The Last Ditch Campaign

It was a surprise, but extremely gratifying, to see my name jump off the page while I was reading last Sunday’s Reno Gazette-Journal. There are news items where you simply don’t want to see your name, such as being implicated in embezzlement, caught robbing a bank, or in the obituaries. However, this was a good reason as it was in columnist Karl Breckenridge’s piece called “The Mighty Orr Ditch Loops around the Campus.” His column focused on the grand scheme of creating an inverted syphon which accomplished getting the waters of the Orr Ditch across a ravine on the University’s campus to continue to the east side of Evans Avenue.

Boys wading amidst debris in the Orr Ditch when the water was low during winter months. Photo taken in 1956.

Boys wading amidst debris in the Orr Ditch when the water was low during winter months. Photo taken in 1956.

One of the items Breckenridge mentioned was the screens which were placed over the ditch just before the waters plunged down in front of the Sarah Fleischmann Home Economics building. The screen was needed to keep out debris but also to prevent “the accidental entry of people and pets into the pipe for what would surely be an e-ticket ride across Evans Avenue.” And in that vein, he confessed how he and his friends in their youth would inner tube in the ditch but was unable to tell his mother of his dangerous exploits. Poignantly, he mentions the death of six friends in the waters of ditches, and brings up the article I wrote in the Nevada Historical Society Quarterly’s Summer 2004 issue on the deaths of children in uncovered ditches.

My article, “When Ditches Became Urban: Reno Women and the Fight to Prevent Child Deaths,” explores the work of women members of the United-Parent Teachers’ Association coming together in 1927, along with other members of the community, to raise awareness of the dangers of the area’s irrigation ditches to public officials for action. Ditch companies did sporadic work to the ditches, but the public safety issue continued with the companies and the city governments pointing the responsibility finger at each other.

Location where child’s body was carried downstream.

Location where child’s body was carried downstream.

Finally in 1941 after at least another 15 children drowned, the group began raising funds to get all the ditches either covered, fenced, or eliminated. At that point the City of Reno promised to provide labor to do the work if the funds were raised. So the campaign to raise funds began, called the “Last Ditch Campaign.” It unfortunately is the story of years of inertia and the inability to meet responsibility for public safety on the part of officials in Reno, Sparks and Washoe County. It is the story of an odyssey of years of children’s death occurring with the issue winding through city councils, courts, the Nevada Supreme Courts, and finally the Nevada Legislature.

Part of the ditch where a child’s body was pulled out.

Part of the ditch where a child’s body was pulled out.

Why did I pick to write on such a topic that seems so depressing? There were three reasons. 1) My newly bought house has an irrigation ditch behind it and I wanted to learn more about where these waters went. 2) Being new to Reno and a new faculty member in the Libraries’ Special Collections Department, I was in a faculty tenure-track position, so “publish or perish” is a recognized reality of one’s situation. 3) Since my position is as the department’s Manuscripts and Archives Librarian, I needed to become intimately aware of the contents of all the manuscripts collections under my care so that I could help researchers with questions about our materials.

Mainly from this last impulse I one day reviewed the contents of one of our collections which were from the United Parent-Teachers’ Association records. It has a great scrapbook which held photos and information about the ditch campaign. As I read about the deaths, dried my tears frequently, and checked further in newspapers and government records, I knew this tragic story needed to be told. I’m very glad I pulled together all the pieces I could find to publish this story, but mainly that folks like Karl Breckenridge find my “excellent story of the ditch tragedies” of use in their research. Thanks, Karl Breckenridge, for that shout out!

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