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New Art and an Updated Manuscript Paint a Colorful Picture of the Man Who Forever Changed the West

In a new edition of his study detailing the life and policy contributions of Francis G. Newlands, one of the most important figures in the development of water use in the western United States, historian William Lilley III includes 14 new photos that convey the deep western roots of Newlands' life and legacy. With beautiful maps, portraits and photographs, Lilley's updated manuscript details Newlands' contributions to the drafting and passage of early 20th century legislation -- the National Reclamation Act of 1902 -- which initiated the vast irrigation system that waters the American West to this day. Also known as the Newlands Act, this law is the only piece of federal legislation in history designed to benefit the American Western region alone.


General Map of the Spring Valley Water Works

General Map of the Spring Valley Water Works. Hermann F.A. Schussler Chief Engineer. 1899. Image from The Barry Lawrence Ruderman Map Collection. Courtesy Stanford University Libraries.


Francis G. Newlands, a larger-than-life politician and businessman born in 1848, crafted an early 20th century federal law that still informs water policy in the West to this day. This piece of legislation, named the National Reclamation Act, initiated the vast irrigation system that allows water to run through the arid western United States. Also called The Newlands Act, the law represents "the only time that Congress envisioned the West as a region. It also is the only federal legislation that benefits just the West," Bill Lilley recently explained. "There have been several pieces of legislation benefiting the West while also benefiting other regions as well. The big ones are the Homestead Act, the Morrill Land Grant College Act, and the Interstate Highway Act," Lilley continued. "The Pacific Railroad Act benefited only some western states, but not all of them." Newlands' legislation was meant for all of the West, and the West alone. 

portrait of frank newlands

A young Francis G. Newlands.
Photo by Carleton Watkins (ca. 1874)

To convey the unique western nature of Newlands' law, the updated edition of Lilley's study, "The System of the River," contains 14 historical photographs that show the true westernness of the Newlands story. Lilley wanted readers to be able to visualize the rich world Newlands maneuvered his way through in the American West's Gilded Age.

Upon opening the new book, readers are immediately struck by the image of a young Francis Newlands in 1874, composed by 19th century American photographer Carleton Watkins, most known for his photographs of Yosemite Valley and other western landscapes. 

As Newland's biography unfolds, readers learn about his rich and powerful father-in-law William Sharon, a land speculator and owner of mining operations, stamping mills, a railroad and a water company. A key player in Newlands' foray into business and politics, Sharon would later become one of Nevada's earliest U.S. Senators. The lithograph below, included in Lilley's new manuscript, portrays Virginia City, Nevada, where Sharon owned a branch of the Bank of California and made a fortune monopolizing the Comstock mining region. 

Mark Twain and friends in 1860s

Virginia City, Nevada, 1864. Mark Twain at 29,
flanked by William H. Clagett and A.J. Simmons.
The trio pooled their funds to speculate
in silver mines on which they had been tipped.
(Courtesy of the University of California Press)

Among other famous inhabitants of Virginia City in the 1860s were  the trio of Mark Twain, William H. Clagett and A.J. Simmons, pictured right, who pooled their funds to speculate in silver mines there. Twain was a journalist for the first newspaper in Nevada Territory, The Territorial Enterprise, which made him a local celebrity. Simmons was speaker of the Nevada Territorial Assembly.


As provocative as Lilley's colorful portrayals of these Gilded Age characters and scandals are, his insights into the importance of irrigating the arid region, and the history of how it happened, prove even more captivating. Lilley's book follows Frank Newlands as he shrewdly engineers a solution to water management that offers important lessons for modern-day policymakers; many of the water shortage issues faced by the region in the early 20th century are the same issues California and the West contend with today.

“Media reporting on today’s water scarcity has the flavor of ‘discovering a new crisis,’ but the issues are the same as they were during Newlands’ time,” said Lilley, a founding member of the Bill Lane Center's advisory council. 

According to Lilley, Newlands’ combination of innovative thinking, tenacity and savvy politicking paved the way for a national effort to harness the interstate rivers of the American West. Gaining practice in Nevada, where he hired a team of experts to survey all the rivers in the state for potential dams and reservoirs, Newlands realized that irrigating the dry state would require knowing exactly where to capture spring flood waters.  The photos of the Truckee River below demonstrate the difference between Mountain West rivers during spring flood run-off (left) and the calm waters of summer (right).

What he learned about reclaiming the arid lands of Nevada, Newlands later applied to the West as a whole when he drafted the National Reclamation Act of 1902. The bill's signature achievement -- collecting enough water from the region's interstate rivers to irrigate 16 western states -- is considered one of the most significant government policies enabling settlement of the arid West. It was also notable for giving power over water management to the federal government, as opposed to individual states.

“By the time his career had run its course,” writes Lilley in his study, “the West would be changed forever.”

lithograph of Virginia, City, Nevada

Virginia City, Nevada, 1864. Lithograph shows a frenzied frontier mining town in a year of silver bonanzas.
C Street, the main drag, runs east to west, ending abruptly where snowshoe paths start uphill to the silver mines, stamping mills and the Sierra Nevada.
The Bank of California is on the southerly corner of the second block. (Courtesy of University of Nevada Reno Special Collections)

David Kennedy, a Stanford history professor who collaborated on the project, says the study gives Newlands long overdue recognition. “The modern West is literally inconceivable without the hugely ambitious irrigation projects that Newlands set in motion,” says Kennedy, the co-founding director of the Lane Center.

Bruce E. Cain, the Spence and Cleone Eccles Family Director at the Bill Lane Center, adds that the “The System of the River” is an important contribution to the Center’s current research agenda, which explores questions of environmental governance and management in the West.

“The need for regional management of water remains one of the most salient issues in the West, and one that the Center continues to study with enthusiasm,” writes Cain.

In publishing Lilley's newly revised study, Cain hopes to encourage today's scholars to revisit Newlands' innovative methods. "Collaboration across government is critical for the issues confronting Westerners today,” he says. “From wildfires to climate change, coordinated and systematic planning is fundamental to the past, present and future of the American West."

The System of the River: Francis Newlands and the Improbable Quest to Irrigate the West


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