Historic irrigation ditches & canals in the Denver metro area : new concepts for old waterways : an illustrated thesis

Material Information

Historic irrigation ditches & canals in the Denver metro area : new concepts for old waterways : an illustrated thesis
Kienast, Kate Lee
Place of Publication:
Denver, CO
University of Colorado Denver
Publication Date:
Physical Description:
xiii, 164 leaves : ill. (some col.) ; 29 cm.


General Note:
Department of Urban and Regional Planning

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Source Institution:
University of Colorado Denver
Holding Location:
Auraria Library
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All applicable rights reserved by the source institution and holding location.
Resource Identifier:
36960101 ( OCLC )

Full Text
Historic Irryjation Ditches & Canals in the
Denver Metro Area
9{eiv Concepts for Old Waterways
Sin Illustrated Lbesis
Hate Lee Hienast
'Urban and IReyionatIPtanning
University of Colorado at Denver

Historic Irrigation Ditches & Canals
in the Denver Metro Area
New Concepts for Old Waterways
An Illustrated Thesis
Kate Lee Kienast
B.A., University of Colorado at Boulder, 1966
Submitted to the School of Architecture and Planning
in partial fulfillment of the requirements
for the degree of
Master of Urban and Regional Planning
at the University of Colorado at Denver, 1996.
1996, Kate Lee Kienast
Signature of author
Accepted by
Michael E. 'Bolleran, Thesis Supervisor
Assistant Professor of
Urban & Regional Planning
University of Colorado at Denver
Accepted by
Thomas J. Nos
Professor of History-
University of Colorado at Denver
Accepted by
Colorado State Trails Coordinator
Division of Parks & Outdoor Recreation

Historic Irrigation Ditches & Canals
in the Denver Metro Area
New Concepts for Old Waterways
An Illustrated Thesis
Kate Lee Kienast
Thesis directed by Professor Michael E. Holleran, Ph.D.
Historic irrigation ditches in Denver and the surrounding
area, as well as in most of the arid west, have until recently
been overlooked as features worthy of consideration in the urban
planning and historic preservation process.
Many of the ditches that once enabled community growth are
now gone, and those that remain are rapidly disappearing. The
study and analysis of those that are left is important to the
utilization and protection of this valuable water resource in an
arid land.
A brief history of Denver's irrigation ditches and a look at
water law as it pertains to them set the stage for this study. I
have gathered previously scattered information about Denver's
historic ditches, including the High Line Canal, into one
document. This information is used as a springboard to explore
the range of possibilities that ditches have as trail corridors,
linkage features, historic resources and other forms of
enhancement to urban and suburban land uses.
This study resulted in the development of guidelines for
ways in which ditches can be included in the planning and
preservation process. As the oldest artifacts on the land in
much of the western landscape, irrigation ditches are well worth

List of
Acknowledgments ............................................. xiii
1 Setting the Stage An Introduction ................. 1
Study Area Description...........................3
Literature Review .............................. 6
Cartographic and Photographic Sources .......... 8
Chapter Synopsis ............................... 9
2 A Selected Ditch History ............................ 11
Ditches of the Prehistoric Southwest .......... 13
Early Ditch Building by Spanish Settlers ... 15
Westward Expansion and Anglo-Saxon Settlement 18
Denver's Early Ditches ........................ 19
The City Ditch..............................20
The High Line Canal.........................28
Clear Creek Ditches.........................3 8
Bear and Turkey Creek Ditches...............42
More Platte River Ditches ................. 42
Colorado's Golden Age of Irrigation ........... 44
A Legacy of Benefits and Problems ............. 46
Ditches in Twentieth Century Denver ........... 56

3 Ditches and Western Water Law.......................61
Nineteenth Century-
Arid Climate Theories Clash .................... 62
The Development of
Prior Appropriation Water Law....................64
Prior Appropriation and
the Colorado Constitution ...................... 67
The Legacy of Spanish Water Law..................68
Landmark Legislative and
Judicial Decisions in Colorado ................. 69
The Evolution of Private Ditch Companies ... 71
Measuring Water Flow.............................71
Water Law Paves the Way for Denver's Growth . . 73
4 Ditches in Contemporary
Planning and Urban Design .......................... 75
A Visual Survey ................................ 77
Residential Areas .......................... 77
Office and Business Sites .................. 83
Industrial Sites ........................... 86
Institutional Spaces ....................... 88
Open Space, Parks and Golf Courses .... 93
Trails Along Ditches ....................... 99
Wildlife Corridors ........................ Ill
Unusual Uses................................115

