How Idaho's 12th governor helped enhance one of the area's primary water sources - East Idaho News
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How Idaho’s 12th governor helped enhance one of the area’s primary water sources

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Editor’s note: This is the seventh in a series of stories about former Gem State Governors from eastern Idaho. Read more here.

IDAHO FALLS – Of all the men who have served as Idaho’s chief executive, the story of David William Davis stands out as a a rags-to-riches saga.

The height of his political career begins on Nov. 5, 1918. America was in the final days of World War I, and the Gem State had experienced 130% growth in the two preceding decades, according to former Boise State University History professor Hugh Lovin. Davis had been living in Idaho for about a decade when he was elected its 12th governor.

His rise to the state’s highest office is a journey that began six years earlier when he was selected as Idaho’s delegate to the Republican National Convention, followed by a term as a state senator. After a narrow loss in the gubernatorial election of 1916, the 46-year-old Republican was now the voters’ top candidate in the 1918 election. He beat his opponent, Henry F. Samuels, with a margin of 19,127 votes and would go on to win a second term in 1920 (a governor’s term was two years at that time) with 53% of the vote in a three-way race, according to voting records.

But it was his success as a businessman years before that gave his political status the initial momentum.

Davis was born in Wales on April 23, 1873, but grew up in Angus, Iowa, where his family immigrated two years after his birth.

After working in the coal mines for a time, he found a job as a bank cashier in Rippey, Iowa.

“Alert for better economic opportunities, Davis eyed the ‘New West,’ where men had begun to reclaim and develop vast arid sections that ‘Old West’ pioneers had earlier spurned,” Lovin writes in the book “Idaho’s Governors.”

Economic opportunity wasn’t the only thing that brought Davis west. Years spent in the mines had a negative impact on his health, according to one account, and it eventually “forced him to take a year or so off for a rest cure.” Fresh air was likely another motivating factor for moving west.

In 1905, Davis briefly worked as a cashier at the Dayton National Bank in Dayton, Washington, before settling in American Falls.

“There he found a pleasing social climate among others of Welsh ancestry, many of whom were attracted earlier to the ‘bottoms’ alongside the Snake River, an area since covered by the American Falls Reservoir,” writes Lovin.

Davis established a bank in American Falls that later became the First National Bank of American Falls.

Davis was sworn in as governor on Jan. 6, 1919, and Lovin describes his leadership style as being similar to running a business. He established a cabinet system for conducting state affairs and reorganized the executive branch to establish a “responsible government.”

“The legislators abolished 46 agencies and offices and replaced them with nine departments; each presided over by a commissioner who was directly responsible to the governor,” Lovin says.

Davis held traditional conservative views on most issues, staunchly opposing radical ideas. He preached Americanism and loyalty to the U.S. and state constitutions. His political role model had a profound influence on what Lovin believes was Davis’s greatest accomplishment.

Jamesbrady wikipedia pic
James Brady served as Idaho’s 8th governor from 1909-1911 and was instrumental in the development of the Snake River Valley and bringing electricity to the area. | Wikipedia

A political role model shapes Davis’s agenda

Davis entered politics as a supporter of James Brady, a Pocatello man who served as Idaho’s eighth governor from 1909-1911. Brady’s cremains are kept at the James Brady Memorial Chapel at the Mountain View Cemetery in Pocatello.

RELATED | Brady Chapel Centennial Celebration happening Monday in Pocatello

Brady is credited with leading irrigation and water power developments all over eastern Idaho, including the American Falls Hydropower plant. It began operation in 1902, according to one article, and was later absorbed by the Idaho Consolidated Power Company.

“Power County, created in 1913, got its name from the presence of the American Falls hydropower plant,” the article says.

Brady died a year before Davis took office, but Davis had caught Brady’s attention in 1912. Brady’s political influence helped launch Davis’s political career.

Like Brady, Davis was passionate about water and irrigation issues. One of his most noteworthy accomplishments was laying the groundwork for many reclamation projects, including the construction of the dam on the American Falls Reservoir.

Reclaiming the arid west through irrigation

Water and irrigation issues have been a political issue since Idaho became a state in 1890. One of its first major water projects was the construction of The Great Feeder Headgate Dam and canal system in 1895. It provides most of the irrigation water for the Upper Snake River Valley.

During Davis’ administration, there were many reclamation projects in progress throughout the West. Congress signed the Reclamation Act in 1902 to promote farming opportunities and “encourage individual families to settle in the West.”

Eight years before that, Congress signed a similar bill called the Carey Act, which allowed states to acquire up to 1 million acres of undeveloped land for agricultural development. Under this law, much of the development would happen through private companies.

Conflicts ensued from both of these laws, causing years of project delays that angered farmers. The matter remained unresolved under Brady’s administration. Davis felt that his predecessor, Moses Alexander, had “partly solved the problem … by shrinking projects … to a fraction of their original size.”

“In that way, project acreages were made commensurate with the available irrigation resources,” Lovin writes.

RELATED | Amid irrigation lawsuit, Idaho’s House speaker pledges best efforts in ‘optimizing water resources’

Although Davis continued project reduction efforts, he knew it was a short-term solution to a longstanding problem.

Davis organized a meeting in Salt Lake City for 15 western states to discuss water issues. The Western States Reclamation Association was formed as a result to advise the federal government on irrigation projects. As president of the association, Davis convinced the feds to build a dam in American Falls so that spring runoff could be set aside for irrigation purposes.

Similar projects were approved throughout the state for private development, but statewide rivalries and opposition from public officials delayed construction. The American Falls Dam was finally completed in 1927, four years after Davis left office. Many other reclamation projects, such as the dam for Henrys Lake, were completed in 1923. Dams at Island Park and Palisades Reservoir were completed many years later.

David W. Davis pic
A photo of Gov. Davis taken from Wikipedia.

Davis’s life post-governor

Davis lost his re-election bid for a third term as governor, but he was involved in many reclamation projects over the next several years. He supervised the United States Bureau of Reclamation as a special assistant to the secretary of the Interior in 1923. He then served as the United States commissioner of reclamation and the director of finance in the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

Aside from a brief stint as a special advisor to former President Herbert Hoover in 1931, Davis resigned from public life in 1926 and returned to his private business ventures. It’s not clear what his commercial projects were, but Lovin reports he “devoted his energies to substantial private commercial and investment affairs” for the rest of his life.

He died on Aug. 5, 1959 at age 86.


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