About the Author

Christopher Wells is an assistant professor of environmental history at Macalester College. He received his PhD from the University of Wisconsin, and specializes in environmental history, the history of technology, and U.S. cultural and intellectual history.

The Early Conservation Movement

Thomas Means, "Discussion of Irrigation" (1909)


Federal reclamation projects in the arid West promised to transform unwatered land into an agricultural Eden, but settlers often found the work, expense, and risks of life on the irrigated frontier much more demanding than they expected.

Excerpt from "Discussion of Irrigation":
The man in the gloomy back office in Chicago, who reads of the sunshine and freedom of the West, where a man can wear overalls and a flannel shirt and yet be respected, often overlooks the fact that he will have to wield the business end of a pitchfork in the hot sun, instead of a pen beneath the cheerful buzz of an electric fan. He thinks of the cool shade of a grape arbor and has an idea that, by sitting on the back porch, he can pull a string which will lift a gate and irrigate the back lot. When he gets into the real practice of irrigation, and his ditch breaks down and drowns half his crop and the other half dries up before the ditch is fixed, and his whole year's work is gone; or when, in the middle of a hot afternoon, the blinding sweat is pouring over his face as he pitches a few more tons of hay on the wagon, he thinks of that Chicago office with the electric fan as one of the most attractive places, and it is no wonder he becomes a bit discouraged.


Means, Thomas. “Discussion of Irrigation,” Transactions of the American Society of Civil Engineers, 62 (1909): 44, as quoted in Donald Worster, Rivers of Empire (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985).