Pioneers of Eastern Montana and Their Descendants


Billings Early Ditches – Irrigation for Residents 

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

The Big Ditch Company was incorporated in Billings, Montana on May 15, 1900.[1] An initial capital stock of $64,000 was raised, and the Improvement period was 40 years. There were seven shareholders, PB Moss, LA Nutting, ID O’Donnell, FW Schauer, WD Story, James Steele and Henry Struck. PB Moss was the primary financial backer. The purpose was to “supply water from the Yellowstone River for irrigation, domestic and other useful and beneficial purposes, to own real and personal property.” Water was to be taken from the river from lot #3, Section 12, Tp 3 south, Range 21 East. [This property was later homesteaded by Holden, and later still was filed for a land patent by his wife Lydia Holden, who eventually received title on 30 January, 1892. George Watt came along and married Lydia after George Watt had died. George then resided on the land homesteaded by the Holden’s. [It appears that Lydia did not reside on the land at time the Head Gates were constructed, filing data unavailable.] The ditch ran in a general northwestern direction through and across a region known as Yellowstone Valley [Clark’s Fork Valley] and exited near the rim rocks north of Billings skirting the valley to the north, being 39 miles in length and terminating at or near the NW corner of Section 32, Tp 1 N, Range 26 East, above where Pioneer Park is now located. It was the original plan to make this water available for the residents of the city, parks, and future farming. The Big Ditch Company existence was extended on April 19, 1939 for an additional 40 years[2]. [Note: The extension noted that the incorporation date for the company was actually May 18, 1900.] Since then, the ditch’s route was changed to “better” serve the needs of the farmers. This entailed moving the relative location of its placement quite a distance, typically about ½ mile or more. The end result was that the current route is somewhat shorter. Also, the initial design called for the exit area to be about the same as the starting area. This to has changed, and is currently about 1/3rd in size. The need for marketing of the ditch to prospective buyers no longer exists. The current “water rights” arrangement is via stock certificates that identify how much water is available to the purchaser of the certificate. Early on, other certificates were issued to establish the water rights. Some of the land records state that the early water rights established as part of the Arid Land reclamation act to the railroad were passed down and included as part of the land titles. There is a huge gap in the process, and currently the rights ‘are apparently solely established by the released new versions of the certificate bearer.[3]

Ignatius Daniel (I.D.) O’Donnell arrived at Miles City in 1881, and soon relocated to Coulson in 1882. Hearing about gold in Maiden he rushed there, only to discover he couldn’t get a job. He found one at a horse ranch near Fort Maginnis, northeast of Lewistown. There he met Parmly Billings and E. G. Bailey (son and nephew of the fifth NPR president, Frederick Billings). O’Donnell soon was in charge of the Billings Family ranch located at Hesper (eight miles west of Billings). Together with Bailey he bought a Hesper farm owned by Rev. Benjamin J. Shuart; and in 1900 he purchased Bailey’s interest in the farm. He continued his agricultural career by raising the first sugar beets in the valley. He was instrumental in the 1906 construction of the sugar factory in Billings. He was a director for the Merchant’s National Bank, a leader in the affairs of the Billings Polytechnic Institute, Chamber of Commerce, Montana Farm Bureau, State and County Fairs, Horticulture Board, WWI Council of Defense, Montana Stock Commission, Montana Water Conservation Board, School Board, and various other civic societies, including compiling most the areas’ history pioneer biographies. He was responsible for the rebuilding of the original M&M Ditch (Big Ditch) that was providing water to farmers in the local area valleys west of Billings. In 1892 he arranged for the farmers to take ownership the ditch.  He was an active partner in the High Line, Suburban, Cove and BL&I ditches.

The initial transfer of water rights for the lands received via PATENT for Homesteads under Section 2306 carried this addendum “Subject to any vested and accrued water rights and rights to ditches and reservoirs used in connection with such water rights as may be recognized and acknowledged by the local customs, laws and decisions of Courts and also subject to the right of proprietor of a vein or lode to extract and remove his ore there from.” When the ‘Minnesota and Montana Land and Improvement Company’ [MMLIC] was formed the railroad held land titles to the odd numbered sections of land within the Clark’s Fork Valley. These titles provided for basically all rights, including extraction of water for their needs. Life was apparently simpler in the 1880’s, and special permits were not required. On April 25, 1883[4] NPR completed the land sale to the newly formed Improvement company most all of their lands within the valley area. They gave all their rights to the company as part of the sale (including water), but retained some associated rights for access to minerals and water, and the permission to transport it. The Improvement Company had obtained titles to some of the even numbered sections (not physically homesteaded) within the valley but near to the planned community of Billings, thus completing the initial ownerships for a price of $73,553.86. [Additional research is needed to identify the exact count of NPR sections[5].] The original filing of this action took place in the City of Washington (Secretary of the Interior in the east e.g., Washington D.C.) on January 1, 1881; prior to the official filing of the Billings land plat in Minneapolis. The lands and all rights permitted to the railroad were now available to be used immediately in land transactions. Given the ability to sell this property, the MMLIC then created corporate status on March 23, 1882 in Minnesota. They held off filing of that status for 14 years, apparently giving them time to develop the town of Billings. By 1888 MMLIC transferred to Oliver Billings (current Trustee) all lands, franchises, the irrigating canal and all various properties and rights for $40,000 that they held. This was later returned to the company. Issuance of deeds to buyers of the land owned by MMLIC carried restrictions that the company retained full rights to right-of-ways for public roads, irrigation or drainage canals. Deeds procured via homesteads and other methods apparently have such restrictions missing.

