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Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About the Bly Tunnel! (But Were Afraid to Ask) – Part Three

Did you miss the other parts in our series?

Here are links so you can catch up and read them all

Part One Where we detail the physical aspects of the lake and the earliest records of exploration

Part TwoIn which we will begin to look at historic lake levels and the different natural factors which have caused Eagle Lake to rise and fall… including earthquakes!

Part ThreeIn which we retrace our steps and take a look at the various attempts to tap the lake, including 3 tunnels you never knew existed!

Part FourIn which we find out where all of this water was supposed to be going! Featuring the lush garden regions of Amedee, Standish and Litchfield.

Part FiveAbsolutely everything else you need to know about the Bly Tunnel up till now.

Everywhere we go these days people are talking about the Bly Tunnel at Eagle Lake. We all read the pertinent articles in the Lassen County Times, try and absorb facts and figures and listen to the arguments in what has become an incredibly divisive issue.

Why does this particular controversy raise the ire of so many? Just attempting to put a lot of these facts down in writing is a scary proposition given the extreme nature of the arguments. We have tried to exhaustively track down as many prima facie documents as possible, relying on the opinions or studies by experts.

Along with those opinions we hope to give you our own SusanvilleStuff primer on the colorful history, unique geology and over 150 years of political battles surrounding California’s second largest natural lake.

Part Three – In which we retrace our steps and take a look at the various attempts to tap the lake, including 3 tunnels you never knew existed!

“A scheme was talked about for bringing waters of Eagle Lake to Honey Lake Valley. A cut and tunnel were to be made through rock separating this lake from the headwaters of Willow Creek, then using the channel of this creek until a point was reached in the valley where in artificial channels the water was to be deflected off to high ground. By this means many hundreds of acres of valuable land could be brought under cultivation.” Lt. Wheeler, Army Corps of Engineers ~ Geographical Surveys West of the 100th Meridian

Tunnels, ditches, pumps, siphons and flumes have crisscrossed the eastern shore of Eagle Lake for the last 140 years, tied to nearly a dozen separate attempts to draw water to the Honey Lake Valley for irrigation.

It seemed like such a simple and attractive prospect to the early pioneers. All that needed to be done was to somehow move the water from the lake level down to the head of Willow Creek where the water could then flow through natural channels across the Willow Creek Valley, down through Pete’s Valley and out into Belfast.

Promoters of these first assaults on the lake believed that there was an endless supply of water, fed by springs under the lake, which would provide adequate irrigation for the arid lands near Standish, Litchfield and Wendel.

The single most important person in these early attempts to harness the water was Charles A. Merrill, a sea-captain from Belfast, Maine.

C.A. Merrill from Fariss and Smith’s History of Lassen County

Merrill had worked for his uncle in the shipyards of Belfast until the age of 15 when he took off for the sea. He traveled around the world from 1853 to 1864, sailing to exotic locales like Martinique and the Spanish Main.

Fariss and Smith, in 1882’s History of Plumas, Lassen and Sierra Counties note that Merrill abandoned the sea at San Francisco in 1864 and after that engaged in California land speculation.

In 1873 Merrill came to Susanville to build a sawmill and to purchase timber lands just west of town.

Fariss and Smith say, “Mr. Merrill is a live, shrewd, energetic man, and with his enterprise has caused large sums of money to be put into circulation in the county, and will continue so to do, to his and the settlers’ material benefit.”

Then in 1874 after exploring the area around Eagle Lake, with its vast tract of virgin timber, he commissioned engineers to study whether it was feasible to tap the lake for irrigation, and in addition he planned to use the flumes to transport logs to a mill downstream.

His plan would, in theory, irrigate 150,000 acres of sagebrush land in the Honey Lake Valley. It was at this point that Charles Merrill filed the very first water claim at Eagle Lake.

Merrill’s project wasn’t the only one talked of in the 1870’s. A.W. Blair had announced in 1872 that he had a plan to completely drain Eagle Lake, reclaiming the land on the lake’s bottom for farming. According to Tim Purdy’s Eagle Lake, lack of capital for the $1,000,000 project, mainly because of its remote location, kept it from becoming a reality.

In 1875 Merrill traveled to Washington D.C. and along with California Congressman K.J. Luttrell worked to create the Lassen County Desert Land Act.

The act of Congress said that an individual could claim up to 640 acres of government land and would have two years to reclaim the land by irrigation. Once the land was improved upon settlers could purchase the property from the government for just $1.25 an acre.

Sacramento Daily Union, 1875

On April 1st, 1875 a Post Office was opened close to the head of Willow Creek, adjacent to the site of the proposed tunnel. It was next to the Hurlbut sawmill and on the stagecoach road to Grasshopper and Hayden Hill.

Lassen County Land and Flume Company was formed by Merrill in 1876 to raise capital for the project. He borrowed the funds and to secure the loan deeded over all property and all water rights.

With money in hand and resources ready for this first assault on the lake Merrill and his engineers still couldn’t decide which way to proceed.

The rim of the lake just above the headwaters of Willow Creek is the lowest point in the natural ‘bowl’ that forms the basin, low enough that geological evidence shows at one time the lake had risen and water had spilled down the canyon. This appeared to Merrill as the path of least resistance, with only the low ridge that needed to be dealt with.

This Google Earth Satellite and Elevation model shows the bay and the ridge behind it. Click for a larger image

Option number one for Merrill’s crew was to make a cut or notch in this ridge and take water down to Willow Creek in a flume or a siphon. The other option was to construct a tunnel which would run from the lake to a point just above Upper Murrerr Meadow at the bottom of the hill.

