Thora and Vet Bradford

30-year project brings water to a thirsty village on White Mesa

by Buckley Jensen

In the arid West, water is an absolute necessity and the key to survival and prosperity. Nowhere was that more true than in the little hamlet of Grayson, (Blanding) UT, clawing for a foothold on White Mesa after the first settlers arrived in 1905.

Between Grayson’s founding and Blanding’s teen years in l921, the town outgrew its water supply. The “ditch” which supplied Blanding’s water was algae filled and brackish in the late summer.

Some years it ran dry, necessitating hauling water long distances. In order to continue to grow and to be able to coax sustenance from the rich soil of White Mesa, it was obvious to everyone that something had to be done.

Dave Black spent time scouting for a dependable source of water in the Blue Mountains to the north of Blanding. His explorations led him to believe that Indian Creek would be the best option available. He took Walter C. Lyman to the mountains.

After Walter inspected Dave’s ideas, he agreed. However, Walter thought it would be best to drill a tunnel through the mountain, rather than trying to build a long ditch around the mountain to Blanding.

Much water would be lost in a ditch and the maintenance would be expensive. Peter Allen surveyed the site and Dave Black, with an all-volunteer labor force, began building a primitive road up Johnson Creek to the proposed tunnel site.

A mass meeting was held in July, l921 to discuss the feasibility of the project with the residents of Blanding. It was estimated that the tunneling project would cost $50,000, which at that time was an astronomical sum. In August, working mostly on faith, with no long term financing in place, work began. A crew of men started at each end of the tunnel with more than a mile of solid rock rising thousands of feet above them.

They had primitive equipment, namely a drill, a single jack, shovels and wheelbarrows. Albert R. Lyman walked to the site and described the effort thusly:

“It was like a brave little mouse nibbling at the hard crust of a ponderous log. It would be years before the mouse and others after him gnawed a hole clear through.”

In the beginning, Walter C. Lyman was the principle force behind the tunnel project. However, money was scarce, the rock they were going through was solid granite. It was painfully slow.

And to make matters worse, Walter passed away. After two years, little had actually been accomplished. Walter’s son Marvin took up most of the responsibility after his father passed. He would regale his friend Sylvester (Vet) Bradford about the necessity of the tunnel every time Vet ran across Marvin at Church or his place of business.

Vet had experience in the mines of the area. After Walter died, he was out of work and had taken up farming. Marvin continued to lobby and Vet finally agreed to a contract to build the first 1,000 feet of the tunnel.

Two cabins were built at each end of the tunnel for food preparation and for a place for the crews to sleep. Thora Bradford, daughter of Dave Black and wife of Sylvester, agreed to live at the site and cook and take care of the men.

She recalls, “When the tunnel started they worked in shifts. The only light they had were candles. It was all hand drilling and the muck was removed with wheelbarrows.”

Vet and his boys and other workers finished their contract on the first 1,000 feet. During that time financing for the balance of the tunnl – another 4,700 feet – was acquired from the government. Vet, Marvin and their wives decided to form a partnership and take on the balance of this Herculean task.

Unfortunately, they bid the job when wages were low. They figured $1 an hour for their workers in their bid. Within two years, wages had risen to $2 an hour, and the resulting shortfall from this and other problems created a constant financial crisis for the low bidders.

They considered quitting, but they did not want to quit. Yet even on the best days they simply did not know how they could keep going. Vet described the situation like this: “Have you ever been out in a big flat holding a bear’s tail and you didn’t dare let go, and you couldn’t hang on?”

Vet and Thora decided they had to carry on alone, if necessary. News of the financial difficulties circulated through the community and support waned, along with the rumblings of those who had predicted the project would never be completed.

Four of Vet and Thora’s sons got married in a 14-month period during this rough patch at the tunnel. All four of them worked alongside their dad at various times, often for no wages or wages far below what they could have earned elsewhere. Other good men, who believed in the project, also sacrificed much.

Marvin and his wife Marge in Blanding took care of the paperwork associated with the project. Vet and Thora and their sons took up residence on the mountain. It was tough. Vet recalled, “Because of the lack of funds, I put in a double shift most of the time. I felt I needed to be with the boys. I would come out of the tunnel exhausted.

“When I would go down to sleep, I couldn’t. I would find myself sitting on the edge of the bed with cold sweat standing out on my forehead. I couldn’t seem to settle down. I was under tremendous strain.”

For six more years, the Bradfords battled the mountain. They were almost blown to bits one day when a load of blasting caps got covered with muck. Not knowing they were mixed in the pile, the miners began sinking their picks into the muck.

“If one of us had hit one of those caps in that pile, we would all have been blown to bits. I think Someone was watching over us. I do not recall a single broken bone or serious injury during the entire project.”

That fact is remarkable considering that in those days, mining with explosives was one of the most dangerous occupations.