In 1943, the Montana State Engineer’s Office prepared a compilation of information about the local area ditches titled “Irrigation Districts, Yellowstone County, Montana; [File Location MONTANA ROOM, 333.91, by Oravetz] Extracted from that publication were these pertinent facts established by the commission’s effort:

“The Big Ditch canal had its water flow turned on July 30, 1883 and it reached the terminus (in Billings) on September 14, 1883. When the Minnesota and Montana Land and Improvement Company created the ditch it was called the M and M Canal. There was no recorded filing located for the water rights to this ditch***. H.W. Rowley was the design engineer, and I.D. O’Donnell was in charge of the construction. It was designed to have a flow capacity of 20,000 miner’s inches of water (500 second-feet.) The original planed called for, in part, that the water supply be directed through all irrigation avenues within Billings, and the supply used for watering lawns, gardens and trees. This ditches water supply [and distribution] was modeled after the one created by Brigham Young in Salt Lake City. Water was sold to residents at a rate of $.75 per inch of water from the start of the year to August 15th; or $1.00 per inch for the entire season.”

            ***      The filing for the ditch took place in 1881, a year before the start of Billings, at the Department of the Interior, in Washington City according to the biographies noted later in this website report. COMMENT: Establishment of a new town, later to be named Billings, was held in secrecy until all the proper arrangements had been made to assure that the venture could be successful. It appears that after the 1876 survey map was created, and the plat maps for the Clark’s Fork Valley were released to the Bozeman Land Office in 1877, the verified identity that two odd-numbered sections of adjacent land on either side of the Prime Meridian existed, and in a suitable location for a town, Rowley then prepared his initial plat for the town and the plans for controlling the vast acreage to the west. This plan was shown to the NPR bankers and to a few personal friends. In order for the financial plan to work for the benefit of this small team, it was essential that many activities be “hidden” from immediate view. Thus, when the bankers and others agreed to the concept [knowing that Coulson was nearby], Rowley had in place between 1880 and 1881 the following actions, bearing in mind that Montana was still a Territory:

1.      Agreement by NPR bankers and NPR executives to sell the valley area land to a separate company that would administer the activities in building a new town from scratch. The MMLIC was then formed and corporate charter filed in Minneapolis.

2.      Prepare a city plat draft for the new town of Billings at the NPR field office in Miles City (1880-1881).

3.      Release of the city plat in 1881 in Minneapolis.

4.      Establishment of a water supply route to serve the town, and future farmers to the west, similar to that created in Salt Lake City. This route was to be called the M&M Canal.

5.      Filling for the right-of-way and headgate source for the water in Washington City (c1880-1881) after discussing the plan with NPR financiers. By doing this a full year before the town plat was released in Montana, it allowed the NPR to change their route plans and go southward to the new location, and to secure the land rights in advance of published details about their progress. This also permitted the canal to be constructed without interference from landowners who would have otherwise significantly benefited from the water source. Had the canal’s existence been established later, then their could have been a loss of revenue by having to negotiate with the homesteaders who could have staked out claims on both the future NPR lands and the other sections. This was simply a well-calculated maneuver on the part of Rowley, and assured that future owners of the land would have to accept the existing ditch’s right-of-way. Unfortunately this subject is still hotly contested and the original documents in Washington have apparently been over-looked. Only Rowley noted their existence, and the M&MLIC files are apparently not available.

6.      Release of the city plat in Custer County, and start of the land sales in 1882.

7.      Final surveys for the ditch route and its construction in 1881-1883.


Note: For details on how the City of Billings & adjacent land to the west was acquired, refer to biographies of: NPR & other associated links, Rowley, Foster, O’Donnell and others.


“The original route and design required many diversion structures, all constructed from wood, including the headgate, nine flumes, and four drops. The drop at Laurel required over 100,000 board feet of lumber. The wooden structures soon rotted out, and were rebuilt in 1888 and 1889. The second set of flumes lasted for about seven years, and seven of these were replaced with expansive earthen fills (berms.) Severe water level drops were established at the four locations varying in height from 10 to 30 feet. The original concept was to use the drops as a means of generating power; a concept that never materialized. Farmers along the valley area took over control of the canal on May 15, 1900 through the formation of “The Big Ditch Company.” They established 6,400 shares of stock with a par value of $10 per share. This allotted each ¼ section to hold 32 shares, or one share per each five acres of land. Thus 32,000 acres of land was established as the baseline for the water use, at a cost of $2.00 per acre to the farmer.”

“The first headgate was constructed in 1882 at a cost of about $2,000. It was rebuilt in 1887, and again eleven years later. In October 1937 the wooden headgate was removed and a concrete & steel headgate was installed at a cost of about $19,500. This headgate was designed to carry 24,000 miner’s inches of water (600 second-feet.) It has about 350 lateral line extensions (turn-out boxes). In 1940 there were over 400 stockholders.”

“The entire system is gravity fed, thus making it relatively inexpensive to operate and maintain. In 1943 the assessments amounted to about $80 to irrigate a quarter section of land. Three new drops were constructed in 1911 (Allard, Nutting and Valley Creek Syphon.) In 1915 the Schauer drop was added, the Nye spillway created in 1916 was made from wooded staves, and it was replaced in 1932 with a 23-inch diameter concrete pipe, and in 1917 the Canyon Creek syphon was replaced. In 1942 there were 17, 486.22 acres of land irrigated by the water from the canal.”

“ The maximum irrigated acreage from the ditch, as of 1943 was 18,303.68 acres; and 652.70 acres of water seepage[6] was calculated. From the combined area ditches (Some 46 Ditches) 107,405.41 acres of land was irrigated.”


