Large-scale irrigation of the Yakima Valley commences when water gushes into the Sunnyside Canal for the first time on March 26, 1892.

  • By Jim Kershner
  • Posted 1/23/2020
  • Essay 20956
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On March 26, 1892, large-scale irrigation of the Yakima Valley commences when water gushes into the Sunnyside Canal for the first time. A throng of spectators gathers at the canal's headgates after "wending their way down the river road by means of every conveyance possible" ("Water Crowned King"). A band plays a sprightly tune and Miss Dora Allen approaches with a bottle of champagne. "Flow on, thy liquid savior of our land, and blessings on you," she intones, baptizing the headgates with a spray of champagne ("Water Crowned King"). A huge volume of water roars into the 25-mile-long canal. The Yakima Herald calls it "the beginning of the most important system of irrigation canals in America" ("Water Crowned King"). The expanded Sunnyside Canal system soon becomes the centerpiece of the Yakima Valley's irrigation system, watering a wealth of orchards, fields, and vineyards.

Granger's Plan

The seeds of the Sunnyside Canal were planted in the 1870s, when a group of farmers in what was called Kennewock, or Piety Flat, dug a small canal called the Kennewock Ditch at an intake site below Union Gap on the Yakima River. This was a small enterprise; the farmers had no capital and did all of the digging themselves. Yet their small project yielded impressive rewards, because they were soon growing fine orchards and harvesting bountiful crops. 

Outside observers, including officials of the Northern Pacific Railroad, took notice and hatched more ambitious plans. Engineer J. D. McIntyre conducted a survey of the Yakima Valley and concluded in 1889 that a vast canal, running from below North Yakima (today's Yakima) to near today's Prosser, could irrigate a huge portion of the Yakima Valley and make it enormously productive. This project became known as the Sunnyside project.

The entire valley seemed perfectly situated for an irrigation scheme. The Yakima River was fed by reliable snowpack from the lofty Cascade Range. The soil was deep and rich. Sunshine was abundant. "No section presented greater advantages toward a complete irrigation system than the valley of the Yakima," said a later land sale brochure ("Sunnyside Irrigation Canal," 12). 

Walter N. Granger (1855-1930), a canal-building expert, arrived in North Yakima in June 1889 to assess the Sunnyside project. A guide took him downstream through Union Gap, and into the valley. "As I gazed on the scene, I then and there resolved that a city should someday be built. My mind was then made up regarding the feasibility of the canal project, and the next day we rode to the nearest telegraphic station, where I wired for my crew of engineers" (Boening, 21).

The Yakima Canal and Land Company was organized in December 1889, with Granger as its first president. The Northern Pacific Railroad gave the company an option to purchase all of the railroad land within the Sunnyside project. Soon, the Northern Pacific became so impressed with the project that it bought two-thirds of the stock and the company was renamed the Northern Pacific, Yakima and Kittitas Irrigation Company.

The company bought out the old Kennewock ditch (sometimes spelled Kennewick or Konnewock or Konewock), and began enlarging the old intake site and building what would be called the Sunnyside Dam. "Nature seems to have designed it as a place of intake of a great canal," the company would later say ("Sunnyside Irrigation Canal," 14). Work began in early 1891. The old canal was vastly enlarged to dimensions of 30 feet wide at the bottom and 62 feet wide at the top, capable of carrying 1,000 cubic feet of water per second and irrigating 68,000 acres. The canal was then extended for many miles downstream.

'Into the Heart of the Desert'

By early spring of 1892, about 25 miles of the Sunnyside Canal were completed and ready to open. The company announced a formal ceremony for March 26, 1892, and built a wooden platform at the new headgates. A number of local supporters made their way from North Yakima, and dignitaries arrived from across the Cascades. Paul Schulze, now the president of the Northern Pacific, Yakima and Kittitas Irrigation Company, arrived from Tacoma via a special train car, and he brought with him the president of Tacoma Power & Light and several other business leaders.