Current Views on
Channelization and Maintenance ............... 116
Planning for Today's Ditches ................. 119
5 Ditches and Historic Preservation .................. 122
The Preservation and Conservation Movements . .122
Colorado's National Register
Ditches and Associated Sites ................. 127
A Survey of Other Arid Western States .... 134
Ditch Preservation in
the Present for the Future.....................137
6 Conclusion...........................................139
Value Variety in the Landscape................13 9
Ditches on the Edge............................141
Cooperation Is the Key.........................143
A Timeless Treasure .......................... 144
A Ditch and Water Data and Definitions.................146
B New Mexico Historic Acequia Recording Form .... 148
C Ditch Sites in the Study Area
Determined Eligible for the
National Register of Historic Places .............. 152
Selected Bibliography ........................................ 154

List of Figures
Figure Number and Title Page
1 Study area map with urbanized area..................4
2 Study area map with jurisdictional boundaries .... 5
3 The City Ditch in Washington Park....................21
4 The City Ditch in Washington Park....................21
5 The City Ditch in Washington Park....................21
6 The Rough and Ready Mill circa 1910..................22
7 A baptism takes place circa 1901
at the Rough and Ready Mill spillway................23
8 The Rough and Ready Mill burning down in 1959 . . . 23
9 The City Ditch flume diverts
water from the Platte River, late 1860s.............24
10 Arapahoe and 16th Streets in 1873 ................... 25
11 Trees taking hold along 15th Street in the 1870s . . 26
12 Well established trees
along 14th Street circa 1880 ..................... 26
13 The City Ditch is piped under a walkway before
flowing into Smith Lake in Washington Park..........28
14 The High Line Canal
near University Park in 1916........................29
15 The High Line Canal near Blackmer Common............3 0
16 The High Line Canal near Belleview Avenue...........3 0
17 The High Line Canal flume
at the mouth of the Platte Canyon, 1884 ............ 33
18 Ladies on an excursion by the
D.S.P. & P. Railroad tracks in 1904 ................ 34
19 The concrete flume and service road today.............34

20 East portal of the High Line Canal
tunnel leading into the concrete flume ............ 35
21 The west portal of the tunnel seen
from the bottom of the diversion dam...............35
22 The High Line Canal is carried
over Dad Clark Gulch by a wooden flume.............36
23 The High Line Canal is carried
over Dad Clark Gulch by a wooden flume.............36
24 The High Line Canal near Tower Road
heads toward the Rocky Mountain Arsenal ........... 37
25 The High Line Canal in Green Valley Ranch.......37
26 Headgate on the Brown Ditch circa 1930 ............. 39
27 The Agricultural Ditch in
Lakewood near Green Gables School ................. 39
28 The Welch Ditch Headgate in Clear Creek Canyon ... 40
29 Above the Welch Ditch headgate ..................... 40
30 The Welch Ditch flume
heads out of Clear Creek Canyon....................41
31 The Ward Canal in Lakewood along Morrison Road ... 42
32 Check gates on the Brantner Ditch at
the Poor Farm in Adams County circa 1915.......... 43
33 The Brantner Ditch today at the old Poor
Farm site, now the Adams County Golf Course .... 43
34 The Fulton Ditch just south of 120th Avenue .... 44
35 The Fulton Ditch on
the north side of 120th Avenue.................... 44
36 The Bycrus Steam Shovel circa 1899
digging the Harriman Ditch and Marston Lake .... 50
37 Working on the Harriman
Ditch and Marston Lake circa 1899 ................. 50
38 Cleaning the Harriman Ditch in 1900 ................ 51
39 Reconstruction of the Marcy Gulch
flume for the High Line Canal in 1934 ............. 51