Location of Major Area Ditches

·        M & M Canal      --------------

o       Conceived by Henry W Rowley prior to his creation of the Billings Townsite in 1881 as part of his original plan for the financial backers, and was used to support future growth in Billings. Water comes from the Yellowstone River alongside of Westover Island, a few miles west of Allen Creek (across from the river rapids), and terminates above Billings in farmlands below where the airport is now located.  It runs between Poly Drive and Rimrock Road west of 17th Street, and then on to about Virginia Lane, roughly following near Rimrock Road, before reaching its end. [This terminus location has since been drastically changed by the addition of buried pipes.] In early years its exit drained into the town through a series of small ditches (laterals), mainly along 29th Street, then south into the river. Name was formally changed to Big Ditch in 1900. [Water Rights always seem to be a BIG Issue, however; western law clearly establishes a distinct difference between the East and the West.The BIG Ditch really has the rights. (Just an observation from the WebMaster.)] Occasionally all of the ditches listed below have been referred to as being the Big Ditch. [There are presently about 22 local ditches.] The Big Ditch was originally constructed in a unique fashion, having the exit size almost the same as the entrance size, hence the nick-name. Normally ditches of this type are tapered along their length, as the water volume decreases along the way for irrigation. HW Rowley wanted an impressive ditch to attract farmers to the area so he built it wide. Today this ditch tapers in width, then it simply disappears from view before reaching the terminus.

·        High Line Ditch  ------------

o       Incorporated in 1892 to provide additional water to farmers west of the Big Ditch. Water was extracted from the Big Ditch, and is actually a lateral of the Big Ditch. Originally terminated about one mile west and above the Big Ditch’s end point, below the airport’s location near the park at Rim View Drive. Ran north of Rimrock Road, between Rehberg Lane and Rimview. Name changed to High Ditch in 1928. (Now called the Hi-Line Ditch)

·        Cove Ditch -------------

o       Incorporated in 1909 to provide additional water to 10,000 more acres of farmland west of the High Line Ditch. Water is extracted from the Yellowstone River from a separate gate about two miles east of the Big Ditch head gate. It crosses the Big Ditch near that point, and terminated a short distance east of 24th Street West above High Ditch. Users of water from this ditch have their water rights attached as part of the land title under a “Water Deed.”

·        Billings Land & Irrigation Canal ----------

o       Incorporated in 1903 to provide water exclusively to farmers and residents residing in the Billings Bench area, north of the Billings Townsite. Water was extracted from the Yellowstone River at a point south of Laurel, and the canal was routed around the west edge of Billings and angling northeast through the north edge of town crossing Colton Blvd and 13th St West and then angling upward crossing Poly Drive at Virginia Lane on its way to the tunnel, and entering the tunnel located between 14-15th Street North. It exited the tunnel and passed through a large siphon across Alkali Creek, and onto the plains of the Bench area. Additional ditches and water sites were later added. In 1915 the Billings Bench Water Association was formed. They took over the assets of the canal and renamed the ditch as the BBWA Canal. Before the BBWA Canal was created, the Canyon Creek Ditch was established to perform the same function. Somewhere along the way its route was replaced by the BBWA, and the former ditch was re-directed into the southern farmlands of Billings. Users of water from this ditch have their water rights attached as part of the land title under a “Water Deed.”


When the need for irrigation water for the land north of Billings and the Huntley areas arose, a canal was dug from the termination point through the rims and the Billings Bench Water Association was formed.[7] In September 1903, ID O’Donnell showed a Mr. John Schram (a Seattle financier) around the Billings area where the group planned to place an irrigation ditch to provide water to an area referred to as “Huntley Flats.” Mr. Clark then brought an irrigation specialist from Seattle, Marvin Chase, who started the route investigation in October.  He reviewed the original plans for irrigation, provided by the DeWar in support of the Arid Land Grant Commission. This map showed the canal routed around the base of the north rims and passing by Boothill Cemetery (and Indian Rock), and onto the plains to the north and northwest. Chase determined that a better elevation could be obtained by locating the ditch neared the south base of the rims and boring a tunnel through the rims itself.  It was at this time they agreed to the plan and a detailed land survey was made. Plans were then created to construct a large wooden flume across the area through which Alkali Creek flowed[8]. RW Rowley received the construction contract in 1903, and late that year on 16 December he started on the project. He started from both sides of the rims, meeting in the middle with only a few inches of variation in the bore. By April 8, 1904 it was half completed. On this same date William J. Ferris was injured by the steam shovel he was operating. The tunnel was 1,847 feet in length and completed the job a year later. The bore varied in width from about 10 to 20 feet, and up to 15 feet high. For several years later, after each annual harvest, the company employed about ten men to clean out collected debris. During construction one man was killed when some blasting powder prematurely exploded. The slope angle was greater that that used in the actual ditch leading to the tunnel, causing the water to erode the soft sandstone and shale at a rapid rate. Particles were dislodged from the roof, adding to the cleanup problem. The supply ditch itself was relocated in part throughout the years to better accommodate the community.

The State of Montana, in 1907, prepared the “Illustrated History of Yellowstone Valley.” In this dissertation they reported on the progress of the BL&I Company’s ditch. They stated that “the most important irrigating project undertaken in Yellowstone County is that of the Billings Land & Irrigating Company, which, under the provisions of the Carey Act, is building a fifty-mile irrigating ditch which will reclaim many thousands [of] acres. This company was organized in 1903, and contracted with the state of Montana to construct, upon plans approved by the state engineer, a complete and adequate irrigation system for the reclamation of District No. 1, the work to begin on or before January 1, 1904, and to be prosecuted vigorously and continuously. In event of failure to comply with the contract, the works constructed with all appurtenances, might be acquired by the state at an appraised price. Work has progressed very rapidly on this undertaking, and in all respects has met the approval of the Carey Land Act Board. In the report o that board for the two years ending November 30, 1906, it is stated that of the three districts in which work has been undertaken the one in Yellowstone County shows the most development. A perusal of that report shows that the company has so far built 42 miles of main canal and about 27 miles of laterals. Forty-five houses have been erected on land sold by the company, and they were all occupied by families. Twenty miles of road have been graded. Ten thousand acres of land had been sold, of which 2,584 were from the Carey selection of state lands. The report says that because of the efforts of the board in the reclamation of the lands in this district and activities growing out of it, a 1,000 ton beet sugar factory has been established in Billings at a cost of $1,250,000 and is now employing 300 men; that the industry has created a pay roll of $287,000 in the locality, in addition to the profit to the farmer, and a payroll of $1,000 a day at the factory when it is running. …….. “Through the courtesy of the railroads running into Billings, and by the expenditure of $28,000 by the contracting company in systematic advertising, the population of Billings has increased 2,000 since the beginning of the construction of the canal. The value of the farmlands near Billings at that time was between $12 and $20 an acre. Now they are selling from $40 to $100 an acre. City property has advanced 200% and the banks admit their deposits have doubled within the three years past, and go so far as to say that farm and city property in and [around] Billings has increased $2,000,000 in value.”