Then, on December 27, l951, more than 30 years after the project started, Vet sent his sons Tex and Kay into the south tunnel and he and Marvin put on snowshoes and struggled over the mountain to the north entrance. The deep snow exhausted them, and they did not know how they would find the strength to return.

When they walked into the tunnel, they could hear faint sounds, and they knew Tex and Kay were close. Vet tapped messages, and the boys continued to drill, and before the day was done, a drill bit broke through and the tunnel was soon complete. Words cannot express the feelings of those men that day, to see their dream finally come to fruition. And Vet and Marvin did not have to climb back over the mountain to Blanding. They were the first men to walk from one end to the other, with a wonderful cool breeze in their faces.

Considering the primitive survey equipment of the period, it is nothing short of a miracle that the two tunnels, each over a half mile in length, in solid rock, met exactly where they were supposed to meet.

After the initial euphoria wore off, Vet and Marvin were faced with the fact that they were $20,000 in debt. They had both worked without wages for six years. Twenty thousand dollars in l951 would be nearly $300,000 today.

They took the machinery they had used in the tunnel, and hauled it to a uranium mine. Vet worked hard for a year and a half. They hit some rich ore and paid off the entire $20,000. And as soon as the debts were paid, the uranium ore ran out and Vet decided to leave mining for good.

A quarter of a century later, Vet recalled, “When I think now of the many headaches, nose bleeds, back aches, and constant worry that we endured during those days, I wouldn’t take anything for the experience, but I wouldn’t want to go through it again, either.”

Twenty-one years after the completion of the tunnel, the Old Settler Albert R. Lyman wrote the following in the San Juan Record in l972. “When Vet Bradford finished his personal contract on the tunnel, he paused long enough to realize that he and Marvin Lyman (partner) were in debt head-over-heels, not only for their personal obligations, but for what they had obligated the company to pay.

“Their debts had made them famous as daring plungers, but now their debts were making them infamous, for having plunged too far. People generally didn’t understand that when it was finally resolved to get right down to the brass tacks of strenuous work and build that tunnel, that Vet and Marvin were vertebras in the backbone of that resolution. Their resolve became more and more pronounced with the stiff reverses they had to meet, till they staked all they had to give for that tunnel, including fame, name and life itself.

“They had to take another contract not for just so many feet but for the break-through and getting the water. They knew they were traveling on their gaul, and that something might blow up in their faces.

“What the difference! This was a matter for the eternal ages—this had to do with generations yet unborn. They wouldn’t quit, though few people beyond the solemn hush in the heart of Blue Mountains, realized the killing obligation it placed on the few who were carrying it on.

“Thora was the life and cheer of that dwelling in the rocky canyon. She was the indispensable counterpart of the man at the head of the works, really the aproned power behind the throne. When the tunnel called, they both heard, and came as the most complete and potent unit in the world; a man and a woman in perfect harmony of purpose.

“As we contemplated Vet and Thora as the live unit on this firing line, our thoughts flashed to the supply depot in Blanding, 15 miles down the mountain where Marvin Lyman operated a garage and his wife Marge manipulated a set of books, writing and receiving orders, collecting and paying bills and sending equipment and supplies to the crews at the tunnel. And all the while Vet and his crew toiled on and on while would-be prophets declared that the tunnel would soon be abandoned.”

How in the world did you do it? How did you make those tunnels meet so perfectly has been a question asked Vet many times. His humble reply was always the same. “Every morning before I went into that tunnel, my wife and I knelt and asked the Lord for his protecting care and to assist us in a successful conclusion.”

After getting all their debts paid, Vet and Thora decided to go on the first of several missions for their church. They were called to the Northwestern States Mission and spent time in Alaska.

Their time in Ketchikan was especially memorable. One day they were walking along and came upon a 10-year old boy who had just pulled a beautiful salmon from the river. Vet asked the boy what he would take for the fish, and the boy said 50 cents. Vet told him to clean the fish and he and Thora would be back in 30 minutes to get it.

When they returned, the boy had told six of his friends, who were all standing with smiles and their own cleaned salmon. “We didn’t have the heart to not buy all their fish,” Vet recalled, “and so for $3.50 we went home that day with 60 pounds of prime fresh salmon. We kept as much as we could and tried to give the rest away... but no one wanted anything to do with our free fish. They preferred to throw a line in the river and get their own “fresher” fish. (Note: Fresh Red Alaskan Ocean Salmon, if you can get it, is today $14 to 21 per pound in Utah.)

As Blanding continues to grow and prosper, it is likely that most do not give a thought to the clean mountain spring water they enjoy. Indeed, many people probably have no idea of the sacrifice that was made by the Bradfords, the Lymans, and many other good people in this massive endeavor.

For the last 57 years, an unending stream of pure, cold mountain water has traversed the tunnel for the benefit of all.

No single project in the history of San Juan County carried greater risks and challenges than that decade of digging. No other County project was a bigger catalyst for growth and development than Blanding’s “tunnel of tears.”

The sacrifices our forefathers endured are often take for granted in 2009.

San Juan Record

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