Canals and Fish
When early Mormon pioneers first arrived in the arid west in 1847, they knew that to tame the land without reliable rainfall they needed to tap what little water flowed. Within a few years of their arrival, canals and ditches stretched across the land, diverting water from creeks, rivers and springs. This access to more water brought an increase in settlers and a proportional increase in canals. Settlers were told by Brigham Young to spread across the west and make the desert “blossom like a rose”—so still more settlements were established.
Logan, in northern Utah, was not much different than most early Mormon settlements. White settlers first arrived in 1859 and located near the Logan River. They planted crops, diverted the North Branch of the Logan River for irrigation, and the settlement grew. Canals and ditches were expanded and added to meet the city’s growing needs. Mills sprouted along the canals. Still more people arrived and with them came changes: adobe walls replaced logs, clapboard replaced adobe and brick replaced clapboard. However, one constant through the changes were the canals. Mills along the canals came and went, but the canals remained.
“What a pretty little town!” My father heard that from my mother several times as they drove through Logan while traveling from California to Yellowstone, or Seattle to the Grand Canyon. That refrain may explain why, when my father’s twenty-one years in the navy were done, they bought ten acres of land near Logan. I was 13 and had already lived in the concrete jungles of San Diego and Los Angeles, the green hills of Seattle and Salinas, and the ocean-sprayed shores of Guam.
I quickly found that Logan was not as remote as Guam, nor did it offer as many trees as Washington, or provide the opportunity to visit museums, missions and historical sites like California. It did have heat—dry heat—and, as I soon discovered, a large amount of water for such a dry place: like the continuously flowing drinking fountains dotting Main Street’s corners. And gutters flowing with water all summer long. Streets lined with giant maples shaded those gutters. One such maple-shaded gutter flowed in front of our house.
While my parents worked on building their dream home on their ten acres, we rented a red brick house across the street from the front doors of the high school. Two parking lots flanked the house. Across the parking lot to the east, on the corner, stood the nearly one hundred year old mansion of Moses Thatcher, son of Hezekiah Thatcher. Our gutter water mysteriously bubbled from the bottom of the gutter in front of that house.
I traced the source of our gutter water to a canal half a block further to the east. That canal began somewhere east of Main Street, flowed west under the road, then worked its slow course behind the V1 gas station kitty-corner from the Thatcher house, bisected the back of the high school grounds, crossed 300 West Street at 200 South Street then disappeared in backyards. I followed it a total distance of a half mile.
In 1859, to supply lumber for the small settlement, James Ellis and Ben Williams operated a whipsaw along what is now 100 South Street just west of Main Street, and kitty-corner from the soon-to-be-built Thatcher home. They dug a pit and logs laid across the pit. One man stood in the pit while the other stood above as they operated the large two-handled whipsaw. The following year, Hezekiah Thatcher, Joel Ricks, Sr. and Ezra T. Benson constructed a canal to supply water to a wooden wheel that powered a circular saw blade—Logan’s first sawmill. They called the canal the Mill Race.
The blooming community’s need for flour prompted Thatcher to add a small gristmill to the operation. The gristmill proved so successful they removed the saw and built a larger gristmill on the site in 1865.
In 1880 they replaced the gristmill with a roller mill, calling themselves Thatcher and Sons Union Roller Mill. By 1886 they added a two-story, 40,000 bushel elevator, becoming the Thatcher Milling and Elevator Company. They produced enough flour to sell not only in the Rocky Mountain region, but in Montana, Nebraska and Arizona as well.
The weather has warmed, the ice in the canal thawed. It is a warm enough early February day for me to have my jacket tied around my waist. My son, Ben, grabs a chunk of snow and throws it into the water near what is now left of the old Thatcher Mill. Signs are tacked to portions of what remains of the mill wall:
THIS IS PRIVATE PROPERTY
Will Prosecute Under the Provision of Section 236
We continue walking east toward Main Street and spook a dam and drake mallard. They take off careening past buildings, then cross Main Street.
The first summer we moved to Logan I wandered the banks of the half-mile section of canal that made up my world. I was tempted, but never swam its four foot deep waters. During the spring, summer and fall, it ran at full depth, but in the winter it slowed to a trickle. That trickle puddled and froze. Behind the high school my father taught me how to ice skate beneath huge, leafless cottonwoods.