The State Engineer in 1915 filed a report on the capabilities of the tunnel according to others and himself, John W. Waldo, stating: “the legal requirements of volume that is one cubic foot per second of time for each 100 acres did not in many instances meet the actual demand on the land.” To support this new requirement the Billings Bench Water Association (BBWA) Canal was created. Both it and the Canyon Creek Ditch, which serviced the south side farms in the Billings area, started from the same point on the river. The Canyon Creek Ditch terminates near the farmland along the river’s north edge near 24th Street West {Note: this ditch’s permit is issued under the provisions of section 10 of the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1899[9].

The Big Ditch started out in 1882 as the M&M Canal, and was initially intended to provide water to flush the streets, and water the trees and grassy areas in the Billings’ parks, at its termination point. The ditch was created to be an impressive structure, and the local people started to call it the “Big Ditch.” Lateral ditches extending from the terminal point drained the excess water through the town, principally down North 29th Street, and then into the river southeast of town. These small lateral ditches remained for several years before they were converted to pipes, covered and or eliminated. This concept of providing water to Billings totally failed, but it did prove to be a nice source of water for future irrigation in the arid land to the west. On 30 July 1883, the first supply of water was running through the ditch.

 By 1886 they improved the pickup point by building a ¾-mile canal 28 feet wide and 10-feet deep around the rapids on the river. Large boulders were placed across the channel so as to elevate the river’s water level. [Later these boulders were concreted over, and now it is a spillway. This water-way passes on the west side of Westover Island, and virtually all of the water from this channel is directed into the ditch: the remainder of the river’s flow passes on the east side of the island. Rowley designed the original system, and laid out the route for the ditch. It consisted of nine wooden flumes and five drops[10]. At the time of construction the land that the ditch passed through was essentially vacant, excepting for a small area near the Billings Townsite. Mr. Tucker[11] was the Crow Indian Agent at Absarokee during this time and he built a large farmhouse west of the Head Gates of the ditch, which were also on his land. After his death, his wife remarried George Watt. George checked the records for the canal and couldn’t find any evidence that Tucker had been paid by Rowley for the installation of the gate’s access right of way. Accordingly he nailed up a notice and stretched barbed wire across the entrance. He stated that no access would be permitted until he was paid. In 1886 ID O’Donnell arrived on site, shortly afterwards, to do some needed repairs to the headgate. George Watt was there with his Winchester rifle and said he’d shoot the first man who broke his fence or entered his land. ID O’Donnell left, but returned the following day with Frank O’Donnell, a very large man. (George Watt was rather smallish in stature.) Frank watched George as ID O’Donnell slipped through the fence. George lost his nerve about shooting, put down his gun and started for the house. After a while George came over to where the men were working and suggested that they be friends. After that encounter and reconciliation George was placed in charge of the gate’s maintenance for the company[12]. Note: Water was extracted for irrigation use before settlement occurred at the pickup site as part of the original land acquisition rights offered to NPR, and apparently no other written document (e.g., Water Deed) exists. The extraction of water for use by landowners was by simply publishing a proper notice and the commencement of building of a ditch. This was termed “Notice of Water Right[13].”

The original stockholders in the Big Ditch Company had homestead land or land purchased from the Minnesota and Montana Land & Improvement Company (Billings Townsite Company) adjoining the ditch at these locations. Most added more land at a later date. These and other original owner of water rights from this ditch were issued a Certificate to commemorate the occasion, along with their shares. Currently separate and different certificates are issued to the users.

Frederick W. Schauer              160 acres at SESE Section 2S, Tp2, Rn 23E.

Walter D. Story                        120 acres in Section 2S, Tp 18, Rn 23E; E1/2SE, SENE (Cash Entry 8-19-1919)

James Steele                             160 acres in Section 32, Tp 1N, Rn 25E, SW (Cash Entry 8-27-1901).

Henry W. Struck                      No Homestead. Purchased WD from Charles A. Cottrell (Book F-417) May 11, 1892, Lots 3 & 4, S6, T3S, R23 E +SW1/4 Sec 31, T2S, Rn23E.

Preston B. Moss                       No Homestead.

Lucius A. Nutting                      320 acres in Sections 10SW & 14NW, Tp 2S, Rn 24E; 320 acres in Sections 10S1/2N1/2 & 12 NW, Tp 2S, Rn 24E (Timber Culture)

                        Lucius also received his water rights from John Young, using the Clark’s Fork Ditch, on 27 December 1890. (Book E – 93)


Flumes were created to transport water over existing creeks, lowland areas and sloughs. They typically had a wooden structural base and a channel with wooden sides to transport the water across the gap. (These have been replaced with sturdy earthen berms, and much of the early ditch’s route has been altered.) Very little information was recorded about the flumes (or the drops) during their construction. Only after about 1915 did the records start to become important. When the Minnesota and Montana Land & Improvement Company (HW Rowley) created the M&M Canal, it was accomplished with virtually no written record. Apparently because he owned most of the land, and there was no need to report on either the construction or the capture of water rights since irrigation of Desert Arid land was “implied” by the nature of the land act. [Any actual record of this would be appreciated.] Pictures of some of the early flumes, drops and siphons are available, as well as some of the present locations. Contact the Webmaster.