40 Machinery speeds work on
the Marcy Gulch flume in 1934 ...................... 52
41 The City Ditch flume just north
of Littleton in a frozen December, 1914.............52
42 A break in the High Line Canal flume
in the Platte Canyon in August of 1935 ............. 53
43 A closer look at the damage.........................53
44 Construction of wood stave conduit on
the west side of the Platte River, 1910.............54
45 Dirt clogged pipes disrupt the City Ditch in 1935 . 55
46 New steel pipe is put in
place for the City Ditch in 1935 ................... 55
47 The City Ditch at Marion
Parkway near Alameda Avenue, 1913 .................. 58
48 The City Ditch goes
underground near Alameda Avenue in 1938............. 58
49 Workers cover the City Ditch at
16th Avenue and High Street in 1935 ................ 59
50 Marion Parkway near Alameda Avenue today ........... 59
51 Early headgate adorned with a
horseshoe on the McLaughlin Ditch, 1912.............72
52 A modern Parshall flume on the
High Line Canal near County Line Road...............72
53 Parts of an old headgate survive
on the City Ditch in Washington Park................73
54 Water rights and land for sale along the High
Line Canal near Chambers Road and Alameda Avenue . . 74
55 The Church Ditch in
Broomfield, northwest of Denver .................... 78
56 "Ditch House" on Clarkson Street ................... 79
57 The City Ditch leaving
the property on Clarkson Street .................... 80
58 Check dam and graded inlet on the City Ditch .... 80

59 The New Union Ditch flows through a small
greenway, Woodglen Park, before it is siphoned
under the street to emerge on the east side .... 82
60 The ditch on the east side of
the park in the median of Woodglen Boulevard .... 82
61 The High Line Canal in Aurora flows
through a commercial zone with a rural ambiance 83
62 This attractively landscaped entry
sign confuses the canal with a creek................84
63 A typical office
development along the High Line Canal...............84
64 A wetland has materialized on this commercial site 85
65 The O'Brian Canal flows through an industrial area 86
66 The High Line Canal near Colfax Avenue..............87
67 A warehouse site borders
the canal in northeast Aurora ...................... 87
68 The High Line Canal winds past
the Municipal Justice Center in Aurora ............. 89
69 Aurora Community College footpath .................. 90
70 The canal flows through Fairmount Cemetery ......... 91
71 Only the sounds of sprinklers
break the quiet of a summer day.....................91
72 The old landfill in Aurora..........................92
73 Access bridge into the South
Suburban Recreation Center in DeKovend Park .... 94
74 Part of DeKovend Park seen
from the High Line Canal Trail......................94
75 The New Kellog Lateral in Daniels Park...............95
76 Stately old cottonwoods along the lateral .......... 95
77 Golfers play by the High Line Canal.................96
78 Walton Heath Comprehensive Plan Amendment,
existing and proposed conceptual maps .............. 97

79 Because the New Union Ditch
survives here, so do the old trees..................97
80 Open space in Westminster acquired in 1988 ......... 98
81 Blackmer Common seen
from the High Line Canal Trail......................99
82 Footbridges like this one provide
access at many places along the canal...............101
83 Runners passing one of
the trail's many directional signs ................ 101
84 These bicyclists
enjoy a crisp fall day on the trail.................102
85 A memorial bench graces the trail...................102
86 The proposed O'Brian Canal Trail is
part of the Adams County trail master plan .... 104
87 Ditches flow through
different land uses in Jefferson County.............106
88 This sign forbids High Line Canal
Trail access at the Wellshire Golf Course .......... 107
89 As the canal winds through Fairmount
Cemetery, trail users may pass through
as this more friendly sign indicates...............107
90 Big Dry Creek waters are released
to the west (left) while the High
Line Canal continues to the northeast...............108
91 A no-man's land.....................................109
92 Playtime on a hot day...............................110
93 A typical schematic ditch site plan.................110
94 This sign notifies visitors
that the area is set aside for wildlife.............112
95 A plea for nesting eagles along the Church Ditch 112
96 Across the street from the signs, the ditch
and accompanying wildlife meet the suburbs .... 113

