GIANTS OF SAN JUAN by Buckley Jensen
Early on the morning of September 24, 1887, Walter C. Lyman was riding his horse toward White Mesa from Bluff.
He writes, “I climbed up over the south rim of the mesa just as the sun peeped above the horizon. I was awe-struck…I could not understand it…I had seen nothing like this in all my 34 years.
“It was among the sweetest and most desirable influences that had ever filled my soul. I felt I imagined how Jacob must have felt when he saw the ladder extending to heaven and angels ascending and descending.”
That night, a vision came to Walter in which he saw a city splendid and expansive, at the edge of a cedar forest. This city would become an educational and cultural center, especially for Native Americans. He knew that the development of this city was up to him. From that day on, he devoted his life to pioneering its cause.
Walter, and his brother Joseph, stayed on White Mesa for ten days following Walter’s vision. When they left, they were convinced that a ditch from Johnson Creek could be built to provide the necessary water to establish a settlement.
For the rest of his life, Lyman worked to make the vision he had seen come to fruition. While many dedicated pioneers contributed to the building of Blanding, none worked harder or paid so great a price for their dreams as did Walter C. Lyman. Today, Walter C. Lyman is widely recognized as the Father of Blanding.
His story begins October 1, 1863 in Fillmore, UT. He was born into a family of four brothers and seven sisters. At the age of 12, he was out gathering wood when an overwhelming feeling came to him that his life’s mission would be to serve in southeastern Utah. When he was 16, and his brother (Platte) was called to settle the region, Walter knew he had to go.
Church service flowed deep in Walter’s genes. His grandfather, Edward Partridge, was the first bishop of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. His father, Amasa M. Lyman, served as an apostle in Nauvoo. His family crossed the plains after being driven from Nauvoo in l848.
Walter came through the Hole-in-the Rock at age 16 and worked to build Bluff for two years before going back to Oak City to marry Sylvia Lovell.
There he went into the sawmill business with his brothers. Twice their mills burned. It took them 15 years to pay off their debts from the sawmill disasters. Then in l889, his wife died, leaving him with two small sons. He married Elizabeth Finlinson and prepared to return to San Juan.
Wrote Albert R. Lyman, Walter’s nephew, “the urge in his soul was as irresistible as the urge which compelled Columbus to sail the Spanish Main. It pulled him away from all he had established and drew him, as steel to a magnet, back to San Juan.”
Many laughed at Walter and his crazy ideas of building a ditch all the way from Johnson Creek, high on the Abajos, to White Mesa. Others, including his brothers Platte and Joseph and Kumen Jones, joined him in the construction of the ditch.
In those early years there was nothing on White Mesa save the camp where Walter, his sons Fred and Marvin and the others stayed while working on the ditch.
After a year, the work came to a standstill as most of the workers were called on missions. Walter went to the Eastern States and then was called to preside over the Central States Mission.
The ditch languished untouched for three years. Upon his return his brother Platte died and Walter was called to replace him as the San Juan Stake President. The stake covered hundreds of miles in New Mexico, Colorado and Utah and took much of his time, but he never gave up on the ditch.
Finally, in l903, they got their first water through the ditch to the mesa. Efforts then turned to surveying the town site. Peter Allen helped Walter survey and stake lots. On April 2, 1905, Albert R. Lyman built the first permanent dwelling on White Mesa and a city was born.
Instead of filing on his water and selling land, Walter gave it away to anyone who would move from Bluff, Monticello, or anywhere else to settle and help build the city of his dreams.
He could have been a rich man. Instead, he worked most of his life and gave all his increase to others.
Walter became the first mayor of Blanding. “If outsiders wished to speak with the mayor, or the representative to the state legislature, they may have been shocked to see him in his working clothes with other toilers, assuming no more importance than any one of them.
“He never referred to himself as the founder of the town. He never pretended to any authority, any special privilege or immunity because of the part he had taken. Yet, he was the free horse to carry every burden which could be saddled upon him. At one time he was the impetus and the promoter of about every movement that began.” – Albert R. Lyman.
Walter loved the Indians. He knew a big part of his life’s work was to make Blanding a center of learning and education for them.
His life was not without personal tragedy. His family’s new frame home in Blanding burned in l910. He looked at the situation calmly and said, “Those flames had an easier time taking it down than I had putting it up.”
By 1917, Blanding started looking like a town, with roads, schools, a reservoir and a water system. During a drought year, the water ran out and the ditch dried up.
Walter realized Blanding would have to have a more dependable source of water, or it would never reach its potential. Again, he went to the mountains. His conclusion was to build a a tunnel through the mountain so that the late abundant flows from Indian Creek could be diverted to Blanding.
