Like most places in the arid American West, Denver could not possibly sustain itself without water from irrigation systems. While easy to overlook, disputes over water rights began with the onset of irrigation and persist to the present day. Today, though most of Denver’s original canals have been covered or removed, some of the features remain—most notably the High Line Canal—and continue to provide aesthetic and recreational draws for the city.
Denver’s First Ditches
Water is not abundant in much of Colorado and the West. Early Denver, for instance, was a dusty, arid hamlet, fairly devoid of greenery except for brush and cottonwoods scattered along Cherry Creek, the South Platte River, and other natural waterways. To sustain the new community, water had to be brought in from the mountains and foothills via a series of ditches. The essential difference between a ditch and natural drainage is that a ditch generally follows contour lines and drops very gradually in elevation. The average “fall” of a ditch is five feet per mile. If the fall is any steeper, the water erodes embankments; if the fall is any shallower, the water will not move. A canal is sometimes regarded as a big ditch, though the terms are frequently used interchangeably.
Early arrivals such as Walter Cheesman, David Moffat, and James Archer led efforts to bring reliable and safe water service to Denver, which was emerging as Colorado’s principal community. Constructing extensive ditch systems was a noteworthy engineering accomplishment in the nineteenth century. Initially, men with shovels, picks, and scraping tools carved out ditches; then came oxen pulling plows, scrapers, and huge, heave, oak-and-iron wagons. A “Rotary Canal Builder and Railroad Excavator” powered by ten yoke of oxen scooped out the City Ditch and could do the work of 100 men. Ditch maintenance was also an enormous undertaking. Constant freezing and thawing caused ongoing damage, particularly to wooden flumes, and there was always bank erosion to deal with.
Denver’s earliest ditches were utilitarian and were not considered as aesthetic or recreational attractions, although hints of these uses were evident. Children sailed toy boats in the ditches, and people of all ages appreciated splashing about on a hot day. But with the benefits of artificial waterways came trouble. Open ditches resulted in occasional drownings, and water scarcities caused friction between ditch users, especially during dry years. It was believed that ditches were a breeding ground for water-borne diseases, such as the typhoid epidemic that broke out during the summer of 1879. The ditches also attracted wandering domestic animals and livestock. As a preview of today’s multitude of legal battles over water rights, city officials finally had to intervene to prevent fighting between rural/agricultural and urban/domestic water users.
Denver’s first water works was built in 1871 where F Street (today’s Fifteenth) met the Platte River. Two Holly Pumps—an engineering marvel in its day—drew water from a large well sunk in the gravel beds of the river. This new pumping plant, dubbed the “Holly Water Works,” had the capacity to provide the thirsty town with 2.5 million gallons of water daily (a moderate-sized pond’s worth; the Denver Water Department in 1998 supplied a million people with 100 million to 450 million gallons of water daily). Denver had an abundance of water—far more than could be delivered through hand-made wooden flumes and oxen-dug ditches. The remaining ditches now delivered water solely for agricultural purposes instead of domestic use.
Some of the city’s early ditches survive to the present and continue to serve useful purposes. The best known among these in Denver is the High Line Canal, sporting picturesque trails lined with cottonwoods and willows. It is among Colorado’s “historic ditches”—those more than fifty years old, as designated under the National Historic Preservation Act.
Expansion and Upgrades
A great advancement was the development of underground water conduits—first made of wood staves using the techniques of barrel-making, followed by sheet-iron pipes. In 1870 Denver became directly linked to Kansas and Wyoming by rail, which allowed the city to bring in wood staves and sheet-iron pipes. With this new technology, men proceeded to bury ditches, only occasionally following the course of the ditch itself. Although they were more convenient, the new pipes brought new problems. They easily clogged with dirt and debris and had to be dug up and cleaned out or replaced entirely—tasks that had been easily addressed before the ditches were buried. Moreover, Denver began a period of rapid growth in the early 1880s—a populace swelled by discovery of rich mineral deposits in the mountains to the west. Denver now found itself outgrowing the delivery capacity of its ditches and pipes. It needed a reservoir up the Platte, more water lines, and sewer lines, while the streets were already dug up. As these improvements were made to accommodate city residents, the old open ditches and their laterals continued to serve agriculture.
In 1874 Denver instituted “water police,” officers responsible for patrolling ditches, intervening in water disputes, stopping water diversion, and generally maintaining peace around the ditches. By 1882 there were thirty water police under the leadership of water commissioner Sidney Roberts. These guardians patrolled nearly 1,000 miles of street ditches, and their clashes with residents reflected the high level of emotion surrounding water issues. For instance, during the summer of 1875 water in City Ditch periodically failed to reach the city due to upstream farmers and homeowners diverting water onto their own land. On August 13, 1875, The Denver Times reported that when water police arrived at the headgates to determine the problem, housewives attempted to “drive them away with clubs, brooms, mops, and second-hand umbrellas.”
In 1902 water police began locking City Ditch headgates, allowing water to flow into Denver. On one occasion farmers retaliated by smashing open the gates with axes and standing guard with shotguns, daring anyone to stop them from watering their fields. An arrest warrant was issued for a supposed leader of the water thieves, Julius Breeze, but he was never apprehended and a battle never ensued. The city then threatened to cancel the annual water contract of any farmer who resorted to such tactics. In some instances dealing with angry, drought-crazed farmers and settlers fell to the ditch riders and ditch companies rather than an organized force of water police.
In Denver the absence of the old open ditches was greeted with a “good riddance” attitude for more than a decade. But when the City Beautiful Movement caught on in Denver around the turn of the century, ditches were once again viewed with favor. Along with creeks and parkways, they became part of the interconnected landscape envisioned by progressive builders of the new urban environment. For the first time, ditches were appreciated for their own inherent beauty.
Denver’s Mayor Robert W. Speer is remembered for his energetic promotion of many City Beautiful projects—financed in large part by his prodigious, bribery-fueled political machine—such as Denver’s Marion Street Parkway beautification project, through which the old City Ditch was still flowing. Open ditches continued to be aesthetic as well as practical factors in the urban and suburban landscape into the 1920s, but during the Great Depression these waterways ceased to be appreciated. The general attitude seemed to say, “fill them in and get them underground,” and the Works Progress Administration subsequently covered many of the city’s open ditches during the 1930s.
Adapted from Kate Lee Kienast, “Oasis in the Great American Desert: Early Irrigation Ditch Systems in the Denver Area,” Colorado Heritage Magazine 18, no. 2 (1998).