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News & Press: Community Spotlights

AIC Shines Its Community Spotlight on Murtaugh

Friday, December 30, 2016  
Posted by: Gay Dawn Oyler
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Boat docks at Murtaugh Lake Park

Murtaugh is a farming community around which, except for the Snake River, lie fields of potatoes, corn, alfalfa hay, sugar beets, wheat and beans.

The city lies near the southern shore of the southernmost point of the Snake River, where the river abruptly changes its southwesterly course and heads northwest toward Twin Falls about 20 miles away.

Murtaugh Lake and Twin Falls County’s Murtaugh Lake Park are three miles south of the city. The Sawtooth National Forest, with peaks rising over 8,000 feet, begins about six miles south of town.

Historical Tidbits

For millennia, the land around what is now Murtaugh was but an arid sagebrush-covered desert. Nomadic American Indians—primarily of the Bannock and Shoshone Tribes—passed through the area on their way to their summer and winter encampments.

Around 1810 trappers/explorers began traveling along the Snake River and its tributaries, seeking to map the land and trap and trade for beaver pelts that were bringing premium prices in the European markets.

Beginning in the early 1840s Oregon Trail immigrants traveled along the south border of the Snake River through what is now Murtaugh.

In 1862 prospectors discovered gold in the Boise Basin. The following year, 16,000 fortune hunters poured into the basin and then spread out for hundreds of miles searching for the precious metal. Some of these prospectors discovered deposits of placer gold along the Snake River near what is now Murtaugh. At the same time, entrepreneurs began building ferries across the river. One of these river crossings was Starrhs Ferry. The ferry’s southern landing was near the mouth of Dry Creek. There a small settlement named Drytown developed.

On November 17, 1884, the Oregon Short Line Railroad (OSL) completed construction of a segment of railroad line that began at Granger, Wyoming; angled in a northwesterly direction through Shoshone, 35 miles north of what is now Murtaugh, and Caldwell; before ending in Huntington, Oregon.

Upon completion, the rail line connected the commercial centers of Omaha, Nebraska, and Portland, Oregon, creating another transcontinental railroad. Railroad interests completed the first transcontinental railroad in 1869 at Promontory Summit in northern Utah.

In 1894 Congress passed the Carey Act, one of several laws designed to encourage settlement of lands in the arid West.

Under the Carey Act, the federal government ceded up to one million acres to any state that would bring the land under cultivation under a public-private partnership. Private interests financed and built dams and canals. The State sold parcels of land—40 to 160 acres—to individuals. In Idaho, the Idaho State Land Board represented State interests. The developers sold water rights and often platted towns and sold townsite lots. Idaho would ultimately use 850,000 acres of its allotment.

Ira B. Perrine and several investors formed the Twin Falls Land and Water Company (TFL&W) around 1900.

The TFL&W irrigation system led to the platting of Kimberly, Hansen, Twin Falls, Filer and Buhl. It was also about this time that the residents of Drytown changed the name of their village to Murtaugh after Mark M. Murtaugh, assistant manager for TFL&W south side construction.

In 1907 the Minidoka and Southwestern Railroad Company, later acquired by OSL, completed a rail line from Minidoka to Buhl. The line passed through Burley, Murtaugh and Twin Falls. In 1908 the railroad company built a depot at Murtaugh.

On January 1, 1932, Murtaugh became an incorporated village.

Carey Act, Milner Dam, and Irrigation

Around 1900 Ira B. Perrine, a local farmer and entrepreneur who produced food for the miners in the Wood River Mining District, sought to develop a "Carey Act" diversion dam—Milner Dam—across the Snake River at The Cedars, a point about eight miles northeast of what is now Murtaugh.

Perrine formed the Twin Falls Land and Water Company (TFL&W) and brought together several investors—including Peter Kimberly, a steel manufacturer from Sharon, Pennsylvania—to construct the dam and build a system of irrigation canals to the new farms. When completed in 1905 the hydroelectric Milner Dam stood 73 feet high and 2,160 feet long and created a 4,000-acre reservoir. It provided irrigation water on both the north and south sides of the Snake River.

TFL&W managed construction of the irrigation systems on the south side of the river. Later, Perrine assembled other investors to form the Twin Falls North Side Land and Water Company, called the North Side Project, to handle construction of the irrigation systems on the north side of the river.

Mark M. Murtaugh was the assistant manager for TFL&W for dam and canal construction on the south side. They were able to use gravity flow on the south side while the North Side Project required pumps. For water flowing south from the dam, they constructed a canal 10 feet deep, 80 feet wide at the bottom and 120 feet wide at the top.

About seven miles from the dam they built a reservoir they named Murtaugh Lake. The reservoir raised the elevation of the water before it continued into the complex system of irrigation canals and ditches, ultimately irrigating about 244,000 acres.

Amenities and Attractions Today

Murtaugh Lake and Twin Falls County’s Murtaugh Lake Park are a popular fishery and recreation area.

Perhaps the most significant amenity Murtaugh residents enjoy is living in a quiet rural environment while being within a half hour drive from the regional commerce center of Twin Falls with its shopping malls, hospital, airport and community college.

The 212-foot-high Shoshone Falls on the Snake River—higher than the famous Niagara Falls near Buffalo, New York—and park are 18 miles northwest.

Downhill skiing is available at Magic Mountain Ski Resort in the Sawtooth National Forest about 25 miles south.

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