Valley Flume

This flume crossed over Valley Creek in Section 25, Tp 2S, R22E and it ran through the Company property (purchased from NPR). This flume was located one mile north of the wagon road to Tongue River. The flume had a discharge gate installed that permitted water to be extracted into the creek bed below. The original flume had to be rebuilt. By the 1960’s the flume was replaced with a siphon.

For reference: William F. Meyer’s ranch was located about two miles east of the flume on Section SE20, Tp 2S, Rn 22E. The ditch passed diagonally through his land.

Nelson Flume

A 600-foot flume was constructed across a slough called Nelson Coolee on land some of which was owned by NPR on which Windy Nelson originally squatted. It was located between the upper section lines of Section 4 and 9, Tp 2S, Rn 24E. [Both the High Land Ditch and the Cove Ditch pass through this same area in Section 4, north edge of Laurel.] At the exit from the flume, the water drops to a lower level as the ditch continues towards the Billings area. Since replaced by earth berm.

Tilden Flume

Located just above Croesus (Charlie) L. Tilden’s ranch on the NW corner of Section 34, Tp 2S, R 22E, the flume crossed Tilden’s Creek at this juncture, just to the west of Young’s Point. [The land where the flume crossed was not occupied at the time].

Young’s Point (Reference Site)– Forest H. Young homesteaded 163 acres of land in Section 34, Tp 2S, Rn 22 E adjacent to the Tilden Ranch lands. [NWSE, NESW, Lot1-SESE1/4, Lot2-SESW1/4, Lot3-SESW1/4.]

Battle Point (Reference Site)– This vista is a local name marking a place where the Crow Indians reportedly fought off horse thieves about 1873 (origin of the battle unknown). The mouth of the big ditch is currently at 45 35 282.6 N and 109 44 95.6 W. Directly across the river, and slightly to the east, the Battle Point cliff can be seen. It is 3,984 ft high and the river elevation is 3,451 ft (533 ft drop). It is opposite of Westover Island to the east. The big ditch currently starts in Stillwater County and the cliff is located in Carbon County.


Canyon Creek Flumes

[The first one was built on property owned by the Minnesota and Montana Land and Improvement Company, and subsequently transferred to the Billings Land & Improvement Company who claimed the right of way and water rights for the M&M Canal. From existing title extracts and legal complaints filed with the local court, it appears that they were also granted wastewater discharge rights across the adjoining lands. However, maintenance of the run-off ditches and when to open or close them was not readily apparent. The flume was located in the SE corner of Section 13, R24E, Tp1S. There were three reported breaks in the flume; one caused by a sudden cloudburst that poured so much water into the flume that it ran over the sides and eroded the pilings, causing the flume to give way. When the Hall spillway, located upstream of the flume collapsed, an immense hole was created in the land that cut deeply into Canyon Creek, causing the flume to again give way[14].] In later years the flume was replaced with a siphon that ran under 72nd Street West when that road was established. There are three other flumes carrying the same name that cross the creek, one for the High Line Ditch and one for the Canyon Creek Ditch. References aren’t normally clear as to which flume is being discussed, or which ditch is affected.

For reference: Reverend Benjamin J. Shuart’s home was located on the north ½ of Section 18, Tp 1S, Rn 25E. The ditch ran across the west edge of the property.

The High Line Ditch flume crossing Canyon Creek is located on Charlie O’Donnell’s land located in Section 10, Rn 24E, Tp1S.

The Canyon Creek Ditch flume crossing Canyon Creek is located on Section 22, Tp 1S, Rn 25E. Sidney Irwin was the landowner, and Bela Brockway’s land was adjoining. The creek changed course, and by 1967 it was about ½ mile further to the west.

The BBWA Ditch flume crossing Canyon Creek is located near the center of Section 22, Tp1S, Rn 25E, just above the Canyon Creek Ditch flume.


Elevation drops were created to control the water level so as to prevent too fast a run-off of the irrigation waters for erosion control, and to regulate the flow rates throughout 39 miles of the entire system. This was a masterful piece of hydraulic engineering allowing for a uniform distribution of water to the users throughout the region. These drops compensated for the decrease in elevation as the ditch’s water supply passed from one plain onto another plain. Portions of the ditch were not uniformly at the proper depth, and some areas were about 30 inches too shallow, contributing to future floods during heavy rains. The ditch currently narrows to about 1/3rd the size at the pickup point. It has a 92 foot water level drop, or 2.4 feet per mile average drop, exclusive of the built in elevation drops.  Seven Drops have been located. Of interest to note is that some of these are listed as siphons, and although there is a small siphon at some of these sites, there is also a drop in water elevation. The excess water runs off into drainage ditches, or wasted on the lands at lower elevation. (Typically, wastewater was permitted to flow across adjoining lands as part of the basic water rights issued by the company. A sample of litigation arising from such permissions can be found in Case No. 01-780 Filed IN THE SUPREME COURT OF THE STATE OF MONTANA, by JERRY T. RAY, July 18, 2001)

In sequence of their appearance along the current route are:

1st Drop – Siphon at Valley Creek [45-3759.8, 108-5644.6] Section 24, R2S, T25

Originally a wooden flume crossed over Valley Creek in Section 25, Tp 2S, R22E and it ran through the Company property (purchased from NPR). This flume was located one mile north of the wagon road to Tongue River. The flume had a discharge gate installed that permitted water to be extracted into the creek bed below (Drop #1). The original flume had to be rebuilt. By the 1960’s the flume was replaced with a siphon, running under the creek bed, but the elevation loss of about two feet still exists.

For reference: William F. Meyer’s ranch was located about two miles east of the flume on Section SE20, Tp 2S, Rn 22E. The ditch passed diagonally through his land.

