Kansas Canals Map
Some wealthy men play polo as a hobby; others take up yachting. Kansas banker James Hopper promoted a western canal he believed would create a Garden of Eden in his adopted state. Hopper persisted for decades until, on the eve of World War I, it looked as though his dreams finally would come true.
Born in Indiana, Hopper settled in Kansas around 1890 with his wife and young son and opened a bank in downtown Ness City. The previous decade had seen the completion of a 12-mile irrigation canal near Dodge City and over 400 miles of canals and ditches near Garden City. Both towns lay less than 100 miles from Hopper's new home. Like others before him, Hopper believed western Kansas' semi-arid climate could be changed for the better. For the next three decades, he spouted the passionate rhetoric of a man on a mission.
Nearly every week in the Ness County News, Hopper's column (titled "Dam the Draws") spelled out what needed to be done to change the climate. " My theory is that if the atmosphere is very dry that it must be saturated with water and made damp before it will attract rains," he explained in a 1909 column. Hopper studied the flat landscape and counted at least 500 draws, or gullies, that could be dammed. Building dams would retain the region's scant 20 inches of annual rainfall and, by saturating the atmosphere, create more (or so he believed). Week after week, Hopper repeated his refrain; "If we had our entire county covered and one dam to each quarter [160 acres of land], the crops would be at least doubled. . . . Build ponds and do it now."
Hopper's proselytizing clearly had an effect, for Ness County's dammed draws outnumbered those in most other counties. He expanded the "Dam the Draws" chant to include "Plant Trees" and "Summer Fallow" (that is, conserve soil moisture and nutrients by leaving cropland idle during the growing season).
Flush with success, Hopper then proposed the construction of a four-state canal spanning over 600 miles from the Black Hills of South Dakota to the Red River in Oklahoma. He used elevation calculations to show the land dropped between five and seven feet per mile, making it naturally suited to a gravity flow canal. Diverting water from the Missouri and Mississippi river drainage basins into the new canal would prevent flooding further east, and keep water on the high plains where it was needed most. "That water would turn this country from a desert into rich fields of wheat, corn, rye, barley and other grain," he wrote in 1913.
Hopper's proposal may sound like the height of folly today, but his era was one of big ideas and even bigger investments. The Panama Canal was nearing completion in 1913, and its workers and equipment would soon be idle. Hopper had money and influence, but not enough to finance a massive project. Kansas Congressman George Neeley stepped up and proposed a bill appropriating $50,000 for a survey. Hopper's "Great Interstate Canal" was attracting attention and backing.
This large poster explaining and promoting the canal apparently was printed by Hopper in Kansas City. The drawing shows a fearlessly optimistic landscape—a massive dam on the Walnut "River" (actually, Creek) equipped with hydroelectric power plant, a large lake trolled by pleasure boats, and a wide canal stretching in a perfectly straight line to a populous Ness City on the horizon.
The figure of Hopper stands at left, holding a placard reading "Peaceful homes are better than dreadnaughts" (battleships known as "dreadnoughts" embodied the arms race between Great Britain and Germany). American isolationism is reinforced by the banner reading "Internal Improvements Rather Than External Make a Nation Great," and the levee proclaiming "Irrigation Beats the Standing Army." These statements date the poster to pre-World War I, when America was attempting to keep its distance from Europe.
Despite promising developments, Hopper's grand canal died a quiet death. World War I captured the nation's attention when it ignited Europe in 1914. George Neeley, Hopper's congressional supporter, left office in 1915. The project never recovered its lost momentum, and this poster and Hopper's many newspaper columns are the only legacy.
This poster is in the collections of the Kansas Historical Society's State Archives.
Entry: Kansas Canals Map
Author: Kansas Historical Society
Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.
Date Created: April 2012
Date Modified: December 2014
The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.