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Mead, Elwoodfree

(16 January 1858–26 January 1936)
  • James R. Kluger

Elwood Mead

Seated second from right, 1924.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-110612).

Mead, Elwood (16 January 1858–26 January 1936), U.S. Commissioner of Reclamation, was born near Patriot, Indiana, the son of David B. Mead, a farmer, and Lucinda Davis. Mead spent his early years studying in a one-room schoolhouse, doing chores on his father’s farm, and enjoying “long summer days playing in the groves of ash, oak, wild cherry, hickory, poplar, and walnut trees along the slopes of the Ohio River.” In this idyllic, mid-nineteenth-century setting he came to value the benefits of rural community life even as he broadened his horizons in his grandfather’s library, reputed to be the largest personal one in southern Indiana.

Mead’s earliest dream of a military career was abandoned after a few weeks at West Point in 1877, when a bout of malaria forced him to return home. The following fall he enrolled at four-year-old Purdue University, from which he graduated in 1882 with a diploma bearing mention of special work in agriculture and science. That same year he married Florence S. Davis; they had three children. Following his service in the U.S. Army Engineer Corps from August to December 1882, as an assistant engineer surveying the Wabash River, Mead earned a civil engineering degree the following year from Iowa Agricultural College (later Iowa State University). When Mead’s mentor at Purdue, Charles Lee Ingersoll, became the president of Colorado State Agricultural College (now Colorado State University) in Fort Collins in fall 1882, he invited Mead to teach mathematics and science at the college. There Mead first became acquainted with irrigated agriculture and found his life’s work: “the study of all the physical, human and legal problems of turning on water with a shovel” (Letter to Grace Raymond Hebard, 27 Mar. 1930; Hebard Collection, Univ. of Wyoming).

About the time Mead arrived in Fort Collins, Colorado was beginning to address the problems of distributing a limited supply of water with a growing demand for the precious commodity. Beginning in 1879, a series of laws, including the establishment of the office of state engineer, were enacted to oversee the allocation of water claims. E. S. Nettleton was the first person to hold that position, and Mead began to assist him in his spare time and during the summers and to incorporate this practical experience into his courses. In 1886 he was named professor of irrigation engineering, the first such position in the United States. He quickly mastered the features and flaws of the Colorado system and gained a reputation as an authority on irrigation and water rights.

Mead’s growing status as an expert on water issues attracted the attention of officials in neighboring Wyoming. In 1888 officials there consulted him when they created the office of territorial engineer and then named him to the position. His renown was further enhanced two years later when Wyoming became a state. Mead wrote the section of the constitution dealing with water and then put together the code and administrative structure to implement it. The result came to be known as the Wyoming System, the prototype for water distribution throughout the American West as well as in a number of countries around the world.

The 1890s saw a growing movement in the West for a greater role by the federal government in reclamation—that is, the cultivating of desert lands by irrigation. Mead, however, favored a more limited, states-oriented program. When it became clear that some form of federal activity was forthcoming, Mead’s supporters got him appointed to head the Office of Irrigation Investigations in the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1899. They hoped this would lead to his eventual appointment to direct whatever federal program was created.

The Reclamation Act of 1902 did not reflect Mead’s views, however, and, when the new Reclamation Service was housed in the Interior Department, he saw his influence in the nation’s capital waning. He began splitting his time between his Washington duties and teaching part-time at the University of California at Berkeley. An offer of a professorship there unfortunately coincided with the San Francisco earthquake, which temporarily dried up funds for such a position. In the midst of these frustrations, Mead was involved in a streetcar accident that resulted in the amputation of his right arm. One of the nurses who cared for Mead during his recuperation was Mary Lewis. His first wife having died in 1897, Mead married her in September 1907; they had three children. Shortly thereafter, officials from the Australian state of Victoria approached Mead with an offer to head their State Rivers and Water Supply Commission. In the fall of 1907 he agreed to try the job for six months; in the end he stayed nearly eight years.