2nd Drop – Section 20 Intermittent Stream Crossing  [45-38399, 108-54924]

3rd Drop – High Ditch Drop [Section 12SW1/4, T2S, R 23E] - Originally called Sanford Drop

[Located at SW Section 12, Tp 2S, Rn 23 E, 160 acres. Jacob T. Sanford acquired the land under the Homestead Act prior to 1892. Filing date not available. The drop as approximately eight feet, and was located at the NW corner of his property. Immediately adjacent on the land to the north to his property was where the High Line Ditch later connected, Allard Drop.]

4th Drop – Laurel City Drop [Section 4S1/4, T1S, R 24E]  -

5th Drop – Laurel Airport Drop [Section 35S1/4, T1S, R24E]

6th Drop – Canyon Creek Siphon at Hesper [Section 13SE1/4, T1S, R 24E]

7th Drop – Hogan’s Slough Drop at Central Avenue [Section 5SW1/4, T1S, R 25E]


Earlier Drops & Siphons were added to the line to improve efficiency, but have long since been eliminated or changed:

Allard Drop (Added in 1911)

[Located at: SE Section 12, Tp 2S, Rn 23 E, and SWNE Section 12 – 200 acres. Forty acres of cash entry land belonging to William L. Allard was purchased on 4 April 1894, 160 acres was homesteaded earlier – filing records not available].

Sanford Drop

[Located at SW Section 12, Tp 2S, Rn 23 E, 160 acres. Jacob T. Sanford acquired the land under the Homestead Act prior to 1892. Filing date not available. The drop as approximately eight feet, and was located at the NW corner of his property. Immediately adjacent on the land to the north to his property was where the High Line Ditch later connected.]

Hall Drop

[Located at SE Section 24, Tp 1S, Rn 24E, 160 acres. Samuel B. Hall had cash entry on 1 June 1891. The drop is about eight feet. It is located at the northwest corner of the land (center of the section.)] This drop was mainly created to protect the Canyon Creek Flume from having to carry too much water.

Nutting Drop (Added in 1911)

Hesper Drop (Added in 1911)

Schauer Drop (Added in 1915)

Valley Creek Siphon (Added in 1914)

Nye Spillway (Added in 1916)

This spillway was made from wooden staves that formed a large diameter pipe. In 1932 a concrete 23-inch diameter pipe replaced it.


The extraction of water for the original M&M Canal was from a weir-shaped ditch 21 feet wide at its bottom, 39 feet wide at the top, and 6 feet deep. Water would be extracted from the left bank 1,285 feet southwest from the ¼ quarter corner on the west line of Section 14, Tp 2S, Rn 24E[15]. This ditch terminated at 24th Street west, and the excess water was discharged across the city areas and on into the river.

The High Line Ditch Company was incorporated May 11, 1895 in Billings with a capital stock Improvement of $10,000. Its purpose was to “dig, construct, own and operate a canal for 2,000 inches of water … for purposes of irrigation and other beneficial and lawful uses upon the lands of the stockholders.” The term of business was 20 years. Stockholders were: DF Sullivan, Joseph Zimmerman, Fred H Hathhorn, James Steele, ID O’Donnell, Stephen Haid and Frank O’Donnell. This ditch originated by extracting water from the M&M Canal (Big Ditch) in Section 12, Tp 2 South, Range 23 East, W1/2, on Frederick W. Schauer’s homesteaded land, and was used to irrigate additional farmlands west of the M&M Canal. It terminated near the Rocky Mountain College area. When the charter expired, on April 3, 1928, the board of directors quit claimed the assets to the newly created High Ditch Company. Directors were: Tom Ronan, DJ Phelan, Joe McConnell, Frank Zimmerman and Lloyd Lipp.  The ditch terminated at a point on the centerline of Section 30, Tp 1N, Rn 26E, south of the David Moreledge lands.

The High Ditch Company was incorporated 24 March 1928[16] by taking over the assets of the Big Ditch Company, which by this time included the High Line Ditch. Corporate assets were $22,500 of corporate stock. Directors were: Tom Ronan, Joe McConnell and AJ Rehberg. The name of the High Line Ditch was changed to High Ditch.

The Billings Land and Irrigation Company was formed 15 December 1903, and incorporated[17] in the State of Washington, by AL Babcock and HW Rowley. The purpose of the company was to extend the irrigation system in Yellowstone County to supply water for lands and stock and other purposes. At this time the company offered irrigated land for sale for about $25 per acre. Distribution of water to residents and farmers living north of Billings (Billings Bench – Heights area) could probably be provided for a cost of at least $50 per acre[18]. Earlier, on 12 October 1903, a group of five investors [John Schram, WT Clark, HW Rowley, PB Moss and ID O’Donnell] incorporated the same corporation in Washington, but held off the filing notice until January 8, 1904. The stated purpose was to distribute water from irrigation systems in Washington State and other states or territories, and to own property, sell and lease such property. They invested $300,000 with a term of 50 years. This was registered via Notary Public in Washington[19]. On 8 January 1904 they filed for water rights of 600 cubic feet per second of time to be extracted from the Yellowstone River south of Laurel. A wooden headgate was created and kept in service for many years. The canal started at the river in Section 30, T2S, Rn 24E and ran nearly in a straight line to the entrance of the tunnel. Only one flume was required, that in crossing Canyon Creek between Neibauer Rd and Hesper Road. From there it crosses Higgins Slough and goes almost north to Grand Avenue, where it runs between Poly Drive and Rimrock Road on its way to the tunnel.  Most of the proposed canal route passed through the lands owned by the principals[20] through the Billings Realty Company. This Company[21] was incorporated 2 November 1891for the purpose of purchasing, owning, improving and selling of real estate for the Billings Townsite Company, and to plat such lands as needed. The shareholders invested $50,000 in capital stock for this purpose. The directors were: HW Rowley, AL Babcock and Fred H Foster. On January 8, 1904 their water rights were established as being 600 cubic feet per second from the Yellowstone River. This included the application to create electrical power as well as irrigation. Between 1883 and 1937 the canal was located at the base of the rims and was about ¼ mile south of its present location.

