In southern Utah, a canal built to bring water from the Virgin River to the Hurricane Bench snakes along a high steep slope, so steep that the canal seems almost suspended in air.
There are two ways to see the canal, starting in the town of Hurricane:
Bowery Trailhead. Take State Route 9 to 200 North and go east to the Historical Marker. A half-mile walk takes you to the canal, a flume, and a tunnel.
Hurricane Hill Trailhead. From State Route 9, take State Route 59 east for 1 mile. Park at the communication towers. A trail along the rim above the canal drops down in several places to the canal and also leads to the Virgin Dam some five miles away.
We never planned to visit the Hurricane Canal; it sort of sneaked up on us while we were heading somewhere else. My companion and I had merely stopped at the Hurricane museum just to get some directions— but the enthusiastic docent pulled us aside and said, “Let me tell you how Hurricane was born!” She told us about the Hurricane Canal and how the first water from the Virgin River flowed through it in 1904. We decided—why not?—we’d go take a look.
The canal snakes along a high steep slope, so steep that the canal seems almost suspended in air: eight feet wide, with four-foot-high walls of lava rock and concrete. Twelve tunnels through solid rock. Six flumes over gullies. All done between 1893 and 1904. We walked along it, amazed.
Did people really build this—all the cut and fill—with just picks and shovels? Where did they get lumber for the flumes? The concrete looked old; instead of crushed aggregate it contained smooth pebbles. Where did they get the aggregate? Where did they get the lime for the cement? This was no simple project. Even with today’s equipment, it would be an ominous task.
Then there were the human questions. It seemed incredible that what made the town of Hurricane possible was thought up by two people, James Jepson and John Steele, with an idea to divert water from the Virgin River. People told them over and over that they could never succeed. What were their motivation and means? Did they do it for profit? For the community? I marveled that they could overcome the negativity of naysayers to inspire hundreds of families to invest time and effort in the project.
We asked around and learned about the lime kiln. We also learned the aggregate had come from the riverbed, and the lumber had come from up around the present-day Kolob Reservoir. But nobody could tell us where the limestone quarry was.
Next day, we found the rough-built sandstone-block kiln, tucked against the side of a ravine. The kiln would have been used to heat limestone until it crumbled to powder and could be mixed into concrete.
But where was the limestone quarry?
We wandered down the ravine, farther and farther, searching the walls for signs of digging. Why would they build the kiln so far from the limestone? Maybe because they could only easily get into the ravine from the top?
Sure enough, we came to a sudden steep dropoff at the end of the ravine. And then, as we started to turn back, we noticed that all along the ravine walls at this spot a narrow band between two rock layers had been dug out. It was a seam of soft white limestone, suitable for making concrete. A minor historical discovery, this, but exciting.
Still, there were those unanswered questions, those perhaps never-to-be-answered questions about the human side of the canal. Fortunately, back at the museum we met descendants of the original canal builders, Iva and Ashby Reeve.
They told us that the canal was built as a cooperative, largely by people who had lived in Grafton and Virgin and had had their farms washed out by floods. The men worked on the canal in the winter, they told us (those hot springs had been a nice end-of-the-day treat), and in the summer they farmed.
Mr. Reeve had worked for 75 years helping maintain the canal.
“I wore out four teams of horses on it,” he told us proudly.
He said he’d hauled a lot of gravel and cement on pack horses to fix the canal, he had helped build an access road, and he had shoveled out the ditch when summer storms washed rocks and dirt into it. He told us that the cement we’d seen in the ditch was mostly repair work—that the original cement was not very strong.
So we had more answers. This canal wasn’t built for commercial gain, but as a cooperative. Self-interest played a role, but it was combined with community interest. On the Hurricane Canal, everybody involved was fairly rewarded for the work done.
There’s a story about a very old man planting a peach tree and a young man asking him why. “Young man,” he said, “I’ve gone through my whole life eating peaches from trees I never planted. It’s only right that I plant a tree for others.”
In a way, the Hurricane Canal is like that. Whether or not the builders knew they were planning for the future, people have eaten many peaches watered by the canal, and the canal has supported thousands of people in real ways.
Those whose lives were affected probably can’t completely appreciate the vision and toil of those who worked to protect their community’s crops from drought and flood. Neither can those who take the time to explore the canal today.
One thing we can appreciate is this:
Utah’s amazing landscape is full of stories. And it's exciting - even for a historical novice - to notice remnants of the past, ask questions, investigate. There could hardly be a better way to connect with a place.
(Contributed by Ed Iversen)