Mead characterized his years in Australia as the “most fruitful experience” of his professional life. That evaluation was based on three major accomplishments stemming from his primary task of developing the rivers of Victoria, a complex of streams that encompassed a significant part of the Murray River system, the continent’s only significant watershed. Formulating a comprehensive plan not only entailed engineering considerations but also involved settling long-standing disputes with New South Wales and South Australia, Victoria’s sibling states, over water rights and allocations, and, ultimately, colonizing the area with settlers.

A compact dividing the Murray River system waters among the three states was the most elusive of Mead’s achievements. A formal agreement was not signed until 12 April 1915, only three days before Mead tendered his resignation to return to the United States. While those negotiations dragged on, construction of the facilities necessary to develop the Murray and its tributaries proceeded apace, creating an impressive network of dams and canals for the storage and distribution of water. Victoria’s leaders had to show that the enormous cost of all of this activity benefited the general population, and this led to the work Mead found most rewarding—the actual settlement of the land with resident farmers.

Attracting colonists to an agricultural frontier had had a long and unsuccessful history in the “Land Down Under,” as Australia is often called. Three major efforts to promote rural communities (known as closer settlements in the jargon of Australians) were made in the nineteenth century; all failed for a variety of reasons. Mead now proposed tying community planning to irrigation. This combination would, he hoped, justify its huge expense by creating opportunities for large numbers of settlers, lessen the continent’s chronic dependence on imported foodstuffs, and replicate the bucolic days of his youth.

In 1909 the Victorian government accepted Mead’s proposals and named him to the State Lands Purchase and Settlement Board. From that position, he directed the purchase of reclaimed land and its division into three categories: two-acre plots for subsistence laborers to learn irrigation farming, five- to ten-acre allotments for orchard and market gardening, and twenty- to 200-acre tracts for regular farms. Generous repayment schedules, expert advisors, and cooperatives for buying and selling rounded out the main features of these model communities.

A heady sense of accomplishment characterized the first years of this program. In 1910 Mead led a delegation of Victorian officials and a reporter from the Melbourne newspaper The Argus to Europe and North America; an aura of success surrounded the enterprise. By 1914, however, discontent had begun to spread as the realities of hard work, poor prices, heavy debts and a severe drought set in. The flaws in the system and a growing cry that they had been deceived by Mead and the government were just beginning to manifest themselves when Mead sailed back to the United States in May 1915. Meanwhile, he saw his program as a great success, blithely choosing to ignore the complaints of a few “pettifogging critics,” as he characterized them in a letter to his son Tom. Mead returned to his native country determined to bring the blessings of aid and direction in land settlement to the United States.

In 1915 Benjamin Ide Wheeler, president of the University of California at Berkeley, appointed Mead professor of rural institutions. Concerned about the declining condition of California farm life, Wheeler hoped Mead could revitalize it. In 1917, at Mead’s behest, the California legislature created a Land Settlement Board, and the governor appointed Mead to head it. Under Mead’s direction, the board established two model rural communities. Patterned on the Australian example, these demonstration projects were designed to show land developers how to run their properties and to serve as inspirations for revitalizing rural life. A 6,239-acre colony near Durham in the Sacramento Valley was opened in 1918; two years later an 8,400-acre track of land near Delhi in the San Joaquin Valley began accepting settlers. Like their Australian counterparts, both settlements began with high hopes and great fanfare, and like their “down under” cousins, they soon collapsed, victims of the 1920s agricultural depression, poorly chosen land, and resentment at the promises and heavy-handed paternalism of the Land Settlement Board and Mead’s policies. Settlers believed that they had been deceived and then abandoned by those who had lured them into this experiment, and, as with the Australian experience, Mead had moved on before the full extent of the failure became apparent.

