Watering the West: How pioneers built local towns through irrigation — The Watch

Dolores River watershed
Dolores River watershed

From The Watch (Regan Tuttle):

Telluride’s early days, survival depended dearly on water. The enterprises that built the region — farming, ranching and mining — required irrigation from rivers, and lots of it. Of course, water becomes scarcer the farther one moves from the mountains or from the San Miguel River.

For the pioneers, creating an infrastructure that could sustain them in the short term and withstand the march of progress was no easy task. Suffering cold conditions, subsisting on biscuits and beans, laboring with shovels, axes and other hand tools, pioneers worked to channel water from its source to where they needed it.
Back then, this was legal. Just decades ago, as the old-timers established our local towns, “Water could be diverted from the stream, and ditches built across public and private land to convey water to its place of beneficial use,” the Colorado Foundation for Water Education reported.

“In a dry and thirsty land it is necessary to divert the waters of the streams from their natural channels,” Colorado Chief Justice Moses Hallet said in the late 1800s.

Telluride

During Telluride’s early days, water was hauled from the San Miguel River and from springs on the east side of town. Wilson Rockwell said in his book “Uncompahgre Country” that a man named Dutch George in the late 1800s delivered five-gallon buckets of water from the spring at Cornet Creek to saloons and businesses on what is now Colorado Avenue for 10 cents each, two buckets at a time, balanced by a yoke around his neck.

When attorney L.L. Nunn needed water for his commercial bathhouse on the east end, he ran a garden hose from Cornet Falls. Later, in 1886, H. H. Corbin constructed a 370-foot vertical pipeline that transported water from Cornet Creek into town.

Though people then said it couldn’t be done, high pressure water was flumed from Trout Lake to help establish the Ames power plant, and later the Ilium plant, that would put Telluride on the map as the first city in the world to be powered by alternating electric current. Of course, the purpose was to support the mining industry.

Nucla

For some, creating access to water was more difficult. The Town of Nucla, formerly Tabeguache Park, was founded by a socialist organization whose members wanted to escape their greedy landlords in Denver. By accident, they discovered the location that provided everything they desired: mild winters, ample sunlight, virgin soil — but no water.

Called the Colorado Cooperative Company, the members, or comrades, set up camp in the late 1800s in what became the second largest city in Montrose County to bring water to the homesteads for which they’d filed claims.
They were told their task was impossible.

“I believe [that] actually helped build the ditch. When you are told you can’t, you’ll bust a tug to do it,” Leonard F. Zatterstrom said in a memoir published in Marie Templeton’s book “The Visionaries.”

The Colorado Cooperative Company constructed a 17-mile-long wooden flume, called the CC Ditch, built along the wall of the San Miguel River canyon. David Lavender in “One Man’s West” writes that those who worked on the ditch were compensated by “credit at the commissary for food and supplies, plus water credits toward the purchase of ditch rights. The canal succeeded, and several prosperous farms sprang up.”

People like Zatterstrom worked eight-hour days building the flume, sleeping in the bunkhouse, buying their food through the company store and receiving rations of milk from the cooperative’s dairy cows.

Nucla was born when the project was completed in 1904, and “Piñon became a ghost town practically overnight,” Zatterstrom said.

But the hard work didn’t pay off for everyone. Mary Rogers was a 9-year old girl during the CC Ditch project. Because both her parents died, she went to live with her grandmother and uncles, the Heinemans, who worked on the CC Ditch. Like others, the German family came to Piñon in search of a better life, and hoped to one day own a farm.

“My mother worked in the garden and did dishes,” Norma McKeever, now 88, said. According to her, the conditions were not pleasant, especially in the winter. Rogers said the food was terrible, just biscuits and beans at the camp’s boardinghouse in the cold season. But it was worth it to the family. They’d filed a homestead claim with hopes that when the CC Ditch was done, they’d have irrigation water and could build a life.

Rogers was in her teens by the time the CC Ditch was completed. But the water didn’t reach the Heineman’s farm in 1904. The majority of the CC Ditch workers had accomplished what they’d needed for their own homesteads, and they weren’t willing to extend the project. What can you do with a farm that has no water?

Grandmother Heineman went to work as a washerwoman and housekeeper for those who owned prosperous farms. Mary Rogers got a job at the Western Hotel in Norwood. One of her uncles moved to Nevada and never came back.

McKeever said the Heinemans, buried in the pauper site at Nucla Cemetery, weren’t the only ones to feel cheated out of their homestead dreams.

