Water was literally life in the arid Big Horn Basin of Wyoming, and that’s why work on the canal came even before building houses in Cowley, Wyoming, a Latter-day Saint settlement in the Big Horn Basin in 1900.
There was a sense of purpose as well as urgency about the project. It is not known exactly how this section of unsettled land came to President Lorenzo Snow’s attention, but in February 1900 he sent Elder Abraham O. Woodruff of the Council of the Twelve to examine the area. The temperature near the future site of Cowley was about ten degrees below zero; they drove horses and buggies over only thirty miles and evidently took no soil samples. But their consultation of the maps and conversation with William F. Cody, the famous Buffalo Bill, who was coholder of a state permit to construct an irrigation system in the area, were apparently decisive; even before he had reported back to President Snow, Elder Woodruff had arranged to order plows and scrapers from a hardware dealer at the nearest railhead, Bridger, Montana. 1
The few hundred families who were called wasted no time and were on their way in early spring. Most of them were the children of first-generation pioneers in Utah and Idaho settlements. It was the twentieth century, but barely, and they drove horse teams and traveled in companies ranging from eighteen wagons to two.
One of these families was that of John H. and Avilda Dickson. They left Morgan, Utah, with their children and rendezvoused with the other Saints at Ham’s Fork, Wyoming, where Elder Woodruff was organizing the colonists into companies. John returned to Utah to finish selling the farm and hence was miles away when his little daughter, who had been ill for some time, grew worse and died after a couple of days of stormy traveling. Outside the wagon were four-foot snow drifts.
The best solution seemed to be to send the oldest son, William, back to Evanston to put the child’s body on the train and travel with it to his father in Utah, while Avilda continued on with the company and her two-month-old baby. Alone in Evanston, twenty-year-old William was astonished when the train agent said he must have a doctor’s certificate giving the child’s name, cause of death, and certification that she had no contagious disease. The train was going to leave in thirty minutes.
“In this dilemma he went back of the depot where he could not be observed and prayed, asking that he be shown what to do.” He began walking uptown and passed the office of an attorney-notary public. He felt impressed to go in and tell his story to James C. Brown, the lawyer, who promised to help him. When he found out that the Latter-day Saint who had made the little girl’s coffin had said he had been a coroner, the lawyer wrote out a statement that the child had been in the coroner’s charge, went to the railroad station with William, and signed all of the necessary papers. There were no further difficulties with the ticket agent. (See pp. 8, 10.)
The first families forded spring-swollen streams and faced snowstorms most of the way to Wyoming, but by the end of May about two hundred were camped near the Shoshone River, objects of interest to their ranching non-Mormon neighbors who had earlier settled the nearby towns of Cody, Meeteetse, Burlington, Otto, and Lovell (see p. 15). On 28 May 1900, Elder Woodruff held the plow, and Byron Sessions, who would be sustained as the first stake president a year later, drove the team that scraped the first furrow for the canal (see p. 17).
It soon became apparent that even their backbreaking labor could not finish the project in a year, and no food could be raised until water was available for irrigation. Serious discouragement plagued the camp. A special prayer implored the Lord’s blessing to open the way for them to complete the canal; Elder Woodruff backed up their petitions by officially calling all those in the camp “on a mission to complete the Canal and establish homes” (p. 20). “Modern manna” came in the form of an $80,000 contract to construct twenty-three miles of railroad. Half the men’s cash earnings went to the colony in exchange for canal stock; the money was, in turn, used to pay those working on the canal half cash as well as half canal stock (see p. 22).
A second major obstacle that turned out to be a blessing by confirming the Saints’ faith was encountering Prayer Rock in late June or early July that first year. Nearly two miles from the head of the canal was a fifty-foot cliff; at its base rested an enormous rock, about twenty feet long, directly on the line of the canal right-of-way. It was six or eight feet high, and no one knew how far it extended into the ground. President Sessions, superintendent of canal construction, had the men scrape out a hole on the lower side of the rock, planning to topple the rock into it and out of the canal’s way with a blast of powder under the upper side. After the hole was about ten feet deep, safety became a concern: the rock seemed to be leaning forward into the hole. Consequently, morning and evening prayers were held in camp for the safety of the men and the horses. The scraping continued. Even after ten feet, they didn’t seem to be coming to the base of the rock, and some of the men felt that the rock reached into the ground so far that no powder blast could make it topple into the hole. Local historian Mark N. Partridge, present for part of the events, has reconstructed what happened next from interviews and written statements by the surviving eyewitnesses:
“One afternoon as President Sessions discussed the matter with the men working there,” his own son, Biney, expressed the discouragement that several of them were feeling: “‘We’ll never get this down. We just as well give it up.’ This seemed to anger his father, who said, ‘I p[r]ophecy in the name of Israel’s God that that rock will be in there tomorrow at this time.’ Jim George, one of the men working there, turned his back to President Sessions and faced me [Brother Partridge], pulled out his watch and said, ‘Let’s test him out.’ He said, ‘It’s just four P.M.’”
