Water Wheel Locations

Locations of Water Wheels

Locations of Water Wheels

The Sheldon family bought 80 acres of land in 1904 1/2 mile south and 1/2 mile west of New Plymouth.  They installed a water wheel to irrigate the land cut off by the Farmers Canal (aka Big Ditch). Most Plymouth-ites know of some water wheels, but often, in spite of being long term residents they might be somewhat ignorant of how many and where the wheels were located. Here is a google map with the sites that I know about.

I have heard New Plymouth folks dismissing any waterwheels in the Farmer’s Canal, thinking that they were all in the Noble Ditch.  This is not true. From at least 1904 on there was more than one wheel in Farmers Canal.  At first, farmers built their own design or contraptions (without restrictions), some extending clear across, and as wide as the canal.  These did not fare well, and were easily destroyed by anything floating down the canal. The ditch company made farmers remove these and replace them with a stronger, narrower wheel extending a little more than half the width of the canal. And, they mandated a “millrace” concrete bypass so that debris could be allowed past the wheel.  This was all a familiar scenario as farmers learned by trial and error a new technology. Gradually inventing better machines to do the job. It is design by failure. Each failure enables the knowledge to go the next step better.  This is a tried and true strategy for nearly all today’s technology.  We state this in so many ways, including the famous “building a better mousetrap.”

I got this photo from Goldsmith family (via Pegeen).  It is a waterwheel in the Farmer’s Canal about a mile upstream from the Don Sheldon/Cummings one in his book, and about the same time.  I do not know who the owner was or the exact placement only that it was important to them.  The Goldsmiths lived on 20 acres in the hilliest quadrant around NP (just south of where the old hwy 30 turned west to north se of NP a mile) where there was a lot of “orphaned” land cut off by hogbacks or ridges as the canal made many turns and twists.  An area sure to tempt a farmer to “raise” water by means of wheel.


This is a primitive wheel circa about 1910-15, done well before the farmers learned or evolved the current models.

Note that this wheel is only half the width of the canal—a move mandated (per Sheldon) by the canal company response to damages of a wheel breaking and trashing all downstream wheels.  Later wheels would evolve to about 60% of width of canal.

Note that it is taller and less robustly built, than later models, with lots of minor parts, which equates to more prone to break.

Note that it is using an older water holder design, much less efficient than later versions and requiring mgfr by a blacksmith—instead of just being made of boards. (There was a somewhat similar design wheel in Payette canal—but it was evidently a later design built much more robustly.)

Note the lightweight Rube Goldberg bracing throughout and on right side and lack of concreted “mill race” as all the later ones were required to have.

Note that it does have a deflection pole upstream, angled to deflect trash floating down from above—but that pole is poorly placed, too close, and wrong angle, and would have prevented nothing.

Note, most importantly, how high the discharge is. This height must have put the water into a pipe to siphon it downstream to an almost equal elevation out of sight of this photo. I have never seen such height used in any other wheel. And, if this is a siphon, then it is the oldest one I have seen anywhere in Payette Valley or Treasure Valley in connection to a wheel. Siphons are not new having been used for millennia in Mideast, and are often used in culverts under roads.  There is a very large siphon, some 30 miles or more long in Malhuer county, but it was built in the 30s.

All in all, this is surely an early wheel version that farmers used to evolve the later, much more robust and efficient wheels

Water Wheel in New Plymouth

Water Wheel in New Plymouth

Here is what Don Sheldon in his book, “The Road Between,” says about the destruction of their wheel, which had been placed in 1904, then replaced at the ditch company’s direction.  Note that he refers to multiple wheels.  He is talking about the Farmers Canal aka Big Ditch.

“It must have been 1914 that the water wheels were wrecked.  As fast as one broke up, the debris from it came down the canal and took out the next one.

This was serious business for it took time to rebuild or repair them. What was more serious, was the decision by the board of directors of the Big Ditch to outlaw the wheels altogether, as being a menace to the ditch.

Of course a power line had been built along the ditch so electricity was available to furnish power to a pumping plant, but economically there was so much to recommend the wheel that there was a lot of pressure brought to bear to have them reinstated.  Eventually this was done. But in 1914 we had to make do with a pumping plant.”

Subsequent to this, the ditch company again allowed the wheels to be replaced – but denied any new ones. And, they mandated that a diagonal “boom” or floating pole be placed to guard each wheel from floating debris, and shunt it via the mill race structure, around the wheel. The wheels were again required to be up to a higher standard.  As, they would be designated today, existing wheels were “grandfathered.”  No new ones could be placed, and old ones could be used, but only until they died a natural death. Then they would have to be replaced with a pump.

The sale of land in New Plymouth was by two dimensional platting by a surveyor miles away from the site.  Thus Seldon’s land like many others was cut by natural barriers, hills, canals, ditches, and drain ditches which disregarded a two dimensional map.  The people who had land that the Canals cut thru were in two camps.  Those that had water from other sources, and those that had no water from south of the Big Ditch.  Such cut off land was “orphaned” until a means could be had to supply water from a new canal – much later known as the Black Canyon Canal.

Down thru the years farmers, always a very innovative lot, invented multiple means to get such orphaned land into production.  It might even take his lifetime, but every farmer dreamed of an easily irrigaged farm, free from restrictions or impediments.  Flumes would be built to carry water over obstructions like gullies or canals and drainditches.  Wheels would be placed to lift water and run it whatever might otherwise have been upstream. Leveling solved many such problems. Pumps solved some. In time the various different kind of irrigation would solve many. In some places even major siphons would be used. In still others ram-jet pumps could be used, sometimes in stages to lift considerable distances. Of course what was done depended upon what the cost was.  Farming was at the time seriously bereft of operating capital which delayed many fixes for generations.

The entire Plymouth Colony was enabled by outside capital from Chicago.  Now with the sale of the original colony land to farmers, all that capital returned to Chicago.  Acquiring the capital for “capital improvements” like pumps, or major irrigation projects had to be done with profits from what they already had.  However, that saved up capital had to get them by repeated crop failures, and was usually siphoned off with expedient improvements here and there.  Building up the land and farms in NP was to be a lifetime endeavor, and even succeeding farmer life-times to accomplish.

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