Empty Promises, Empty Riverbeds

The Soule Canal, Dry, near Dodge City (Photo courtesy Boot Hill Museum)

The Soule Canal, dry, near Dodge City (Photo courtesy Boot Hill Museum)

Once Dodge City showed promise of becoming a bustling town, enterprising minds decided irrigated farmland would be just the thing to lure even more people to the area. In the 1880s, brothers George and John Gilbert dreamed up the Eureka Canal, which diverted the Arkansas River through potential farmland. The large scale irrigation project drew financing from none other than Dr. Asa T. Soule, the “worldwide Hops Bitters King,” a flamboyant businessman who made his fortune peddling a medicinal combination of alcohol, bitters, and hops.

Townspeople greeted the canal project with bombast and fanfare. One 1884 article in the Ford County Globe promised such a large vegetable crop from the irrigated land that a canning factory would be needed. The article claimed, “Upon completion of the irrigation canal you may talk about homes in Southern California, and on the banks of Lake Como, in Italy, but in preference to either give us a home in Southwestern Kansas, with plenty of water for irrigation purposes and a bottle of Hop Bitters as a family regulator.”

The Soule Canal with water in it—a rare sight (Photo courtesy Boot Hill Museum)

The Soule Canal with water in it—a rare sight (Photo courtesy Boot Hill Museum)

The canal was finished in 1888, but a mere four years after its construction the project became known as “Soule’s Folly.” The Arkansas River, the canal’s source, flowed irregularly, and nowhere near the predicted levels of water came through the canal. Add to that unusually porous soil, and the canal was dry more often than wet; the promised Eden of Southwest Kansas growing never came to fruition.

The westward movement of settlers into Colorado and their use of the Arkansas River proved to be another reason the canal never filled. These Colorado farmers built their own canals upstream, diverting enough water to decrease the flow of the Arkansas into Kansas. A conflict erupted between the two states resulting in a decades-long legal fracas that saw United States Supreme Court decisions in 1902, 1907, 1943, 1985, 1995, 2001, and 2009. Even today, people in Dodge City claim that Colorado uses too much water from the Arkansas. It’s easy to understand why. Most days, the Arkansas River through Dodge runs as dry as the remnants of the Soule Canal.

The Arkansas River in wetter days (Photo courtesy Boot Hill Museum)

The Arkansas River in wetter days (Photo courtesy Boot Hill Museum)

As Boot Hill Museum curator Lyne Johnson says, “Dodge City always has to renivent itself.” Despite rapidly-changing times, environments, and riverbeds Dodge City has done just that.

To learn more about Dodge City’s water story, visit the Water/Ways Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibition and the Napeste: Water in Dodge City exhibition, both on display at the Boot Hill Museum from September 30 until November 12, 2017.