116 The Littleton Railroad Depot in 1959 ............. 133
117 The depot as it looks today next to the
abandoned City Ditch alignment to the left .... 133
118 The Acequia Madre in
Santa Fe flows along Acequia Madre Street.........135
119 The acequia flows past decorative entryways .... 135
120 Signs on the Arizona Canal in Phoenix.............136
121 Watering lawns along the
freeway, US 36 near Broomfield....................140
122 Sheep graze along the Burlington Ditch and
0'Brian Canal near 88th Avenue in Adams county . 141
123 A potential infill site, the High
Line Canal near Colfax Avenue in Aurora...........142
124 The Dry Creek Valley Ditch
near Simms Street in Broomfield .................. 142
125 The Fulton Ditch near
120th Avenue in Adams county......................14 2
126 Watching the water by
the Prince Ditch, July 1912.......................145
127 Watching the High Line Canal
flow by on a hot July afternoon...................14 5

Throughout the two years that I spent on the research,
illustration and writing of this thesis, many people took an
interest in my subject and gave generously of their time and
effort to further my endeavors. Space does not permit me to
thank them all, but without their kind assistance this project
would not have been possible.
First I would like to thank Michael Holleran for his
excellent advice and unfailing encouragement. I am also grateful
to Tom Noel for his expertise and enthusiasm.
Many thanks to all the staff members of the Western History
Department of the Denver Public Library who helped cheer up long
hours, especially Auggie, Phil, Bruce, Kay, Don and Randall.
Thanks to the staff at the Colorado Historical Society,
especially Lane, Nan, Jean, Mary and Karen in the Office of
Archaeology and Historic Preservation. Thanks to "Chips" Barry,
Hub Reichelt, and Greg Bryant at the Denver Water Board, and to
Sandra, Kay and Willie who keep such a wonderfully well
organized archive. Thanks to Mary Pierce at the Aurora History
Museum, Stuart Macdonald at Colorado State Parks, Lorena Donohue
at the Littleton Historical Museum, Bob Spude at the National
Park Service, Lisa Stuart at the National Trust for Historic
Preservation, David Cushman at the Office of Cultural Affairs in
Santa Fe, Bob Krugmire at the City of Thornton, Linda Strand and
Rick Bowser at the City of Aurora, Crystal Grey at Adams County
Parks and Don Ebner from the Jefferson County Historical
Also many thanks to the ditch riders and superintendents who
took time from their busy schedules to provide ditch tours and
the kind of information that only comes with many years of
experience along the ditches, especially Rob Thorsheim from the
New Kellog Lateral, Dan Mayo from the Church and Dry Creek Valley
Ditches, Gil Martinez and Mike Bill from the High Line Canal.
Lastly I would like to thank the friends and family members
who endured this project with me, especially Judy Foy, Josie
Joosten and Jane Heavin for listening, David Murray and Mike
Turner for technical assistance, and my daughters Sarah and
Permission was kindly granted by the Denver Public Library,
Western History Department, the Denver Water Board and the
Littleton Historical Museum for the reproduction of photographs
from their collections for use in this thesis.
Cover photo: The City Ditch in Washington Park.
Photo by author, October, 1993.

Chapter 1
Setting the Stage an Introduction
Here is a land where life is written in water
Thomas Hornsby Ferril
Colorado Poet Laureate
In arid climates such as Colorado and most of the
American West, water attains an importance not present in
areas of the globe that have an abundance of water. This
study looks at one aspect of the water picture here in
the Denver metro area that of irrigation ditches and
canals built to divert water from natural streams to land
that is sometimes miles away. In Denver's early days
these ditches were essential to the growth and
development of the frontier town.
Today ditches have a cultural value as historic
features. They are evidence of the oldest man-made
features in the landscape. Traces of pioneer trails like
the Smoky Hill and Cherokee Trails which are visible to
the southeast of town are older than the ditches, but in
urbanized areas irrigation ditches are the oldest
artifacts on the land.
This study explores the ditches and canals from a
historic, urban design and community planning point of
view. Some hydrological information about ditches is,
however, necessary to this study and is found in
Appendix A. Understanding how ditches were constructed,
the basics of water movement in them and the sometimes

extreme lengths to which men went to bring them into
being is a vital part of understanding this landscape
The basic difference between ditches and natural
drainages is that ditches are man-made features, and they
generally follow contour lines, dropping very gradually
in elevation. The average "fall" or drop of a ditch is 5
feet per mile. If the fall isn't steep enough the water
won't flow down the ditch, and if the fall is too steep
the water flows so fast that it destroys built up banks,
headgates and property in its path.
There is another kind of difference; it is among
ditches themselves. Some watercourses are built for the
purpose of diverting and delivering water for irrigation
or other purposes. In places with too much water ditches
drain the land, taking water away so the land can be
used. Even in a dry climate there are roadside swales -
the ditches we see that parallel roadways to catch the
runoff and take it away. Lastly, canals have been built
in some parts of the world for the movement of people and
goods, and the connection of landforms and oceans.
Although smaller channels are usually referred to as
ditches and larger ones as canals, there is no rule of
thumb for this nomenclature.