Though socialism failed, the town has not. Water still serves Nucla to this day, though the wooden flume has mostly been replaced by more practical means. The town celebrates the water victory every July with their Water Days celebration.

Norwood

Wilson Barrett of Redvale is the ditch rider — the patroller or inspector — for the waterway that is the lifeblood of Norwood, the Gurley Ditch. He is the only employee of Farmer’s Water Development, the stock company that “owns” the Gurley and divides its shares of water. But nobody really owns the water in Colorado, he said, just the rights to use it. According to him, life in Norwood wouldn’t be possible for anyone if the old-timers hadn’t dug the ditch.

In the late 1800s, when pioneers began settling Wrights Mesa, Rockwell said Ed Joseph — of the Joseph family, one of the first to settle the area — began construction of a reservoir east of the Lone Cone in the high country.

Some people disagree as to who later built the Gurley Ditch and finished the reservoir above it. Barrett said it was Naturita Land and Cattle Company. Regardless, whatever company worked on the project went bankrupt. One of the owners in that outfit was named Charles Gorley. Over time, the spelling of “Gorley” evolved into “Gurley,” which is used today.

To avoid losing the rights to use their water, local farmers and ranchers on the mesa decided to purchase the floundering company, buying it out of bankruptcy, and then established Farmer’s Water Development.

Now irrigation water runs from the dam through Beaver Park and to Wrights Mesa, mostly for agricultural purposes, but a small percentage is used for domestic water in town.

Barrett’s great uncle, Gordon Barrett, was one of the first workers to help dig the Gurley.

“They came in 1914, and they worked on the ditch in the fall. If you worked in the fall, you could get shares in the company,” Barrett said. “He was nominated to work on the ditch as part of the family so they could get more water.”

Recently, going through old paperwork, Barrett found one of the original invoices for equipment. He discovered a purchase order, sandwiched between old papers, for picks, boxes of dynamite, shovels and other tools that made the Gurley.

Without the ditch, Barrett said, Norwood would not have survived.

Ridgway

Most people probably don’t know that Ridgway almost didn’t survive. Years ago, in the 1960s, there were plans for a dam to be constructed just north of where Ridgway now sits. Had the original plans been executed, Ridgway would now be under water.

Some refer to it as “the town that refused to die,” and Ridgway lucked out when officials in the 1970s decided to move the dam farther north. Now, the Ridgway Reservoir, constructed in the late ‘80s, covers what was the old ghost town of Dallas.

Though Ridgway is situated on the Uncompahgre River, that stream is not the town’s source of water. Sometimes running yellow or orange, the Uncompahgre is known as a “dirty river” due to the minerals it contains. The town of Ridgway sourced its water in the late 1800s from Hartwell Lake, now Lake Otonowanda, below Mount Sneffels.

Ridgway completed a major expansion of its reservoir last summer.

Today

Today, being on town water is a luxury most people probably don’t think much about. While just 100 years ago we were hauling water and digging ditches through the local mountains, most folks now just turn on the tap. Our pioneers have made it possible for us to have access to water even in places where water didn’t naturally occur.

Those who live further out in the country have other water issues, and real estate in many parts of Colorado becomes complicated when water rights enter the picture. Sometimes water rights are a part of landownership; sometimes they’re not. Water is overseen by water commissions and boards in various regions.

These days, one cannot simply dig a diversion ditch from an existing stream or take water from a manmade ditch. Now, water projects involve planning, permits, engineering work and financing. The Colorado Doctrine, a set of laws pertaining to water use and landownership, has been in place since the 1860s.

Some producers, especially the new farmers without water rights, have trouble wrapping their heads around the laws.

Last July Leila Seraphin, formerly of California, bought a property in Norwood that the Gurley Ditch runs through. She said she wishes she could use some of that water for her own farming and gardening, but she knows it’s against the law.

“We were told right when we moved here water was a big issue and taking from the Gurley was not allowed, and that all the water was owned,” she said.

Building a life as a new producer on Wrights Mesa, she has learned a lot about where her water comes from.

“It’s hard to imagine water being free to use, as every drop has a price tag,” she said.

Barrett said people living in this region should be grateful for their water.

“The water we have — 99 percent of it was done with a shovel and a pick. Without the pioneers, there would be nobody here,” he said.

He believes that is especially true for Wrights Mesa, as he said that before the Gurley ditch, life didn’t exist in Norwood.

“The early homesteaders had to go clear into the San Miguel River or into Naturita Creek with wagons and barrels to haul it to have any water at all,” he said. “I’d say for most people [this] is new information.”

Uncompahgre River Valley looking south
Uncompahgre River Valley looking south

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