Waller, Osmer Lysander

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Osmer L. Waller was born in Ohio in 1857. His young adulthood was spent moving between Ohio and Michigan and seemed to have been characterized by uncertainty about the choice of a profession. He began by receiving the type of literary-religious education then offered in most American colleges, going so far as to receive a graduate degree of that nature. Then he attended the University of Michigan law school and was admitted to the bar, but instead of practicing law he became a public school teacher and administrator. About 1890 he moved to Washington state, where he was again admitted to the bar and where he again became a public school administrator, this time at Colfax, Washington. In 1893, he was suddenly appointed to a position wholly unrelated to any of his previous experience--Professor of Mathematics and Civil Engineering at the Washington Agricultural College and School of Science, the ancestor of the present Washington State University, in nearby Pullman, Washington. At the time Waller had only the limited mathematical background which had been included in his education. He probably knew nothing of engineering.

A few cram courses at the University of Chicago enabled him to teach the preparatory school mathematics which comprised the mathematics curriculum at the school in its early years. This process of self-education was repeated to an even greater degree as Waller took up civil engineering. Learning on the job, he not only taught the subject for years, but also developed an extensive consulting practice. Moreover, he acquired the reputation as one of the leading irrigation project engineers in the Northwest within a relatively few years. In spite of this reputation, Waller always exhibited a certain amatuerism about irrigation and reclamation, sometimes making serious errors, as in his early estimates on the Klickitat-Horse Heaven Project. Generally, however, he maintained his competency by adhering to a basic theory of hydrologic engineering which he seems to have derived for the great reclamation engineers of the British Empire, Sir William Willcocks and Robert Hanbury Brown. At times Waller was an almost pedantic advocate of their "natural" system of diversions and canals. He also seemed to shy away from the more typically American approach, with its mechanized features, big dams, flumes, pipes and pumps. Consequently it was not surprising to find that as he led in the search for a means to water the arid region of central Washington during the 1920s, Waller was one of the foremost opponents of the Grand Coulee dam proposals and also the foremost advocate of a "gravity plan" which would have reclaimed the area with water diverted from points hundreds of miles from the land which was to receive it.

In part, Waller overcame the limitations of his knowledge of mathematics and engineering by working at jobs which were related to these fields but which did not require him to be a technical expert. At the University, he spent at least as much time as an administrator as a teacher, serving at various times as Vice-President, Dean of Arts and Sciences and Chairman of his department. He also acted as a public spokesman for the University, especially in the re-organization controversies of 1916-1917.

As an engineer, Waller likewise held a number of positions which involved the making of policy rather than technical decisions. His first major position of this nature was with the United States Department of Agriculture and consisted of a census of irrigation for the state. Bringing him into contact with most of the people concerned with irrigation in the state, this position provided the means of entrance into several later consulting jobs. It also brought him into contact with the Department of Interior's Reclamation Service and with the foremost figure in American irrigation, Dr. Elwood Mead, who was to become a close friend and confidant of Waller.

Waller's next major appointment came when Governor Marion Hay asked him to head a commission which would codify the state's water laws. His eastern legal background may have exerted some influence on the commission, where he emerged as a reformer, advocating the doctrine of beneficial use of water as opposed to the general western practice of appropriation. Though not all of Waller's viewpoints were included in the code, many were, and though the code was prepared in 1910, it was to take eight years of lobbying by Waller and others before they were to win legislative enactment of the code.

At about the same time as the state legislature enacted the water code, it also revived interest in the Columbia Basin irrigation project and appointed a commission to recommend ways of reclaiming the Columbia Basin area in central Washington. Waller quickly became the Secretary of this board, the Columbia Basin Survey Commission, and was very influential in the preparation of the report it issued in 1920. The first of a long series of reports on the Basin project, this report surveyed a variety of proposals and eliminated all but two: the "pumping plan," a scheme which would have diverted water from the Pend Oreille River at Newport, Washington, then transported it through a canal formed largely by the Little Spokane River and the Bonnie Lake-Rock Lake Coulee, with connecting tunnels, and then distributed it to canals in the Northeast corner of the Basin area. The commission strongly recommended the "gravity plan."

Throughout the 1920s Waller continued as an advocate of the "gravity plan," usually from a position on one of the bodies which succeeded the Survey Commission. He repeated earlier recommendations when he contributed to the Federal Board of Engineers' report of 1924. He also attempted to clear political obstacles while with the informal board which sought to work out the interstate agreements necessitated by the gravity plan's need for storage of water in Idaho and Montana. Coincidentally, Waller retired from active concerns at about the same time as the gravity plan fell from favor and the Grand Coulee Dam became more of a certainty. As a final touch of irony, Waller died in 1935, almost simultaneously with the beginning of construction on the great dam.

From the guide to the Osmer Lysander Waller Papers, 1897-1935, (Washington State University Libraries Manuscripts, Archives, and Special Collections)

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
creatorOf Osmer Lysander Waller Papers, 1897-1935 Washington State University Libraries: Manuscripts, Archives, and Special Collections
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Relation Name
associatedWith Chase, Marvin person
associatedWith Columbia Basin Survey Commission (Wash.) corporateBody
associatedWith Mead, Elwood, 1858-1936 person
associatedWith Summers, John William, 1870-1937 person
associatedWith Tiffany, R. K. (Ross Kerr), 1879- person
associatedWith Waller, Osmar Lysander, 1857-1935 person
Place Name Admin Code Country
Irrigation--Northwest, Pacific--History--Sources


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