Speakers took to the stage and delivered flowery addresses, making it clear that they grasped the import of the occasion. "Ladies and gentlemen, this river has flowed onward unobstructed to the sea until seasons have ripened into cycles, and no hand of man has stayed its flow," said Edward Whitson. "Now, here, the stream divides. Like some strange visitor in a foreign land, this water shall find its way into the heart of the desert" ("Water Crowned King").

"This is an epoch in central Washington," said J. Reavis, a judge and investor in the company. "… We will now witness the reunion of the land and the water, which have been separated since Noah's deluge" ("Water Crowned King").

Miss Allen took a swing at the headgates with her champagne bottle, the headgates cranked open and the water roared into the great canal. One of the spectators launched a toy boat, decorated with blue and white ribbons, and it was quickly swept around a bend.

Farmers and orchardists soon established themselves along the canal. However the Financial Panic of 1893 caused work to stagnate briefly and "settlers lived as best they could" ("Sunnyside Irrigation Canal"). Work resumed and the canal was soon extended to the 42-mile point. Meanwhile, Granger platted the towns of Sunnyside, Zillah, and Granger in the irrigated areas.

The company went into receivership in 1895, largely because of Schulze's financial improprieties and subsequent suicide, but in 1900 the Washington Irrigation Company purchased the Sunnyside Canal and extended it to near Prosser. In 1902, the Washington Irrigation Company declared that the canal "has passed out of the experimental stage" and into its full maturity ("Sunnyside Irrigation Canal"). Granger claimed that it was now the largest irrigation project in the Northwest, and the fourth largest in the U.S. The company estimated that between 4,000 and 5,000 people lived in the irrigation area and that 20,000 acres of land were already under cultivation.

The irrigated lands were already producing huge crops of alfalfa, but the company realized that it was "in the growing of fruit that the lands in the Sunnyside section can be best utilized" ("Sunnyside Irrigation Company"). Vast carloads of apples, peaches, plums, and prunes were being shipped by 1902. Hops grew extraordinarily well, and they would later become one of the Yakima Valley's premier crops. A few farmers had already planted vineyards, presaging the Yakima Valley's current reputation as a prestigious winegrowing region.

Private to Public

In 1905, this private irrigation project turned public: The U.S. Reclamation Service (today's U.S. Bureau of Reclamation) purchased it that year from the Washington Irrigation Company and it became part of the Sunnyside Division of the Yakima Project. The government completed the Sunnyside Dam in its present form in 1907. By 1919, 32,000 acres of land were under cultivation, and another 32,000 acres were available for irrigation. That year, historian W. D. Lyman called the Sunnyside Canal "truly one of the great works ever wrought," which might have been correct if he were referring strictly to the Yakima Valley (Lyman, 795).

As of 2020, the Sunnyside Canal is 60 miles long, with 44 miles of major subsystem canals and 329 miles of laterals. Its irrigated lands are known as the Sunnyside Division of the Yakima Reclamation Project. The Sunnyside Valley Irrigation District waters more than 90,000 acres of land, and is the "fourth largest in the state" ("Facts and Figures: SVID").


"Water Crowned King," The Yakima Herald, March 31, 1892, p. 1 and p. 8; Rose M. Boening, "The History of Irrigation in the State of Washington," The Washington Historical Quarterly, Vol. 10, No. 1, January 1919, pp. 21-45; "Sunnyside Irrigation Canal," pamphlet published by the Washington Irrigation Company, third edition, 1902, accessed January 19, 2020 (; "Facts and Figures: Sunnyside Valley Irrigation District," a fact sheet available on the Sunnyside Valley Irrigation District website (; "Facts and Figures: Sunnyside Division," a fact sheet available on the Sunnyside Valley Irrigation District website (; Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Walter Granger Organizes the Yakima Land and Canal Company on December 4, 1889" (by Paula Becker), (accessed January 20, 2020); W. D. Lyman, History of the Yakima Valley, Washington, Comprising Yakima, Kittitas and Benton County, Illustrated, Vol. 1 (Chicago: S. J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1919).

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