The work continued the next day. Using longhandled shovels, the men dug in on both ends of the rock as far as they could reach, still without finding its end. They took their usual fifteen-minute break at 3:30 and had just begun working again when President Sessions called them up for another rest break, an unprecedented but quickly obeyed order. Then, without a powder blast, without so much as a tap from a hammer, “that rock began to split from top to bottom with a new break as smooth as a plastered wall, and landed right where we had all been busy working five minutes before in a hole 10 feet deep. George, with the same watch, faced me again dumbfounded, but said, ‘Five minutes to four.’” (pp. 140–43.) The standing half of the rock is still visible; the fallen half was buried in the outside bank of the canal which flows smoothly and serenely between the two halves.
The first unit of the Church was organized in Cowley as the Shoshone Branch of the Woodruff Stake, then covering nearly all of Wyoming and a bit of Utah (see p. 28). When the Cowley townsite was surveyed, land descriptions of the town lots were written on slips of paper, shaken up in a hat, and each head of family drew his lot from the hat. Eighteen log houses were built during the fall and winter of 1900. Cowley saw its first shingled roof in February 1901 (see pp. 32–35). The town’s name (after Elder Mathias F. Cowley) was officially confirmed by the Post Office Department in October 1900 (see p. 36). Byron, a few miles away, was named for President Sessions. A school began that first winter, taught by Mrs. Eliza R. Black, who held a Utah teacher’s certificate (see p. 38). The Big Horn Stake was organized by Elder Woodruff the next spring, 26 May 1901, with Byron Sessions as president. William C. Partridge became Cowley Ward’s first bishop 19 July 1901, and the ward replaced the branch. Of the first 144 families in Cowley, only one family was completely nonmember; three were part-member—it was not until 1911 that Cowley held its first strictly community, non-Church function: a bond election to install a water system (see pp. 41, 94).
Some water for the upper farms was available in 1902 from the river, and Sage Creek provided other water. It finally reached the end of the canal 23 April 1904 at 5 P.M. (see p. 45). The first trees, planted in 1901, did not survive; but after 1902, cottonwoods and orchards began to thrive in the fertile soil, and Russian olives, planted from slips in the ’teens, became a nuisance and had to be uprooted (see pp. 57, 93). A pond on the west side of town supplied water and chunks of ice, carefully stored in sawdust or chaff during the summers to make ice cream. Skating on the pond was a popular community event, with frequent programs, plays, and debates sponsored by ward auxiliaries and dances every Friday night (see p. 71).
In 1905, the Church population in Cowley was 543 and the communities of Cowley, Lovell, and Byron began to feel the need for a high school, so Woodruff Academy was opened 13 September 1909 in Lovell with forty-one students, rising to seventy-four before the year was over. Because the name caused some confusion with the school in Woodruff, Utah, it was soon changed to the Big Horn Academy. The next year it moved to Cowley, opening with seventy-eight students the first day, including its first married couple, William and Iva Snell. William was also the student body president. (See pp. 75–77.)
The Church continued to maintain the academy until it was purchased by the Cowley School District in the fall of 1924. The Church underwrote the district’s first year of public operation with a gift of $10,000 until tax funds could be received (see p. 78). During its fifteen years of operation, the academy had graduated 178 students, sponsored a popular brass band, and fielded agressive basketball teams. Tiny Cowley was proud of its prowess on the floor, especially when its M-Men team won the All-Church championship in 1938 and the state championship in 1922 against all the other high schools in the state. Later, when schools were classed according to enrollment, Cowley won the state Class B championship five times between 1944 and 1958 (see pp. 108–9).
Economically, the fertile farms were reinforced by a local brick kiln in 1907, a small oil refinery in 1909, electricity in 1912, a motion picture projector purchased by the Sunday School Parents Class (tickets 10 cents), natural gas production and power, sawmills, and other stores. During the twenties, Cowley fell on hard times. The land was damaged by rising alkali, the oil refinery was closed, and old-time residents remember fifty vacant houses in town. However, the costly process of establishing a drainage system restored the land’s fertility, a new cannery that operated until 1971 provided both a market and employment for many, and a new oil refinery opened.
Lovell, still the biggest town in the trade area and site of the stake center, has three wards; Cowley and Byron have one apiece. But the humming oil machinery promises a prosperous future for the little town where committed individualism, faith, and cooperation trenched a canal across thirty miles of desert and split the rock that stood in their way.
Information for this article is taken from Mark N. Partridge, With Book and Plow: History of a Mormon Settlement, revised ed. (Lovell, Wyo.: Mountain States Printing Company, 1976), hereafter cited parenthetically in the text. The story of Prayer Rock also appears separately as a pamphlet, Mark N. Partridge, “The Miracle of Prayer Rock,” (Lovell, Wyo.: Mountain States Printing Co., 1970).