In Billings, a network of seven ditches traversed the City.  These ditches carry irrigation water for agriculture, private lawns and gardens, and City parks.  Many of the facilities are open waterways but several miles of culverts and pipes also carry water.  The longest irrigation facility in the City is called the Billings Bench Water Association Canal (BBWA) and is nearly 7.5 miles long.  Hi-Line Ditch [High Ditch] is 4.5 miles long and flows [between Poly Drive and Rimrock Road until it turns toward Wisconsin Avenue at Selvig Lane and through Pioneer Park], Note: Should say: flows north of Rimrock Road, between Rehberg Lane and Rimview.  Grey Eagle Ditch runs along the Southside for just over a mile.  Big Ditch flows across northwest Billings for a mile before discharging into a storm sewer at Nina Clare Road.  In west Billings, near Rimrock Road, Cove Ditch connects into the storm sewer system west of Shiloh Road.  Suburban Ditch, in the southeast part of Billings, stretches for 2,600 feet.  A Second Network composed of two and a half miles of open ditches and three miles of covered pipe carry excess water away.  The main drains include the Arnold Drain located in between Shiloh and 24th Street north of Broadwater, Kratz Drain, City-County Drain and Yegen Drain all located in the south side of town.  Two miles of Hogan Slough, which is mostly located west of the City flows through the City.


Compiled by Samuel E. Dove, History of the Billings Bench Water Association, c 1937











Since a new ditch was required, HP Vermilye (Tacoma, WA engineer brought to Montana by WT Clark) was assigned the task of acquiring easement rights for the new ditch (BBWA). During 1903 Vermilye had secured most all of the right of way at virtually no cost ($1.00 and consideration – e.g., land value being worth more with water available), some rights were exchanged for use of the water. To create the canal several flumes and bridges had to be constructed. To cross the marshy areas the company purchased a steam shovel, as horses were not adequate for creating the canal base. Water for the new land acreage north of Billings was directed into the tunnel in May 1905 at a very slow rate to test the canal banks. Water finally reached the large Alkali Creek Flume on June 10th. At this time the approval for acceptance of the canal system via the Carey Act was initiated. WT Clark left for Washington in 1907, leaving the management of the BBWA Canal (BL&I Company) to RP Vermilye. Mr. Vermilye was supposed to be working full-time assuring that the system was functioning as it should, but he was more interested in some orchards he had in Washington. In 1908 a major break in the canal occurred. No one was available to initiate repairs, and it took a long time to fix. The Bench farmers suffered severely, and it cost Vermilye his job. Water flow tests on the canal were taken at 18 different points in August 1916. At lateral point 10, the first discharge point below the Alkali Flume, the canal carried 347 feet per second at a depth of five feet, but the canal was designed to only support 285-second feet!

“On February 9th, 1906 the United States Government issued its first patent to the State of Montana for the Carey lands described in their land contract of 1897. This patent was recorded in Yellowstone County on February 27th, 1906 in Volume U, Page 471.v. A somewhat similar contract was entered into between the Northern Pacific Railway Company and the Billings Land & Irrigation Company. This contract was made on February 3rd, 1904, in which the irrigation company agreed to purchase the Railway lands from the Railway Company at $3.00 per acre. The first deed issued for the bench lands to the irrigation company was made on April 24th, 1905 deeding approximately 3000 acres to the irrigation company, On the lands received from the Railway Company the Billings Land & Irrigation Company issued to the settler on these lands a deed known as the Land and Water Deed but on the lands under the control of the Carey Land Act Board they issued only the water deed and the State of Montana issued a patent from the State directly to the settler.”[22]

The Billings Realty Company continued operation until 12 December 1913[23], at which time steps were taken to dissolve. At that time the directors were AL Babcock, HW Rowley, Kate Fratt and Paul McCormick. Paul McCormick had disposed of his shares of stock, David Fratt (Kate’s husband) had recently died and Kate had distributed all of his shares. The directors decided to dissolve the Company. Kate Fratt and AL Babcock later died, and their wills directed distribution of the remaining shares. Judge Charles A. Taylor dissolved the organization in Open court leaving HW Rowley as sole owner on 3 September 1918[24]. Later, HW Rowley added other directors and on 15 May 1929 Rowley, LC Babcock and BM Sheehan were trustees for the company. They provided easement to the City of Billings in 1929 to place a pipeline across their properties to irrigate North Park from the ditch, now called the Billings Bench Water Users Association Ditch. The pipe was to be laid at least two feet below the land[25].

On July 19, 1924 one-half way between 27th street and the tunnel entrance a serious break occurred in the ditch at 4:20 pm. The lower bank simply slid out and released a full head of water. It continued south, washing out gardens, covered the railroad spur, city park and houses where it flooded basements and damaged lawns. A temporary wooden flume was installed until permanent repairs could be made. During the interceding year, the canal was relocated about ¼ mile further back into the hillside and the entire canal was lined with concrete. Lawsuits claimed extensive damages, but the association claimed they were not responsible for breaks. The suit held.

On July 21, 1933 at 4:00 am the canal above Billings broke through at about the same place as in 1924. It was quickly repaired.

On 3 May 1934, in preparation for construction of the road to the airport, the current directors of the Billings Realty Company provided 80 feet of easement and right of way to the State of Montana to construct a road across the ditch[26]. The directors were: Elroy H. Westbrook and BM Sheehan.

The Cove Ditch Company was incorporated May 8, 1909 to support irrigation of 10,000 acres of additional land lying below the main canal (Big Ditch) in Yellowstone Valley. Their water right allowed 500 cubic feet per second to be extracted from the Yellowstone River by a headgate constructed at the intake of the main canal at a point about 150 yards in a westerly direction from the home of JL Montgomery located in Section 5, Tp 3S, Rn 21E. The water flow terminated in S1/2 of Section 30, Tp 1N, R26E at the Desert Claim owned by Virginia F. George, a stockholder in the company. This canal was 27 feet wide on the top, 18 feet wide at the bottom, 4-feet deep. It gradually becomes smaller as the line approaches its terminus. WB George was president and Lloyd Lipp, secretary.

