(NOTE: The following article was included in the 1981 book Some History of Lawrence County, published by the Lawrence County Historical Society. Authored by Don Chastain, the story is found on pages 656-658 of the publication. Some History of Lawrence County may be found in Lawrence County libraries and other libraries across the region.)
The following is an incomplete sketch of how water was valued by the residents of Lawrence County. The account, which focuses on one community, is thought to be representative of the County at large. Each community and major industry viewed water as its lifeblood, and each secured, preserved and at times fought for this precious fluid with the same conviction and determination as the one depicted below.
Water has been vital to the people of Spearfish since the area was first settled. The 1885 City Charter states the intent "to construct and preserve reservoirs, cisterns, wells, pumps, and other waterworks, and to regulate the use thereof..."
The water, which came primarily from Spearfish Creek, was fiercely protected by the Spearfish residents. An October 18, 1897 article from the Queen City Mail captioned "Spearfish Will Protest," announced the intentions of Deadwood to draw 200 inches of water from the Spearfish Creek for domestic use. The Mail bitterly attacked what its editor interpreted as a flagrant disregard for legal rights established by early Spearfish settlers. The paper stated that "as self-preservation is the first law of water it is but natural that our people should interpose a strong objection." The attack then widened to include Homestake by suggesting that the company should have been enjoined years before from diverting water from Spearfish Creek. "Because our people have allowed one corporation to rob them," the article proclaimed, "it is no indication that we will tamely submit to a repetition of the dose."
In December of 1897, Belle Fourche entered the protest, first with a letter to the Queen City Mail referring to the large sums often paid for water rights and the length of time many of these rights had been held. Then, under the caption "We All Kick," the Belle Fourche Bee indicated that everyone in the valley would be "injuriously affected" by any reduction in the water supply.
In one December 15, 1897 article, a Spearfish man was quoted as saying "It strikes me that a man who had to use a Winchester in locating a ranch would use one to protect his right after twenty years' labor and occupancy in making it a home." On the twenty-second of that month, the Mail again blamed Homestake for instigating the water diversion issue.
1897 had been a dry year, and there would be others. Climate plus the growing needs of industry and expanding communities would again ignite the water issue flames of hostility. In February of 1899 Homestake announced its intention to invest one million dollars to construct a system which would divert water from Spearfish Creek to supply water for its mills and for domestic use in Lead, Deadwood, Central and Terraville. The Queen City Mail related on January 17, 1900 that the Cascade Water Power and Electric Transmission Company had started injunction proceeding against Homestake and the Black Hills Canal and Water Company to prevent them from diverting water from Spearfish Creek. The following month the J. D. Hardin Syndicate with property along the Redwater and in Spearfish Valley joined the fight to protect Spearfish water.
The battle over water rights existed not only between Spearfish and other communities, but within the Spearfish community itself. As parties settled in the Spearfish Valley, some established homes along the Spearfish Creek and claimed water rights. Several neighbors then cooperated to establish a ditch which would supply water needed to irrigate their contiguous farm lands. As a result, by 1914 eight such ditches existed. That year saw an unusually dry summer, and as some ditch owners drew more water for their lands, owners of other ditches received little water or, in some cases, none at all.
Joseph Cook and thirteen others brought suit against two hundred and seventy-three defendants, including the Cattle Feeders Loan Association, the Congregational Church Society, the Episcopal Church Society, the Homestake Mining Company, and the Board of Education South Dakota Regents.
The trial, held in Lawrence County circuit court, lasted seven weeks. The plaintiffs sued to obtain adequate water but, in effect, lost the case. The Eighth Circuit Court established a priority for each claimant and further allotted varying amounts of water for each. The Court stated that when water is not in sufficient supply for all, those rights established first and ranked highest will use their allotment even if others ranked lower are left with no water.
Cook was ranked eighth in priority behind (1) Evans, (2) Ramsdell, (3) Spring Ranch, (4) Evans, Ryan, Gay, Joseph Ramsdell, Smith and Riedrich Cooperative, (5) Walton, (6) Homestake Mining Company, (7) the Brady, Bronson, Jones and Rosenbaun Cooperative. Several of these claimants were allotted more water than Cook.
The decision was appealed, and in 1921 it reached the South Dakota Supreme Court which reversed the decisions made in lower courts. The Supreme Court ruled that rank could not be established chronologically. The Spearfish Valley belonged to the Sioux Indians prior to February 28, 1877, and homesteaders had no legal claim. On March 3, 1877, just a few days after the Indians had ceded their rights to the Government, the Desert Land Act prohibited future reparation claims. No one had claimed reparation rights during those few days; therefore, the lower court's "first come - first served" position was declared in error.
The Supreme Court further claimed that one man should not suffer because another man's land won't hold water. Nor should large tracts of land receive more water per acre than small tracts. Therefore the Court ruled that each claimant was to receive one quarter inch of water for each acre, regardless of when the claim was filed, the size of the claim, or the condition of the soil.
The November 16, 1921 issue of the Queen City Mail contended that Cook had won his case. The paper, calling the decision "revolutionary," claimed that "the Cook ditch owners...will receive ample water for the irrigation of every acre of their lands, ...and they feel amply repaid for the effort, patience and trouble required to attain the end."
The City of Spearfish has its scars from water battles. In November of 1899 the City was served notice by Joseph Ramsdell that it would be held for damages if water was diverted from the spring branch of Spearfish Creek.
Such action slowed city water use, but in 1930, Spearfihs was granted the right to take approximately 150 inches (2.94 second feet) of water from Spearfish Creek, and in 1954 Spearfish constructed a 550,000 gallon reservoir for its 6000 residents.
While the dust has settled somewhat, the water rights issue may not have forever slipped into obscurity. In 1975 an article appeared in the Denver Post with the caption, "U. S. Claims Imperial State Water Rights." You can imagine how that set with folks around here.