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MORMONS IN THE BIG HORN BASIN

By Charles Welch

From the Basin Republican, 10 January 1908

That the Mormon people have done their share in the material development of the great west no one who is the least acquainted with the history of the past will deny. Another great truth is that the Mormons have been woefully misrepresented.  

The Mormon people have assisted very much in the settlement of all the vast inter-mountain region. From Utah they have gone into all the surrounding states and formed settlements. In the 90s a few Mormons came into the Big Horn country from Eastern Utah and settled on the Greybull river. They took out a canal and named the place Burlington. These people were very poor and had a very difficult task to get out the water so that crops could be raised. They struggled on for years in their poverty but finally succeeded. They wrote to the church authorities in Salt Lake City for some one to come and organize them, for Mormonism not only requires worship on the Sabbath but asks its followers to keep the commandments of God during the week. It establishes Sabbath schools and cares for its members both young and old.

The actual settlement of a portion of the Big Horn Basin began in the spring of 1900. Apostle A. O. Woodruff and Joseph W. McMurrin visited the basin in the summer of 1899 and organized the people in Burlington. On that trip they looked over other portions of the country and reported the possibilities of settlement to the presiding authorities of the church in Salt Lake City. In the spring of 1900 a few men were called to take charge of the work and many people volunteered to assist in the work because they were in need of homes. Early in April the colony started from points in Utah overland and about the 20th of May they arrived on the Shoshone River at a point above Lovell.

A grant for the Cincinnati tract of land had been secured from the state land board and on the 28th day of May ground was broken at the head of the canal. Work was continued until about the middle of September, when the towns of Byron and Cowley were laid out so that homes could be built before winter. The people had lived in tents and all were called together night and morning for prayers, as it is a part of the Mormon faith to pray as well as work. It was indeed inspiring to listen to the songs and prayers of this people while struggling with all their might to build this canal.

There were in this company many poor people and winter was approaching and they were without means of subsistence for themselves or animals. A general fast was called and the Lord implored to send work where money could be earned. Shortly afterward Mr. I. S. P. Weeks, chief engineer on the Burlington, appeared and wanted to let the Mormons grade twenty miles of railroad. The prayer was answered, the grading done and the people were prepared to proceed with the canal.

In May 28, 1903, the ditch was completed. It is thirty-seven miles long and cost upward to $125,000. It is very doubtful if any other canal was ever constructed with as little cash outlay as this one, the Sidon. Miles of rock had to be blasted and tunnel 900 feet long in solid rock had to be built. The gravel cut above Byron, one third of a mile long and eighteen feet deep confronted the settlers. The water cost $10 per acre and all the settlers had to pay actual cash was 18 cents per acre, or $7.20 for each forty acres. It took thousands of dollars for powder and tools, but the secret was that the people were united and those who had charge made a profit from the railroad work and it was used to construct the ditch. All the people, directors, laborers, for they were all laborers, cast lots for both town lots and land, all having equal shares according to labor performed.

The Mormons built the road to Pryor mountain to get their house logs and what little lumber they obtained to build their cabins. There has been a great cry from some quarters about the Mormons using so much lumber from Montana. The truth about the matter is that the country has been held back because men could not get a little lumber to even erect the buildings necessary to improve their farms because of prejudice in officials and others who have axes to grind for themselves. Two or three or four men, as the case may be, have had to use the same granary, and yet the timber is to be held for future generations.

The Mormons have built nearly 100 miles of railroad in the Basin, twenty miles of the government wagon road above Cody, thirteen miles of canal at Rosebud, Montana, the 2,000 foot tunnel and several miles of canal at Billings, have assisted greatly in the government canals at Garland and Huntley; have also built the Dome Lake reservoir in the Big Horn mountains; have been building houses and school houses. They have been the pioneer beet raisers of the county, demonstrating that the sugar beet will do well here. They are now the prime movers in getting 5,000 acres guaranteed that a sugar factory may be erected. They have never had a law suit except where they have been forced into court to defend themselves. They care for their own poor and try to mind their own business. They are interested in the development of the county and state and are among the workers to promote a better order of things.

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