Nuestra Historia - The best laid plans of mice and men ...

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When the territorial legislature yanked the Las Vegas Land Grant from the Hispanic community in 1903, and placed it under the control of Judge William J. Mills, he immediately appointed an Anglo-dominated board of trustees to oversee the immense land grant.
Headed by banker Jefferson Raynolds and former New Mexico chief justice Elisha V. Long, the “trustees” quickly decided the grant should be developed in earnest — to attract both outside investment and settlement.

What followed was the rapid dismantling of the Las Vegas Land Grant, beginning in 1905, when the new board sold 50,000 acres of grant land to A.W. Thompson, who assured the board he would settle the land with newcomers who would arrive by rail from Chicago and Kansas City.

The Optic, of course, endorsed the scheme, and proclaimed enthusiastically: “Imagine what it will mean to Las Vegas itself to unload three or four hundred colonists in this town every Wednesday and Saturday mornings.” (By 1931, the land grant board had sold over 300,000 acres of common lands, by 1942 there were only 29,000 acres left, and today a miniscule 2,500 acres remain — out of an original grant of 496,446 acres.)

The sale to Thompson and others was only the beginning, however, and paled in comparison to the grandiose plans envisioned by the new land grant board — the development of a mammoth farming project to be populated “with thriving Anglo-American farming communities,” as later noted by famed sociologist Clark S. Knowlton.

The board asked engineers from the Bureau of Reclamation to assess the prospects for such a project, and the engineers soon reported that it was feasible, estimating construction costs at about a half million dollars, and irrigation of at least 10,000 acres.     

By 1909, the land grant board members found just the man to undertake their ambitious project. Known as the “western irrigation king,” Daniel A. Camfield of Greeley, Colo., was promptly hired after assuring the board the plan would work: Construction of a reservoir to capture waters from the Gallinas, Sanguijuela and Sapello Rivers, and the Pecos Arroyo, and a canal system to transport the water in a southeasterly direction to irrigate between 30,000 and 40,000 acres of land along the plains and mesas east of New Town.

The project came to a sudden halt, however, when Andrieus A. Jones filed objections with territorial officials and brought a lawsuit against the board, claiming he had made prior claims for appropriation of the water which would be diverted by the intended reservoir. Jones, who had been mayor of East Las Vegas and would be elected to the U.S. Senate in 1916, had acquired the Preston Beck Grant south of the Las Vegas Land Grant, and intended to use the flood waters of the Gallinas and other rivers and streams for irrigation in that area.
By early 1910, Judge Mills dismissed Jones’ lawsuit, and D.A. Camfield was able to begin work on the great reservoir, five miles east of Las Vegas — the site elevation and location having been deemed ideal to capture and store the necessary waters for the vast irrigation project. Determined to maintain his reputation as the western irrigation king, Camfield even utilized a dinky engine (transported by rail from the east), which towed eight dump cars and hauled landfill along a track laid down on the dam site.     

Soon the grant board and Camfield began to quarrel about his compensation, and he stopped work on the project in May, 1911.

Three months later, after the board threatened him with legal action and the forfeiture of his bond, Camfield resumed work. He was soon beset by even more setbacks, as territorial water officials (today’s state engineer) required that Camfield remove and replace much of the dam’s earth-fill, finding that it contained too much shale.

When things could not possibly get worse for the luckless Camfield, heavy rains later washed out much of his work. Finally, on Sept. 3, 1912, the western irrigation king reported to the land grant board that he had run out of funds and would relinquish his contract. “Frustrated and exhausted,” Daniel C. Camfield died six months later. (A detailed account of the project appears in “Storrie Lake State Park,” a 2009 publication by Malcolm Ebright, Esq., and the writings of Clark S. Knowlton, including “Flood Control and Reclamation Projects: Curse or Blessing to the Rural Spanish-Speaking People of the Middle Rio Grande Valley.”)

The enterprising board in control of the Las Vegas Land Grant would not be deterred, however, nor its best laid plans derailed. As the tale of two cities continued to unfold, word came from San Francisco of a famed engineer who might be interested in completing the colossal project.

His name was Robert C. Storrie.    

Jesus L. Lopez is a native of Las Vegas and a local historian. He may be reached at 425-3730.