Again, some people thought his idea was absurd. Despite the ridicule, he started in earnest on the tunnel in 1921. They burrowed through solid rock for 140 feet before they ran out of money and support.
Wrote Albert R. “Like the truth, which is eventually to prevail in all things, that tunnel was destined to be a reality and Uncle Walter never lost faith in it for a minute, even though it dragged on for years.”
In 1951, 30 years after beginning, pure clean abundant water flowed through the mile long tunnel in the mountain and Blanding’s water problems were solved.
Walter, however, had died in l943 and never saw his dream become a reality. He put to shame those who swore water would never flow through a mountain or run uphill.
Walter owned and operated several sawmills. He started the San Juan Arid Farm Company. He mined gold at the Dream Mine to help finance the tunnel. He spent his life doing anything for anyone whose ideas would build his beloved Blanding.
Kuman Jones wrote, “President Walter C. would go farther, stay longer, work at physical work harder, stand more hardships of cold or heat and privation with the least complaining for his people than any man that has lived and worked in the San Juan Stake.”
Walter continually gave. He was so concerned about others that on his deathbed he did not own a house in the town he had built. He was penniless among the people he had helped the most. To some of the townspeople in 1943, he was just another old man waiting to die.
“Walter never gave forth a tone of repining or complaint through all of his pain. Even on the way to the hospital where he died, he joked about how helpless he was. He passed away July 19, 1943 and is buried on a little ridge northeast of the town he founded. His splendid cheer and chivalry, which had carried him gamely through fires and failures and frustrations, gleamed still in his eye and gave charm to his words to the last.” – Albert R. Lyman
And so, two-thirds of a century later, in 2009, let us examine the substance of Walter’s vision, his dream, and his life’s work. The dream had four components: 1. Water development 2. Blanding becoming a city 3. Blanding becoming a center for education and culture, especially for Native Americans 4. The building of a temple.
Water: Walter’s “impossible” tunnel has provided pure water to Blanding for 58 years, and continues to do so to this day.
The construction of Recapture Dam and the lake behind it, with the capacity to pump to the city purification plant guarantees culinary water for decades into the future. The drilling of deep wells into the Navajo sanstone by the City of Blanding has done away with the need to pay for pumping from Recapture and the need for expensive water treatment since it comes into the system more pure than mountain water that is treated. Plenty of water for Blanding’s future.
Score one for Walter.
Blanding becoming a City: The population of Blanding, including the many “suburbs” outside city limits is 4 to 5,000. When quizzed repeatedly by his closest associates about his idea of a “city”, Walter said he envisioned about 10,000 people.
That could be a reality in short order if energy development, land development, tourism, a growing college and all the other things Blanding has going continue.
Score one for Walter.
Blanding becoming a center for education and culture, especially for Native Americans: For decades, hundreds of young Native Americans were bussed to Blanding to school. It was one of the biggest bussing program for Indian children in terms of total miles traveled anywhere in the nation.
The bussing program has been mitigated by the building of schools on the reservations, but a large fleet of yellow busses still flows throughout San Juan, mostly serving the needs of the Navajo and Ute students.
The majority of the students at CEU-SJC are, and always have been, Native Americans and higher education in Blanding will continue to grow. Add the business, art and tourism built around the Native American culture in Blanding and there are few places in the country where Indian influence is more pervasive.
Score solidly for Walter.
The Building of a Temple: Did Walter miss on that one? Remember, most temples in large urban areas are built in the suburbs and the kind and gentle souls of
Blanding have long considered Monticello simply a northern suburb of Zion. Ok, seriously, Walter said there would be a temple built south of Blanding for the Native Americans. If Monticello got a temple, could the Navajo Nation do the same thing at some point in the future?
With his track record so far, Walter squeezes by on this one too. Who can predict the future? Getting another temple some day for Native Americans is less of a stretch than Monticello’s miracle ten years ago.
What is utterly indisputable is that Walter C. Lyman loved Blanding. He gave most of his life to his dying breath to get his beloved city to the point it could carry on by itself without him. How proud he must be to see today’s wide streets, magnificent city facilities, beautiful homes, thriving businesses, modern schools and a university in the making. Walter’s vision and dream of White Mesa has a future as bright as the stars.
“As a meteor appearing in our atmosphere and driving straight on its course to where it vanished from sight, Walter came into the world for a definite purpose, a purpose plainly foreshadowed in his early childhood which he pursued unwaveringly to the end.”
– A. L. Lyman
When the final judgment is in, it may well be that Walter C. Lyman will stand taller than any of his peers and posterity where the history of Blanding is concerned. Indeed, his vision for his beloved city may surprise even him in another hundred years.