The Pioneer Ditch project in Deadwood, Lawrence County, Dakota Territory 

Compiled by Jonathan Webb Deiss, 2003


Owners : Lester A. Webb, John P. Belding, Ira Meyers, Horatio N. Barber, William H. Bull, Roderick McLennan, John H. Burrows, William H. Watts, James Carney, The Homestake

Acres : unknown

Title : unclear

Claim Staked : summer of 1876 in the Lost Mining District in Deadwood, Lawrence County

Documentation : various titles & deeds, newspaper articles, a power of attorney


Originally called the Whitetail and Gold Run ditch, the project to secure and provide a ready source of safe, clean water in Deadwood gulch was started as early as June 1876.  Soon thereafter, the name was changed to the Pioneer Ditch which it kept for the remainder of its existence.  Ditch was a term applied by the miners for a trench, dug out to supply water to the placer mines and for domestic use.   The men who dug the ditch were, for the most, experienced miners and several were veterans of the Civil War.  Lester A. Webb and Horatio N. Barber were comrades in arms and business partners; they served in Company F, 1st Regiment Minnesota Infantry, where Barber was Corporal, and had survived the fights at Bull Run and Antietam together.  Barber later received a rebel bullet in the back at Gettysburg during the 1st Minnesota’s famous stand at that place.  Both men were discharged in May 1864 and as soon as able, headed west.  Whether they traveled west together or separately is not known, but they ended up in the same place.  An 1864 Territorial Poll list records L. A. Webb living in Silver City, Jefferson County, Montana Territory with Horatio N. Barber & future partner John P. Belding enumerated in nearby Prickly Pear, same county.  In 1870 Webb and Barber were partners on a ranch in East Gallatin Precinct, Gallatin County, Montana Territory, where they were recorded in the 1870 census.  Belding’s biography describes his early adventures prospecting and indicates he started in Alder Gulch near Virginia City in 1864, traveling later in Idaho, Wyoming and Utah before arriving in Deadwood gulch, where it was reported that he, “…met two old Montana friends, Webb and McClellan, with whom he located some water ditches on Whitewood and Whitetail creeks…”


Although there is no direct record of who actually swung the pick and shovels in the ditch, it was likely excavated by Lester A. Webb, Horatio N. Barber, John P. Belding, Ira Meyers, and man identified only as McLellan (who could be McLennan) in the summer of 1876, between June and August.  The Pioneer ditch’s precise location has not been seen on any contemporary maps, but was described by Webb as, “…commencing at a certain creek called White Tail Creek and running to Gold River, Lead City and other points.”  The Black Hills Pioneer newspaper reported on 24 June 1876, “The ditch will furnish water for the Gold Run and Bob Tail gulches, and will soon be completed.”   It again reported in its issue of Saturday, 12 August 1876, “The Pioneer ditch is furnishing water for Gold Run.  The miners will commence operations Monday, and gold dust will circulate freely in the locality in a few days.”   The reissue deeds made out in 1879 and 1880 state that the location is recorded in Book A, page 392 and Book 10, page 392 for the Lost Mining District.  The deeds were reissued after the fire in September 1879 burned the courthouse and records.  Obviously, the ditch was situated in a location advantageous to supplying the water needs of at least the Gold Run and Bobtail Gulch placer mines.  It supplied the city and industry with water and provided a nice income for its owners.


In late 1877 several individuals, including John Burrows and William H. Watt in association with others, purchased interest in the Pioneer Ditch and in cooperation with several of the owners, sold a large interest to Lloyd Tevis, president of the Wells Fargo Company and partner with Haggin & Hearst in the Homestake Mine.  The Homestake sought to consolidate by purchase or wrangling, the placer mines in Deadwood and surrounds, resorting to claim jumping and theft if it suited their purpose.  They needed the water to run its mills, and operate the vast operations in their veritable ‘gold-factories’.   Fielder wrote that Hearst was considering taking water out of Whitetail creek, using it and returning it to the creek for other users, but this may have been an illegal practice and in the meantime purchased water from the Pioneer Ditch.  In 1879, Lester A. Webb, et al, brought a civil suit injunction against Haggin, et al, presumably on account of the Homestake dipping into the Pioneer Ditch’s abundant supply of water.  This injunction caused the Homestake some considerable trouble; eventually the suit was dropped in February 1881 by a motion from Haggin.  Lester died in August 1881 and what became of his interests in the project has not been discovered yet.  More information will follow as it is uncovered.


Document transcriptions :


(1) [Black Hills Pioneer.  Deadwood, Dakota Territory, Saturday, 24 June 1876 (extract)]

“Local News -

The White Tail and Gold Run ditch is progressing rapidly under the superintendency of John Belden and Ira Myers, who are experienced miners.  The ditch will furnish water for the Gold Run and Bob Tail gulches, and will soon be completed.”



(2) [Black Hills Pioneer. Deadwood, Dakota Territory, Saturday, 12 August 1876 (extract)]

“Local News :

The Pioneer ditch is furnishing water for Gold Run.  The miners will commence operations Monday, and gold dust will circulate freely in the locality in a few days."