Those same cottonwoods were possibly used as cover by Charlie Benson in 1873 while he tried to escape town after shooting David W. Crockett. Benson and Crockett were heading to the Valentine’s Ball when they began arguing. Words were exchanged and the gun-toting Benson shot Crockett, who, according to eyewitnesses, died instantly.
Charlie made his way to his house, told his mother what had happened, grabbed some bread, cheese and a buffalo robe, then hid under the hay in Moses Thatcher’s barn on 200 South Street. He hid there four days while searchers combed the town and guarded the streets heading out of Logan. No doubt while he waited he contemplated his quick temper that led to the death of another man four and a half years earlier in Idaho.
After four days in the barn without food, Charlie made his way to 100 South Street in the early morning light, then west and out of town. A patrolman saw him running and informed Marshall Crockett, David’s uncle. A posse of 100 men tracked Charlie who had few possibilities and was soon captured and put in the County Courthouse—after fourteen years as a city, they still didn’t have a jail.
The posse stayed, working themselves into a lather because of the four days of grief Charlie had given them and their families. Several men from the crowd made their way into Charlie’s cell in the courthouse. They took him out of the cell and to the waiting crowd outside. A noose was already made and quickly put around Charlie’s neck. Throwing the loose end over the “Cache County Courthouse” sign in front of the building, twelve men pulled. Six days after David Crockett’s murder, Charlie Benson was buried.
Ben and I follow the reverse path of Charlie Benson and wander down to the canal, just behind the old city softball diamond. I point to a small opening in the stump of a large cottonwood. Ben peers in. “Hilary,” his little sister, “could fit in there!” he says.
“When I was a kid and we used to watch the softball games, we could fit in that hole. It was a full tree then, not a stump, and the hole wasn’t half-full of dirt like it is now.” He throws a stick into it. We continue up the bank and onto the old path next to the canal.
I tell him about skating on the ice as a kid, and how the ice we see looks almost ready to skate on. “It’s not very smooth—it has slush on the top,” he points out.
Before moving to Logan, while living in Guam, I learned about fishing and spent hours with friends tossing a hand line into the ocean, pulling out small, colorful Picasso trigger fish just off the reef. We didn’t buy fishing licenses. We had never heard of limits. We just fished. I saved Christmas and birthday money and bought a blue fiberglass Garcia pole at the PX on the naval base. I fished with it several times before we left the island.
Our second summer in Logan I wandered the banks of the canal to the east of our house to Main Street, and two blocks further to Central Park, thinking about that Garcia pole. I asked some people who lived nearby about fishing in the canal. “There aren’t any fish in the canal, you’ll have to go to the river to fish,” was the typical reply. I never saw fish in the canal, so I figured they were right and the pole stayed at home. Instead I spent hours staring into the rippling canal water where it passed under Main Street.
In 1879, Thomas Edison and Joseph Swan independently invented the incandescent light. The electrical systems used to power the lights was the hard-to-transport direct current (DC). In 1882, after successfully setting up a power plant in London, Edison built the Pearl Street Station in New York City to generate and distribute direct current to 59 customers. In that same year, Nikola Tesla, born in Austria-Hungary, invented the more reliably transferred alternating current (AC) system. Tesla moved to the United States in 1884, and in the same year invented the AC generator. By 1886, the AC systems were introduced for commercialization and later, in March of 1886, demonstrated to the public.
Christian Garff and Gustave Lundberg built a planing mill on the Mill Race on Logan’s Main Street in the early 1880’s. In January of 1886, two months before the public AC demonstrations, they used their hydropower at the mill to turn an AC generator, becoming the Logan Electric Light and Power Company—one of the earliest AC hydroelectric power plants in the United States.
Ben and I wait at the traffic light on 100 South Street and Main Street—standing over the canal that passes under Main Street and under “Logan’s Heroes,” the sandwich shop on the corner, just behind us. We cross Main Street and pass the old woolen mill, one of the few mill buildings still standing. A concrete path dotted with new “old-fashioned” lamps follows the curves of the canal on the north. To the south the city created a small landscaped park consisting of a creek, pond, rose garden and gazebo.
Ben runs ahead. He throws sticks into the pond. Then runs ahead again.
As a kid I found it easy to explore the canal behind the high school where it passed an old brick building—the remains of the Brigham Young College. Founded in the 1880’s, this one building was all that remained. At one time the college’s Mechanic Arts Building tapped the Mill Race, but by the time I moved to Logan, that building was gone.