In 1923 Mead took a sabbatical from his teaching duties and went on an around-the-world consulting tour. The trip took him to Hawaii, where he advised the government on land programs for native Hawaiians, then to Australia—this time to New South Wales—for four months, and finally to Palestine, where he assessed the progress of agriculture for the World Zionist Organization. In the Middle East he was particularly attracted to the kibbutzim movement, the closest his settlement schemes ever came to achieving success.

While in Australia, Mead received a letter from Secretary of the Interior Hubert Work asking him to serve on another panel reviewing federal reclamation. Mead had been on the 1915 Central Board of Cost Review that had examined problems at that time. The result was a modification of some charges and a few other adjustments that stilled complaints temporarily. High wartime prices followed for several years, but by 1923 U.S. irrigation had reached a critical state. The six-man board, the so-called Fact Finders Committee, submitted a list of sixty-five recommendations that bore the imprint of Mead on every important point, including a call for aid and direction in land settlement, a refrain that recurred in virtually any report Mead had had a part in since 1915. In March 1924, even before the board had finished its work, President Calvin Coolidge named Mead to be commissioner of reclamation. Mead immediately set to implementing the suggestions of the Fact Finders.

The gist of these proposals concerned construction charges that water users were expected to repay. The water users believed that these fees were much higher than income from the land could ever finance, and that they were being expected to absorb the cost of government errors. The Fact Finders investigations bore out these allegations and, under Mead, more than $27 million of charges were written off by Congress. The new commissioner believed that the water users would be much more cooperative and responsible for charges that they felt were legitimate. Mead also began the process of decentralizing the Reclamation Bureau to return day-to-day control of operations over to farmer cooperatives, again believing that “hands-on” management bred good management. By 1929 revenues on the projects and the levels of repayments were both up significantly, and it appeared that federal reclamation was headed at last toward its original goals. But then the Great Depression hit the country, and reclamation, like everything else, went into a tailspin. For the rest of his tenure, Commissioner Mead struggled with repayment issues. Still, the reforms he initiated in his first five years set the bureau on the road to a stability it had never known before he took office.

Besides the day-to-day management of his bureau, Mead’s energies were directed increasingly toward one of the outstanding engineering feats of the twentieth century, the building of Hoover Dam, the centerpiece of a massive, multipurpose program for the lower basin of the Colorado River. Construction of this huge dam, begun in 1931, was the capstone of Mead’s remarkable life in reclamation. Under his overall direction, the 727-foot arch-shaped structure was finished a full two years ahead of schedule. Unfortunately Mead was unable to attend the dedication in September 1935; he lay ill in a Los Angeles hospital. He recovered and returned to work, only to die soon thereafter in Washington, D.C., so he never saw the dam completed later that year. In recognition of his long service to reclamation, Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes named the lake then forming behind Hoover Dam in his honor.

For over a half century, Mead was a major figure in the development of the American West. Every significant change in reclamation, from the simple ditch diversions of individual farmers to the behemoth Hoover Dam, was affected by his ideas and deeds. The guiding principle throughout his life was the romantic Jeffersonian vision of the hearty yeoman farmer. He wanted to help men own farms. His aims were noble, but the results were slim. That his goals were not achieved as he envisioned them, however, should not diminish the contributions he made to reclamation.


Mead’s personal papers have almost all been lost. The American Heritage Center at the University of Wyoming in Laramie and at the Wyoming State Archives in Cheyenne contain material dealing with Mead’s work in that state. The Bancroft Library and the University of California Archives, both at Berkeley, have a wealth of material relating to his years as a professor there and his work on the Land Settlement Board. The National Archives in Washington, D.C., have his official papers from the various governmental posts he held. Mead’s two books, Irrigation Institutions (1903) and Helping Men Own Farms (1920), are basic to understanding his ideas. The only full-length treatment of Mead is James R. Kluger, Turning on Water with a Shovel (1992). To put Mead’s early career in perspective, see Donald J. Pisani, To Reclaim a Divided West (1992). An obituary is “Dr. Elwood Mead, Commissioner of Reclamation, Dies,” Reclamation Era 26 (1936): 33–35.