(3) [Black Hills Daily Times.  Deadwood City, Dakota Territory, 15 June 1877 (extract)]

“Principal Hotel Arrivals, June 14th

I X L - Noah Keetle, John Matlock, Buffalo; A. D. Woodson, H. T. Huff, St. Louis; R. R. McCracken, Boston; Frank Howard, L. A. Webb, Minn; H. Kemper, G. Crystal, Cheyenne; C. C. Weston, Omaha; Toney Mullen, New York.”



(4) [Black Hills Daily Times.  Dead Wood City, Dakota Territory, 19 June 1877 (extract)]

“Principal Hotel Arrivals, June 19th

I X L - W. Lovell, Boston; E. J. Potts, Mich; James Canzett, Cheyenne; F. L. Fergerson, Iowa; W. E. Handlay, Rapid City; Geo W. Meredith, L. W. Reed, N. Y.; W. Rongrove, F. H. McClure, Boston; J. M. F. Cumming, St. Louis; J. F. Brown, Cheyenne; Alexis Highby, Mo; L. A. Webb, John P. Belding, Sidney; E. Cutner, I. H. Fred, Cheyenne; H. Lake, Gold Run; J. Leslie, Bear Gultch; C. B. Russell, Buffalo.”



(5) [Black Hills Daily Times, Deadwood City, Dakota Territory, Friday, 20 December 1877; Volume 1, Number 224 (extract)]

"The Heaviest Transaction - The Pioneer Ditch has been purchased of Messrs. Ira Meyers, H. N. Barbour and W. H. Bull, by Lloyd Tevis, president of the Homestake Mining Company, for a consideration of $40,000.  Mr. Tevis is president of the Wells Fargo Company, and is a representative of a class of capitalists that are coming into the hills in large numbers, bringing abundance of money, and who will do more towards a thorough development of the hills, and whose interests here attest the value of our mineral resources more fully than anything else

which could be secured."



(6) [Black Hills Champion.  Deadwood City, Dakota Territory, Sunday, 30 December 1877 (extract)]

“Local.  The Pioneer ditch has been purchased by the Homestake mining company for $40,000.”



(7) [Black Hills Daily Pioneer.  Deadwood City, Dakota Territory, Thursday, 3 January 1878 (extract)]

“Personal.  Messrs. Ira Meyers and J. T. Belding, the parties who recently sold the Pioneer ditch to the California company for $40,000, departed for the east via Sidney yesterday morning.  Bon voyage.”



(8) [Black Hills Daily Times.  Deadwood City, Dakota Territory, Tuesday, 10 February 1880 (extract)]

“An Important Case,

An important case is now pending in our court that will come up soon for argument on motion of Haggin and Hearst, of the Pioneer Ditch company for a restraining order to prevent the Milwaukee & Black Hills Mining company from dumping the pulp from their Bald Mountain silver mill into Nevada gulch.

The Pioneer Ditch company claim to have located a water right in that gulch in 1876 for mining and domestic purposes, and the pulp, if discharged above their reservoir, will deteriorate the water, and make it unfit for domestic use.

The Pioneer ditch has been in operation ever since the fall of 1876, and the mills at Lead City and Terraville are supplied with water from it, as also the citizens of both places for domestic use.

There are several nice legal points to be determined in this suit, one of which is the water that flows for the Clinton tunnel.  One of the parties claims that it was found by digging the tunnel, whilst the other party claim that the same water was running in the gulch before the tunnel  was made, and that it was only tapped in another place, and thus found another outlet to the gulch.  It will be a hotly contested fight.  VanCise & Wilson are engaged for the defense.”


(9) [Deeds to Pioneer Ditch property, reissued 17 November 1879 (A) (B)]



(10) [Black Hills Daily Times.  Deadwood City, Dakota Territory, Tuesday, 10 August 1880 (extract)]


Sunday last about noon the Pioneer ditch gave way, and since that time there has been no water for the Terra, Deadwood or Caledonia mills.  Where the break occurred we have not learned, but presume it will soon be repaired.  This is the first break we remember since the mills started, and will be the last one for some time to come.”



(11) [Black Hills Daily Times.  Deadwood City, Dakota Territory, Sunday, 14 November 1880 (extract)]

“The water company is now busy at work making preparations to bring in water from the Pioneer ditch, at the head of Bobtail.  The distance is about four miles, and the ditch will soon be all dug.  Teams were at work yesterday distributing lumber on the line, of which to make the boxes.  It will of course be a covered ditch all the way and perfectly secure from frost.  With this additional supply from Whitetail, Nevada gulch and Whitewood, with the supply we now have from City creek, there will be an abundance and to spare.”



(12) [Black Hills Daily Times.  Deadwood City, Dakota Territory, Friday, 10 December 1880 (extract)]

“Extension of the Pioneer Ditch.

The Black Hills canal and water company is constructing a ditch from the Pioneer ditch to the summit of the high point in the rear of the Congregational church, where a descent will be made to connect with our water mains.  This is to assist in supplying our city, and having an elevation of sixty feet above the main City creek tanks, the pressure will be increased, and the flow correspondingly larger.