All of the Merrill projects were based around the goal of moving water down this slope. Click for a larger image

And now, as promised, we get to the part of our story which involves a tunnel. Not the infamous Bly Tunnel however, but a totally different one!

The decision was made to build a tunnel and construction began on a 6,000 foot, 10×12 foot tunnel under the ridge to the water.

Oddly by the 31st of August, 1876 the Nevada State Journal was reporting that a considerable amount of work had been completed on Merrill’s tunnel but that the company was still considering a cut through the ridge at an estimated cost of $33,000.

Looking out on Eagle Lake from the ridge above the first Tunnel Bay, also known as Dodge Bay. Click on the image for a larger version!

This would be a good time to point out that there are actually two different Tunnel Bays at Eagle Lake. Now days when people refer to Tunnel Bay they speak of the place south of the Youth Camp and the Eagle Lake field station where the inlet of the Bly Tunnel is located, but up until the Bly Tunnel was built the name referred to another bay further north, now called Dodge Bay after E.R. Dodge who had a camp at Tunnel Bay and kept a yacht for those who wished to travel about the lake.

Tunnel Bay or Dodge Bay then and now, the bay is now a meadow. Click for a larger version

Purdy says that in the fall of 1878 two miles of box flume, six feet square in size and containing a million board feet of lumber, had been completed, along with a half mile of ditch connecting with 600 feet of 40-inch siphon.

This siphon was basically a large wooden tube 40 inches in diameter, which to maintain its structural integrity had to stay wet all the time. During dry spells when water didn’t flow through it constant attention was needed to keep it water tight.

Amesbury says, “The most interesting facet of this plan was the fact that the tunnel was placed at the shallow end of the lake apparently without depth studies ever being undertaken.”

“It is quite conceivable,” continues Amesbury, “That a 10-foot variation in the lake would have put them completely out of business since the north end was not much deeper at the time.”

I think, and please somebody correct me if I am wrong, that this is Dr. Robert Amesbury. The photo comes from a 1960s historical society essay he wrote. He is standing on the Eagle Lake side of the ridge in the remains of the ditch.

It was about this time when Merrill grew angry and quit his own company, deciding to form a new project to pump water from the lake and reclaim the entire eastern shore.

In November of 1879 after the first company’s bankruptcy Merrill was given clear title to the Eagle Lake project and the company’s land and assets.

In 1881, hoping to raise the capital to complete the project, Merrill sold a half interest to Senator Marker of Nevada and physical work on Merrill’s tunnel began again.

The new plan called for a 7,725 foot tunnel under the ridge from Tunnel Bay which company engineers claimed would carry a flow of 780,000,000 gallons of water every 24 hours!

By April, 1882, 400 feet of this new tunnel had been excavated and by December it had reached 75 feet in length. Construction on this tunnel came to a halt after it had reached a point 1,200 feet under the ridge.

Again I think it is Dr. Amesbury on the right. The men are at the mouth of Merrill’s tunnel.


From the April 10th, 1884 Reno Stockman

“Turning to the north from Susanville and following the stage road, after crossing some rough lava debris the road ascends over a divide, capped, as all the ridges through this section, with basaltic lava. This is known as Antelope Hill; it divides Honey Lake from Willow Creek Valley; this latter is to a large extent swamp land. Through the valley a stream of like name courses, which is supposed to derive its waters from Eagle Lake, immediately below which the large springs break out of the lava rock that are its visible head.”

“At this point near which the stage road passes, a tunnel has been started to run under and tap Eagle Lake for the purpose of obtaining a supply of water with which to irrigate the sagebrush lands east of Honey Lake; the work is suspended at present, but the tunnel is well under way.“

In July 1884 Merrill, with the tunnel in limbo, formed the Lassen County Land and Cattle Company. The intention of the company was to tap the lake by means of a pump and siphon, once again trying to carry water over the low ridge separating the lake from Willow Creek.

According to Amesbury, “This plan was doomed to failure. The plant was placed in the shallow end of the lake, there was no ready source of fuel in the area and the amount of water the small pump could produce would have been soaked up in the thirsty unlined ditches during the summer months when it was needed most.”

By June of 1892 the machinery for this giant pumping plant was installed and Purdy says the 80-horsepower boiler had the capacity to move 60,000 gallons of water per minute.

On September 15th, 1892 the first Eagle Lake water was pumped into the canals and by October the water was flowing 40 miles downstream in Amedee.

Although this was the most successful attempt to date the Lassen County Land and Cattle Company announced it was only a temporary solution. Instead, they said, they would use the money made from the sale of water to finance a completely new tunnel project!

Several test shafts were sunk and the tunnel was planned to tap the lake 15-feet below the lake’s surface in Dodge Bay and connect to Merrill’s original tunnel. Whether construction ever began on this project is difficult to determine as excitement had dwindled and newspapers were no longer carrying stories from the lake.

This would be Merrill’s final act in our narrative. He died September 10th, 1901 at the age of 64. His holdings were auctioned off and purchased by George K. Porter who paid 25-thousand dollars for the rights to the project and properties.

In April, 1906, the Lassen Willow Creek Water Company began construction on yet another tunnel project, but midway through a divisive water rights issue crept into the works and a rancher fenced off the property and threatened to shoot any employee of the water company that trespassed. Before the water rights issues could be settled in court this tunnel too was abandoned.

Tomorrow in Part Four of our special series we will shift our focus to the Honey Lake Valley and show you just how the irrigation systems were supposed to have worked.


Jeremy Couso
Jeremy Couso Publisher/Editor
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