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The Spite Ditch

Pinepound Reflections
A History of Spring Coulee and District
page 129

The unguarded international border between Canada and USA has not always been as calm and free as it is today. In the so distant past there was a company called the Alberta Railway and Irrigation Company that had a real dispute with our neighbors to the south.

Not long after confederation the government of Canada bought western Canada (Rupert's Land) back from the Hudson's Bay Company for the great price of $330,000.00.

Portions of the west were then given to certain people in return for certain things like building the railroad or for their efforts to develop it and bring in Immigrants.

The Canadian Northwest Irrigation Company, owned by Alexander Galt and some of his English investors were given most of the land south of Lethbridge to what was to become the American Border.

Under the direction of Charles Magrath, the manager for the Canadian Northwest Irrigation Company - later called the Alberta Railway and Irrigation Company - land was sold to farmers in the area with the guarantee that they would have irrigation to raise crops in times of low rainfall. Southern Alberta only registered an annual percipitation of about 17 inches a year and much of that was snow.

In order to provide this irrigation, in 1890, a canal was built from Kimball, on the St. Mary River, just north of the American Border to Lethbridge, Raymond and Stirling. They had been given a guarantee of 500 cu. ft. per minute flow.

This canal ran north through Spring Coulee and then west to Raymond and on to Stirling. A branch was taken off the canal around Welling and on to Lethbridge.

Northern Montana experience the same climatic conditions as southern Alberta and so in the 1890's the American Reclamation Service began thinking about irrigation too.

Two plans were put forth by the Americans to provide irrigation to Eastern Montana.

1. One was to dam up the St. Mary River just as it came out of Lower St. Mary Lake and to build a canal eastward to the Cutbank Creek. The water would then flow to the Marius River and across Montana to the eastern flat lands that needed the water. This project was estimated to cost about $3,000,000.00 and this was a large chunk of the development budget set aside for the western States so it was abandoned.

2. The other alternative was to divert the St. Mary River into the South Fork of the Milk River, and let the water flow through Canada and then be taken out when the Milk River again entered Montana. It would then be used for irrigation in Eastern Montana. This was the simplest and the cheapest method because it would not necessitate a dam to raise the level of the water necessary to get proper flow and they would not have to build the canal over to the Cut Bank Creek. Of course this meant that the water would run through Canada for 100 miles and the Canadians could take it out but they figured that this was not feasible for the Canadians to do. They decided this is the way they would go.

Of course if this happened the St. Mary River running into Canada would be greatly reduced and in fact would dry up in the summer time and the canal and the irrigation already in place in Alberta would be lost.

The cunning Canadians or more correctly English decided that they would thwart the American project by building a dam on the Milk River and diverting the water to the exisitng irrigation System in Raymond and Stirling. In order to do this, a ditch would have to be built from the Milk River to the exisitng canal system. It was feasible to take the water out just a couple of miles west of the town of Milk River and because of the height of the Milk River Ridge they could use gravity to get the water to Raymond. This diversion ditch would cream off the water the USRS had diverted.

This would lower the level of the Milk River in Canada but it would not be any lower than it was at present.

An American contractor by the name of A. Cazier Construction Company was invited to come and build the ditch. It was to be 20 miles long and would divert the water back into the existing System and into Verdigris Lake just north of Milk River for reserve or overflow.

The Canadian Customs created a little problem for the contractor when he tried to come into Canada by imposing a duty charge on the horses and equipment that he was trying to bring in the country. Magrath immediately paid the customs charges and the work began. The canal was twenty five feet across the top and five feet at the bottom.

The ditch was built in the summer of 1903 and was a fine piece of engineering and construction. A Dam was placed in the Milk River and water was run in the ditch. This was called the Spite Ditch.

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Mary Tollestrup