insisted on running into the future like a streetcar on a gravel road.9

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