Dennis Cassinelli: Francis G. Newlands irrigates the West

With the sudden influx of people moving into Nevada Territory following the discovery of Comstock silver, the need to provide water for agriculture to feed the new population became apparent. Western Nevada is basically a desert region with little natural precipitation. Snowfall in the high Sierra Nevada mountains ran off with the spring thaws and flowed to the desert lakes to such as Pyramid, Walker and the Stillwater Marsh.

Having grown up in a ranching and farming family, I’ve always been aware of the importance of adequate water being available for irrigation purposes. My great grandfather, Pietro Cassinelli, was once shot in the back in a dispute over water rights in the early 1900s. Fortunately, he survived the incident. In my own landscaping business, now run by my son, John, much of our work has been installation of both agricultural and residential irrigation systems.

As early as 1867, John Wesley Powell conducted a series of expeditions to locate places throughout the West where runoff water from snow melt and spring rains could be captured in dams built along the rivers for storage of irrigation water. The demand for agriculture crops such as hay, grain and vegetable crops prompted farmers and ranchers in the valleys bordering rivers and streams to develop irrigation ditches to irrigate their fields. The Truckee Meadows, Carson Valley, Dayton Valley, Lovelock, Mason Valley and others soon began producing local crops that supplemented costly imported crops from California.

Taking water for irrigation from local rivers was not sufficient to produce reliable crops on a sustained basis due to low stream flow during drought years such as during the 1890s and in the late summer months. Following the advice of John Wesley Powell, local farmers organized to prove the benefits of building irrigation projects that could store water for the drier years.

Congressional representative from Nevada, Francis G. Newlands, took the lead in 1902 when he introduced legislation to fund major irrigation projects in 13 western states including Nevada. This resulted in the creation of many of the mountain dams and reservoirs still in use today for irrigation and as a side benefit, they created fishing and recreation opportunities for everyone. The government agency created by this act eventually evolved into the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

Francis Newlands had moved to San Francisco in 1870 and worked for William Sharon, the Bank of California executive who had financed much of the Comstock Lode development in Virginia City. Newlands married William Sharon’s daughter, who later died in 1882. In 1888 he moved to Nevada where he remained associated with William Sharon and continued his law practice.

Newlands served as a Democratic representative for Nevada from 1893 to 1903. He was an active representative and participated in writing an act to create the territory of Hawaii and, of course, the famous Newlands Reclamation Act for funding irrigation projects throughout the American West.

Francis Newlands became a U.S. senator for Nevada in 1903 where he was a member of the Senate subcommittee investigating the 1912 sinking of the RMS Titanic. He remained a senator from Nevada until his death on Dec. 24, 1917.

On the darker side, Francis Newlands was an avowed racist who, in 1912, ran for president on a platform to amend the Constitution to disenfranchise black men and limit immigration to whites only. In 1916, Newlands was the only Democratic senator to vote against the nomination of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis. The only reason given for this rejection was Brandeis was Jewish.

During his time in the U.S. Senate, Newlands maintained a mansion home in Reno. The home is one of only six properties in Nevada designated as a National Historic Landmark. During the 1920s and 1930s, the house was used by several notable people awaiting divorce papers to be finalized by local divorce lawyer George Thatcher. He had purchased the home in 1920 to enhance his divorce practice.

This article is by Dayton author and historian Dennis Cassinelli, who can be contacted at, or on his blog at All Dennis’ books sold through this publication will be at a 50 percent discount to reduce inventory and Dennis will pay the postage. These are no longer available from Amazon.


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