Citizen Staff Writer
By PAUL L. ALLEN
Citizen Staff Writer
President George W. Bush’s appeal to Coast Guard Vice Admiral Thad Allen, a Tucsonan, to head FEMA relief efforts in New Orleans in the wake of hurricanes Katrina and Rita has one of those odd little “history repeats itself” aspects to it.
A century ago, another desperate president, Theodore Roosevelt, also sought the help of a Tucsonan to deal with a disastrous flood – the 1905 course-changing rampage of the Colorado River that threatened to turn California’s Imperial Valley into an inland sea.
That Tucsonan, “transplant” Epes Randolph, was a railroad executive who came to the Sonoran Desert seeking relief from tuberculosis. In addition to his highly successful railroad career, he had a reputation as one of the ablest civil engineers in the United States.
Randolph was born Aug. 16, 1856, in Lunenburg County, Va. By age 20, he already was engaged in railroad work – something that would bring him ever-higher positions of responsibility and ever-more-remunerative rewards.
He was employed by rail operations in Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Texas and Mexico. His accomplishments included designing and building railroad bridges across the Ohio River.
By 1894, he was chief engineer and general superintendent of the Chesapeake, Ohio and Southwestern Railroad and Ohio Valley Companies, when tuberculosis forced him to relinquish the position.
He worked as a consultant in bridge construction for a year, as his health permitted, before he and his wife, Kentucky native Eleanor Taylor, moved to Tucson for the climate. He was superintendent of the Southern Pacific Railroad’s operations here, the various “feeder” rail lines that served it, as well as 1,000 miles of track in Mexico.
His health improved, and in 1901 he and his wife moved to southern California, where he was an executive in a Los Angeles-based electric rail operation.
A new bout with tuberculosis three years later forced him to return to Tucson, where, he spent the remainder of his life.
His call to “help save California” came indirectly from Roosevelt via E.H. Harriman, president of Southern Pacific Railroad Co., whom Randolph served as special assistant. The railroad’s involvement – and the federal government’s notable noninvolvement – resulted from the following sequence of events:
1901: Developers formed California Development Co. and Imperial Land Co., to provide irrigation water diverted from the Colorado River into the Salton Basin in far southeastern California, hoping to establish a vast farming area they called Imperial Valley.
1902: Four hundred miles of irrigation canals were completed and 2,000 settlers in place; their numbers would increase to 10,000 by 1904.
1904: Silt build-up filled canals, threatening the irrigation system. Various solutions were attempted, including cutting a breach into the west bank of the Colorado River.
1905: For the first winter in recent history, the Colorado River flooded repeatedly, and it – as it had many times in the past 10,000 years – changed course, diverting its entire flow away from its “usual” destination, the Gulf of California, and into the Salton Basin, flooding Imperial Valley.
Developers were physically and financially unable to close the breach. The federal government approached Southern Pacific Railroad Co., now threatened with loss of its main line between Los Angeles and Yuma, for financial assistance. The SP responded with a $200,000 loan – with the stipulation that SP “runs the show” with Randolph in charge.
1906: S.P. President E.H. Harriman wired President Theodore Roosevelt, saying the company had already spent more than $2 million on the effort, and expected another $350,000 would be required, and asked for federal assistance, since 1.6 million acres of government land were threatened.
Roosevelt wired back that Congress was not in session, and the situation was complicated because a part of the irrigation project was in Mexico under a private agreement. He urged the railroad to complete the re-channeling work. Meanwhile, the newly formed Salton Sea had grown to 30 miles long and 10 miles wide, thanks to Colorado River water.
1907: SP builds rail bridges across the huge crevasse carved out by the floodwaters, allowing rail cars loaded with boulders, rock and clay to dump their loads directly where needed, rather than the more costly and inefficient method of offloading the ballast onto barges.
In the years that followed, levees were built, concrete dams were completed upstream, and the Colorado River was once again “stabilized.”
It would not be until 1923 that Congress made any sort of financial settlement with SP – then for only a fraction of the funds the railroad expended.
Randolph, who accomplished what amounted to an engineering miracle in turning the mighty Colorado, continued to serve as president of several rail operations in Tucson during his final years. He also was named chancellor of the University of Arizona and served as vice president of Consolidated National Bank.
He died Aug. 22, 1921, in his apartment at the downtown Santa Rita Hotel, which he and another wealthy Tucsonan, Levi H. Manning, had built in 1904. Randolph was buried at Evergreen Cemetery.
Four years after Randolph’s death, Willis Barnum and his wife paid $14,896 for a 480-acre parcel of land to create a city park in Tucson, deeding it to the city on a long-term purchase agreement.
Bounded by Country Club Road, Alvernon Way, Broadway and 22nd Street, the park was named in honor of Epes Randolph, and remained Randolph Park for decades until recent years, when it was renamed in honor of Gene Reid, longtime city parks director.
Paul L. Allen may be reached at 573-4588 or email@example.com.
For additional history coverage, go to www.tucsoncitizen.com/history.