History in Focus: Schemes and dreams
History in Focus
The story of Wantland, the little town that never really was, involves many of the major themes that are part of the history of Moffat County: water, the railroad, classic “make a buck” speculation, and the human tendency to dream big in the face of ridiculous odds.
The idea of Wantland begins with the Carey Act of 1894. This federal legislation was designed to bring settlement to the most arid and difficult lands of the West. It incentivized private companies, under the direction of individual states, to build irrigation projects and profit from selling the water rights. This “win-win” law prompted several western states to open marginal lands to irrigation.
On March 20, 1907, the Steamboat Pilot reported the Routt County Development Company’s plans to build a 60 mile irrigation canal along the Little Snake River in order to irrigate 50,000 acres. It would be the first Carey Act project in Colorado. Settlers could choose 160 acre parcels for 50 cents an acre while the accompanying water rights were set at $25 per acre.
Proximity to a rail line was essential. From Wamsutter, a spur could easily connect the project to the Union Pacific line. Furthermore, it was only about 20 miles north of the proposed Moffat Road already surveyed out to Maybell. To attract settlers, the Steamboat Pilot wishfully described the land as “covered with a luxuriant growth of sagebrush, an infallible sign of fertility” (8/14/1907).
Plus, the investor group was capable and well credentialed. President A.J. McCune was formerly the state engineer of Colorado. Vice President C.E. Wantland and namesake of the future townsite, had been a land sales agent for the UP Railroad. Construction manager M.L Allison was once the mayor of Grand Junction (Steamboat Pilot, 8/14/1907).
Along with the canal, a new townsite was needed. By August of 1907, a tent city called “Camp Wantland” sprung up in the sagebrush (Steamboat Pilot, 8/21/1907). In 1910, 160 acres of land was purchased, and a town plat was filed with the state on March 12. Streets were laid out in a typical grid style with a park situated in the center. The foundation of a hotel was poured and several buildings started (Koucherik, Craig Daily Press, 3/14/2009).
In May and June of 1910, local newspapers reported hopeful signs of success: 6,000 acres were already irrigated, a steam shovel was carving out 85 feet of canal per day, and a grader would build a road to Wamsutter. Everything was going according to plan … or so it seemed.
In March of 1911, Carey Act projects were lagging behind schedule and the state land board extended deadlines for completion. Soon the Routt County Republican sniffed the stench of a faltering scheme: “The hope of the land is irrigation … It is the business of the state land board to decide the character of the company and put the screws onto ‘gold brick’ schemes so honest men may have a chance.” (3/3)
In the same year, Routt County was divided and Moffat County was established. To boost interest, the fledgling wanna-be Wantland put in a bid to win the county seat out from under the established city of Craig, but the state legislature voted in Craig’s favor. The dreams of the Little Snake Canal and Wantland started to fall apart.
In 1912, Volney Hoggatt, the longtime champion of the yeoman farmer, was named chief of the state land board. Hoggatt “put the screws” on Carey Act projects across Colorado and demanded proof they could finish their irrigation project, or they would be forced to return the land to the state so individual homesteaders could pursue their dreams of owning land (SB Pilot, 2/18/1914).
By 1915, with no irrigation ditch to speak of, the Routt County Development Company went belly up and returned all of its land back to the state. Several other Carey Act projects in Northwest Colorado met the same fate. Settlers and investors lost money, people drifted away, and the town of Wantland died before it ever got started.
The remnants of Wantland sit on the east side of the Little Snake just south of where County Road 7 crosses the river. Even though the Little Snake Canal and Wantland failed, a new round of settlement dreams sprang up in the same area in 1916 with the creation of Great Divide Colony No. 1 organized by none other than Volney Hoggatt. (See History in Focus: Desert Drama, 10/11/2019)
James Neton teaches history at Moffat County High School. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Sources: Dan Davidson, director of the Museum of Northwest Colorado, newspaper archives, and “Wantland: Hope or speculation” by Shannon Koucherik.
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