To support the expanding financial activities RE Shepherd, HW Rowley and Roy J Covert founded “The Merchants Loan Company” in Montana on 1 June 1914, with a subscribed capital of $25,000. On 6 July 1915 a Power of Attorney[27] was granted to the Merchants Loan Company by the Billings Land and Irrigation Company (a Washington corporation) to handle and dispose of all matters concerning the irrigation activities. The irrigation stockholders were: RE Shepherd Company, RE Shepherd (President), GC Davis (Secretary), FG Tiffany, AR Scott, Charles O’Donnell, HW Rowley and MA Arnold. On 31 May 1916 the Billings Land and Irrigation Company along with The Merchants Loan Company, quit claimed their deeds to the Billings Bench Water Association. This transferred all of the irrigation systems owned and operated by the former holder, including all right of ways and easements, including the reservoir rights existing in sections 19 & 20, Tp 2N, Rn 27E, known as Rattlesnake Butte Lake. The water needed to support gravity irrigation for the Carey Act lands that are unsold are excluded. This was about 27,000 acres. The sellers agreed to pay off their conveyance note issued on 1 March 1910 from the Northwestern Trust Company of St. Paul.

The Billings Bench Water Association (BBWA) was then incorporated on 24 September 1915 with a capital stock Improvement of $600,000. [Term of 40 years] Each member or shareholder in the association was entitled to one share of stock for each acre of land they owned. This allowed use of water from the irrigation system created by the Billings Land and Irrigation Company They created 30,000 shares of stock. The 38 original shareholders were:

Roy J Covert, John J. Larimer, WW Clarke, John H Wilcox, BC Lillis, H Hendrickson, DF Lemaster,AL Truax, JO Sampson, EE Tiffany, Leo Carper, EJ Stern, MI Page, HL Osnes, Samual T Connelly, WH Shaffer, RF Crandall, NJ Fuller, AC Magruder, HB Wallin, HC Drange, J Van Henkelon, SE Dove, Sarah Marsh, MI Chapin, TD Throop, Martin Ness, SL Dove, Jacob Oostema, JE Rehard, HR Schultze, Andrew Florin, JP Maas, Klass Andriesen, JH Vestal, Homer Davis and CV Helsing.

On 24 June 1922 the Billings Land and Irrigation Company corrected the quitclaim deed issued earlier to correct a typo; Section 30, instead of 20. HW Rowley died on 25 June 1931, leaving BM Sheehan and LC Babcock as sole surviving trustees of the Billings Realty Company.

On April 3, 1940, the Bench Association amended their articles to extend their operation for an additional 40 years, and to continue to extract additional water from the Yellowstone River from the north bank in SW1/4 section 15, Tp 2S, Rn 24 E, south of the City of Laurel. The ditch ran from that point in a northeasterly direction to a point in Section 28, Tp 3n, Rn 28 E. Members cast 14, 503.5 shares in favor of the action[28]. Later the waters from Rattlesnake Butte Lake were added, thus increasing the water volume considerably.

Copyright © 2004 Yellowstone County-Montana, Extracted from the land title files. All Rights Reserved.

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[1] Incorporation file #112, County Records.

[2] Document 337863, File 112, Incorporation Record Book

[3] Private conversations with land owners (2004).

[4] Book A, page 236 (Deeds)

[5] The sections count is available at the Court House in Billings, under MMLIC files.

[6] Seepage from the ditch essentially ruined the adjacent tillable land, causing most of it to abandoned.

[7] Refer to History of the Billings Bench Water Association and its Predecessors, by Samuel E. Dove, (1903-1905) – Virtually all original records were destroyed in a fire, and only the verbal history remained. Don Warfield in 1984 placed copies of the document in the Montana Room of the Parmly Billings Library, and other locations.

[8] Complete file details are available through the Billings Land & Irrigation Company records, some of which are published on the web <>. Refer to these files for an exceptional portrayal of the full events. It was stated that these survey costs added an additional $1.00 per acre of cost to the land that was to be irrigated. (Original costs were $1.25 per acre.)

[9] US Army Corps of Engineers, permit application 200190093, dated February 15, 2002.

[10] Historic Downtown Billings, Thesis by Chere Jiusto, 1998.

[11] ID O’Donnel reported in the Watt biography that Tucker was the agent at this time; however, his name is not recorded in the Government files as an agent. He might have been an assistant. See Crow Indian Agents listings.

[12] Watt biography by ID O’Donnell, 1928

[13] A sample of this document prepared by James H. Harper can be seen in Notice of Water Rights, Book 118, and page 47, Yellowstone County Courthouse.

[14] Although not specifically addressed, it appears that the flume, which had two breaks for the BBWA was the one, located on their canal system, and not the others. There is a not sufficient reference to positively identify the flume.

[15] Book D, Misc, page 269.

[16] File 1794, Document 223964, Articles of Incorporation.

[17] File 53025, Book D of Right of Way, page 285.

[18] Cost was calculated by WT Clark and Marvin Chase, irrigation specialists from Wanatchee, WA.

[19] File #164, Article of Incorporation –Seattle, WA

[20] HW Rowley, in establishing Billings as a Townsite, received permission in advance from the NPR financial bankers in the east to procure all the Yellowstone Valley NPR Lands between the river and the rims.

[21] Cert # 47, filed 2 November 1891

[22] Billings Land & Irrigation Company, Records of Development.

[23] Case file 48080, Book 2 of Decrees, page 313

[24] Case file 3943, Book 3, page 577.

[25] Case Document 241814, Book 149 Right of Way Easement, page 31.

[26] Case document 293114, Book 173, page 190,

[27] Document 65017, Power of Attorney Book I, Misc., Page 229.

[28] Document 348658, File #812, Incorporation articles.