Utah Stories from the Beehive Archive

“The Reservoir Can Go to Hell:” Building & Financing the Enterprise Dam


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“The Reservoir Can Go to Hell:” Building & Financing the Enterprise Dam


The Enterprise Dam in Utah's Washington County is an amazing example of how early Mormon settlers mastered the waters of the harsh desert using community effort. But did you know the process of building it was bursting with controversy and deluged with drama?

When Mormon settler Orson Huntsman tried to raise cotton in southern Utah during the late 19th century, he struggled to make a living. He wasn't alone. His neighbors in the town of Hebron near Shoal Creek, dragged water barrels around on makeshift sleds called “lizards” in order to water their crops. Convinced they could instead dam Shoal Creek, Huntsman urged his neighbors to move near the water and build a reservoir. Fittingly enough, he wanted to call the new town "Enterprise," but the idea turned out to be a very hard sell and nearly ruined Huntsman’s life. 

In the 1890s, there were few reservoirs in Utah like the ones we know today. The United States was in recessions and settlers saw dam-building as a lot of work and money. Nevertheless, Huntsman wrote, “I preach reservoir wherever I go” -- to the point where people actually avoided him. His father-in-law urged him to provide for his family instead of “fooling with the reservoir.” Huntsman appealed to his religious leaders at the 1893 LDS Conference in St. George, but felt slighted when they wouldn't see him. “I am done,” he steamed, “I will go home, take my family and go north… and the reservoir can go to hell.” 

But a group of church leaders at the conference eventually met with Huntsman to draft a circulating letter asking for dam financers. They raised about $2 million in today’s money -- but even then, Hebron residents did not relocate to Enterprise as Huntsman envisioned. Instead, they built ditches competing with Enterprise, and cobbled together their own reservoir below Huntsman’s. After church leaders would not pressure movement to Enterprise, it took an earthquake in 1902 to destroy most of Hebron’s buildings to finally do it. 

Today, you can visit the Enterprise Dam and admire its craftsmanship and masonry. What you can’t see is Huntsman’s years of preaching, the strained relationship with his family, and two divided settlements. Today, the process of surveying land for a dam, funding its construction, and building it is the work of the federal government. But for Huntsman, it required community work, an appeal to religious authority, and some good old-fashioned desperation.


By Megan Weiss for Utah Humanities © 2022


Image: The Enterprise Dam, Washington County, circa 1910. Visitors to the Enterprise Dam can admire its 19th century craftsmanship and masonry. It took sixteen years to build under the guidance of stone mason Chris Ammon. Stone was transported from a quarry miles away on a wagon and the mortar was mixed by hand. Image courtesy Utah State Historical Society.

See W. Paul Reeve, A Century of Enterprise: The History of Enterprise, Utah, 1896-1996, (Enterprise, UT: The City of Enterprise, 1996); Orson W. Huntsman, A Brief History of Shoal Creek, Hebron, and Enterprise from 1862 to 1922 (St. George, UT: Dixie College History Department, 1929); W. Paul Reeve, “Cattle, Cotton, and Conflict: The Possession and Dispossession of Hebron, Utah,” Utah Historical Quarterly (Volume 67, Number 2, Spring 1999); Gail Veley, “Enterprise Reservoir: A Dog Friendly Beautiful Hidden Oasis near Enterprise, Utah,” August 18, 2021, Utah Stories, accessed June 2022.


The Beehive Archive is a production of Utah Humanities. Find sources and the whole collection of past episodes at www.utahhumanities.org/stories.