The ditch commenced by the company, several hundred rods of which has been dug along the eastern brow of Deadwood gulch, intending to bring the supply from the works at or near Terraville, has been abandoned, after counting the cost and ascertaining that the other course would be much cheaper.

None of the water will be contaminated by passing through the mills, as it is brought pure from Nevada gulch, and covered the entire distance.

This will guarantee to a certainty all the water that our city will ever need, both for domestic use and in case of fire.  The future facilities for fighting the devouring element would be all we could desire if our fire companies were furnished with a sufficient amount of hose to reach from the mains to every block throughout town.”



(13) [Power of Attorney of Lester A. Webb to Martin L. Webb.  Fort Buford, Dakota Territory, 16 July 1881]

“Territory of Dakota, County of Pallette

Know all men by these presents that I, Lester A. Webb of Deadwood, Lawrence County, Dakota, do hereof constitute and appoint Martin L. Webb of Roscoe, Goodhue County, Minnesota Attorney and Agent for me and in my name, place and stead in all matters concerning my undivided fourth of Pioneer Ditch built for necessary and other purposes situated in Lawrence County, Dakota Territory, commencing at a certain creek called White Tail Creek and running to Gold River, Lead City and other points.

With full power to commence all actions at law for recovering whatever may be due to me under such interest and generally in the premises – also authority to collect all monies and give full receipts for same in my behalf and power to transfer, bargain and convey all property and estate of mine.  In witness whereof I have hereunto set my hand and seal this 16th day of July AD 1881, (signed) Lester A. Webb

Witness Henry Roth, Thomas L. Sims

Signed, sealed and acknowledged in presence of Saml O’Connell, Notary Public in and for the Territory of Dakota at Fort Buford, DT this 16th day of July AD 1881.

(signed ) Saml O’Connell, Notary Public

The words (and other) on the 11th line and (?) to transfer all property and estates of mine of 23rd and 24th lines were added by me.

(signed ) Saml O’Connell, Notary Public, July 16, 1881”



(14) [Black Hills Daily Times.  Deadwood City, Dakota Territory, Saturday, 24 November 1881 (extract)]

“Death of W. H. Bull.

The community was shocked last evening, by the news of the death of Wm. H. Bull, a prominent citizen of the Hills, in Chicago, at the Palmer House.  John R. Wilson has been in daily receipt of telegrams from John Fortune, who was with Mr. Bull during his sickness.  His remains, we understand, with be taken to Terre Haute, Indiana, the home of his mother, for interment.

Deceased was born in the state of Connecticut, thirty-three years ago, and since that time has traveled extensively in the west, coming to Montana with Seth Bullock in 1866.  During his residence in Montana he was engaged in many different kinds of business, with many different persons, at on time working as a laborer with James Carney, in a smelter at Helena.

He left Montana in 1875, going to Corinne, Utah, where he remained until the discovery of gold in the Black Hills.  When the news of the discovery reached him, he, in company with James Carney, started for the New Eldorado, landing in Chester City in February, 1875.  Their journey will always remain an unwritten history, it is sufficient to state that they made the trip without money, walking the entire distance from Cheyenne.  Mr. Bull located in Gayville during the year 1870, went into business with Jim Carney and remained there until July 1878.  Mr. Bull was prominently identified with his partners with many of preeminent enterprises of the Hills.  The Pioneer ditch was sold by him, Jim Carney, John Belding, McCellan, Myers and Barber to the Homestake company, and it is from this source that the great mills, Central and Deadwood cities are supplied with water.

 He also, in company with others, organized and sold the group of mines known as the Snowstorm mines, on which a mill has been built.  He also owns a one-sixth interest in the Althea and Nevada mines, and other interests having been purchased by the Homestake company.

In company with John Fortune, John Wilson, and possibly others, he bought the Penobscot in the Southern Hills, and in the interest of this company was absent from the Hills when the summons from the grim destroyer came.  He has one brother, Charles, who resides at Sun river, Montana.

In the death of Wm. H. Bull the Black Hills has lost one of its mainstays, the community and energetic business man, and humanity a generous, sympathetic, honest brother.  Peace to his ashes.”




Sources, bibliography :


1864 Poll List - ; on the Montana Rootsweb site.


Casey, Robert J.  The Black Hills and their incredible characters.  Bobbs-Merrill Company, New York. 1949.


Fielder, Mildred.  The Treasure of the Homestake Gold.  North Plains Press, Aberdeen, South Dakota. 1970. pp 54, 68


Parker, Watson.  Deadwood, the Golden Years.  University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln. 1981.


Deeds courtesy of Register of Deeds, Lawrence County, South Dakota.  Lawrence County Courthouse, 90 Sherman Street, Deadwood, SD 57732


Newspaper articles courtesy of South Dakota State Historical Society, 900 Governors Drive, Pierre SD  57501-2217


United States Federal Census images are held at the National Archives & Records Administration, Washington, DC.


Lester A. Webb power of attorney original document in possession of author.  Many thanks to Harold D. Gillis, proprietor of the Hayden Bridge Victorian Home for the document.