I visited the late night softball games on the city diamond just west and south of the high school. The outfield fence bordered by the cottonwoods where I learned to skate always collected a crowd. I met a couple of kids there and asked about fishing in the canal, but the only reply I got was, “Nah, there’s no fish in the canal.”
So I rode my bike along the path under the cottonwoods between the canal and outfield fence further west. At the western edge of the school grounds sapling cottonwoods clustered around a small field. Old cement work along the canal at 300 West Street and 200 South Street made for exciting bike jumps, and the Garcia pole was still left behind.
In 1875 Charles O. Card built the Card and Sons Sawmill, Lath and Shingle Mill. In addition to operating his own business, Card was appointed by the Mormon leaders to oversee the construction of both the tabernacle and temple the Mormons built in Logan. As a prominent Mormon leader himself, and a practicing polygamist, Card worried about the roundup of polygamists conducted by the federally appointed state government in the late 1880’s and early 1890’s. He eventually fled to just north of the present-day Glacier National Park into southern Alberta in Canada, settling the area with other Mormons. The land he settled is named Cardston in his honor. He is the great-grandfather of author Orson Scott Card.
Ben and I walk off the road and into the canal just off 400 South Street, between 300 West Street and 400 West Street. There is no water in the canal and Ben easily points out all of the garbage as we pass an apartment complex: a bicycle, broken glass, scraps of metal, an old jacket. Just beyond the apartments is a field and the canal is cleaner. We spot bird tracks in the fresh snow. A rooster pheasant lifts off twenty feet in front of us, startling me as they always do. We see the spot where he stood, then trace the spot with our fingers where his wings brushed the snow on takeoff.
We get out of the canal, cross 300 South Street and come to the old railroad spur. A fence blocks our way on the far side of the rails, so we hop into the canal between the road and the rails. We crawl on our hands and knees over ice until we pass under the fence. We near a hill where cottonwoods and willows line the canal. To our right is the fenced off yard of the old Anderson Mill. We stumble onto somebody’s tree fort and a lot of concrete, including stairs leading up from the canal. We walk along the concrete wall of the canal’s edge to the top of the old millrun.
At the spot where the old Mill Race came nearest our brick house, east of the V1 gas station, west of the site of the old Garff and Lundberg planing mill, were the remains of the old Thatcher Milling and Elevator Company after it burned down—a few crumbled stone walls, some giant fallen timbers and the millrun the only clues of what once stood. Fifteen feet below the millrun a small pool and back eddy formed. Although I didn’t see fish, it seemed the most likely place for them of any I visited.
With my blue fiberglass pole finally in hand and a boyish desire for fish, I made my way to the gas station. I might have stopped, as I often did, to talk with Bill about my plans. The old man was my friend and occasional employer. He taught me how to run an old press in the small back room of the gas station. And he trusted me, a teenager, to watch the till on slow days.
I worked my way behind the gas station then down the steep path to the plunge pool at the bottom of the millrun. A few minutes later some salmon eggs and a split shot or two plunked into the eddy.
The only trout native to Utah’s waters is the Bonneville Cutthroat. By the 1900’s residents so heavily fished the Logan River that in 1917 they stocked the river, but native cutthroat were not use. Records for 1927 show the Logan River was stocked with 25,000 salmon, 86,000 brook trout, 95,000 rainbow trout and 210,000 grayling.
I was told many times, “Fish don’t live in the canal.” But that day I saw no one. I spoke with no one. My line swirled and tugged below the lichen-covered concrete walls of the old mill. I reeled in an empty hook, put more salmon eggs on, and cast again. More swirling. A decisive tug. And I tugged back.
Fewer gutters flow with water now than they did 30 years ago when I first moved to Logan. The drinking fountains dotting the corners on Main Street are gone. The red brick house we lived in is no longer flanked by two parking lots—it is part of the parking lot. A single mill is left standing. The last building of the Brigham Young College is being torn down while I write this. The softball games moved from along the canal to the fancy new four-field complex west of town. But summer’s heat is just as dry. Winter water still gathers into frozen puddles. The canal forms the same eddy at the bottom of the millrun.
In a photo album somewhere there is a faded picture of a boy in jeans and a green and yellow T-shirt, a blue fiberglass Garcia pole in one hand and two twelve inch German brown trout in the other. I never fished the canal again.
I point to the spot where I caught the fish. “Awwww, can I go fishing there?” Ben asks.
“There are no fish in the canals,” I say.