Arkansas River Basin: A look at the Bessemer Ditch

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

In Colorado, where settlement depended on water availability, a ditch often is the oldest structure in a community.

Nowhere is that more true than on the St. Charles Mesa. Located just southeast of Pueblo, the area has been home to generations of farm families. It’s known locally for its produce at farmers markets or roadside stands. Everything from cabbages to pumpkins is marketed nationally. As the Colorado State Fair rolls around each year, Pueblo has its share of youth animal exhibitors and farm products entered into contests.

But for all that to happen, a ditch had to be dug.

The Bessemer Ditch stretches more than 40 miles through the city of Pueblo, the steel mill to the east and onto some of the best farmland in the region. Its name, taken from the steelmaking process, is a key to its origins.

It began more as a real estate project than a demand to work the land. The ditch was first known as the Big Ditch in South Pueblo in 1874. It was dug by the Central Colorado Improvement Co., a real estate company formed by William Jackson Palmer to assist the Denver & Rio Grande railroad. While there was no steel mill in that early time, the ditch was meant to open up the land south of Pueblo to small family farms.

It diverted water west of Pueblo from the Arkansas River and was described by The Pueblo Chieftain as a booming area that supported the opening of coal mines to the west in Canon City.

When the Central Colorado Co. merged with other companies to form Colorado Coal & Iron, the forerunner of CF& I, most of the ownership of the ditch came with it. CC& I sought to expand the ditch in the 1880s to bring water to large tracts of land on the St. Charles Mesa. The ditch would run through Pueblo, across the St. Charles River by flume and empty into the Huerfano River.

By 1889, the Bessemer Ditch had incorporated and was selling shares of stock.

“The turning of the water into the Bessemer Ditch is something that Pueblo ought to have celebrated this week with a grand demonstration,” The Chieftain opined in 1890. “It is one of the best things the city and county ever witnessed.”

Glory was short-lived. The ditch company defaulted on an interest payment and was sold at a trustee’s sale in 1894. Soon after, the Bessemer Irrigating Ditch Co. was formed, and remains the operator. It is today a mutual association of landowners.

Initially, a reservoir was built in the Vineland area, but it leaked too much because local soils would not hold water.

Bessemer Ditch survived the flood of 1921. Some structures had to be rebuilt, but the biggest casualties were the company’s records, lost when its offices in Downtown Pueblo flooded.

It also made it through the Great Depression. Even though shut-off notices were mailed to 45 percent of the shareholders, local banks continued to loan money to the company.
In recent decades, the nature of the ditch has continued to change.

Subdivisions of some property and commercial operations on the Mesa have created the need for drinking water delivery, and the St. Charles Mesa Water District has acquired about 10 percent of Bessemer Ditch shares since 1964.

When Pueblo Dam came online in 1975, it included an outlet for the Bessemer Ditch.

Bessemer Ditch, which had supported the Fryingpan-Arkansas Project that built Pueblo Dam, sued the Bureau of Reclamation over clear water. Lacking silt, the water seeped more quickly through the ditch, flooding basements in Pueblo, creating a potential liability.

Although the ditch company lost the lawsuit, a federal project helped seal the 5 miles of ditch through Pueblo by spraying it with gunite.

Beginning in the 1980s, there were attempts by speculators to buy Bessemer Ditch shares to meet the need for additional water supplies in growing cities. Those mainly failed because the asking price was too low.

But in 2009, in response to offers from El Paso County communities, the Pueblo Board of Water Works successfully purchased about 28 percent of the shares for a little more than $10,000 per share. Pueblo Water in 2007 had made a lower offer that failed to attract enough interest.

Part of the deal is that most of the water would be leased back to farmers for about 20 years and that any leasing of water outside the ditch would give priority to Pueblo County.

So, the Big Ditch has come full circle, providing a foundation first for the growth of Pueblo, a century of primarily agricultural activity and now a support system for the county’s growth — all the while continuing to produce world-class green chiles.

Greg Hobbs sent along these photos from his son Dan’s farm off the Bessemer Ditch in the Arkansas Valley:

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