Study Area Description
The geographic focus of my study is within the South
Platte River drainage as delineated by the Denver Water
Department, the Colorado State Engineer's Office and the
United States Geological Survey. Within Colorado's
Irrigation Division 1, I include the parts of Water
Districts 2, 7, 8 and 9 that are in the Denver metro
The ditches shown in Figures 1 and 2 are the major
ones still in existence. The scale of this map does not
permit the delineation of the small side ditches or
laterals that branch off from the main ditches. If your
favorite ditch is not included here, I apologize. All
the ditches that are left are important.
As all of the ditches in the study area were built
more than 50 years ago, many of them before the turn of
the century, they are all potentially "historic" by the
standard (50 years of age of more) set by the National
Historic Preservation Act of 1966.
It is not my intention to survey all the ditches in
the study area or to produce a HABS or HAER record for
ditches, but rather to discuss the history of ditch
building and the situations of specific ditches as they
pertain to the issues explored here.

Figure 1
Study area map with urbanized area.
Sketch by author, 1996.

Figure 2
Study area map with jurisdictional boundaries.
Sketch by author, 1996.

Literature Review
In the Denver area much of the historical,
engineering and regulatory information has disappeared
over time or perhaps was never recorded. Possibly no one
thought it would be important or even interesting.
Because there are few archival files or library
catalogues (including CARL) using the category "ditch" or
"canal," a great deal of digging was required. For this
task it helps to be an incurable archive enthusiast.
Material is to be found under place names, under the
heading "irrigation," "agriculture," "water" or
occasionally is found in files arranged by time periods.
People have not categorized historical, geographical or
environmental information under the humble heading
"ditch." Ditches are, nonetheless, unique and
fascinating slices of the landscape.
With the exception of one book, The Thunder Tree by
Robert Michael Pyle, for which I am very grateful, there
aren't any published books written specifically about
irrigation ditches in the Denver area. (There is a trail
description of the High Line Canal Trail, Wogging the
Without a formal body of literature to draw from and
build on, I gathered information from hundreds of both
primary and secondary sources. Notable among these is
the unpublished manuscript, Earl A. Mosley's History of

the Denver Water System: 1858 to 1919. Louisa Ward Arps'
lively Denver in Slices contains an entire chapter on the
City Ditch. Colorado: Visions of an American Landscape
by Kenneth Helphand has a chapter titled "Water" that
contains a section specifically about ditches. Colorado
Water: Liquid Gold: A Monograph on the Church and Dry
Creek Valley Ditches is privately published. Looking
farther afield, Stanley Crawford's Mayordomo: Chronicle
of an Acequia in Northern New Mexico is an insightful
description of one year in the life of a ditch.
The larger body of literature from which I drew
includes Rivers of Empire by Donald Worster, Cadillac
Desert by Marc Reisner, and Alvin T. Steinel's History
of Agriculture in Colorado. I also gathered ideas from
Discovering the Vernacular Landscape by J. B. Jackson,
Keeping Time: The History and Theory of Preservation in
America by William J. Murtagh and from several works by
Kevin Lynch, especially What Time Is This Place?
To explore the question of why people were compelled
to come here and dig so many ditches in the first place,
I turned to Wallace Stegner's Beyond the Hundredth
Meridian and William Smythe's The Conquest of Arid

Chapter Synopsis
The diversion of water is an old and widespread
phenomenon. From the earliest civilizations on earth
there is evidence of irrigation ditches. Chapter 2, "A
Selected Ditch History", explores the origins of
irrigation, its consequences to society and its arrival
and development in the Denver area. This chapter is also
a gathering of historical information specifically about
these ditches so far as I am aware the only one of its
Another aspect of ditches is the legal context that
is unavoidable in the study of any western water issue.
Chapter 3, "Ditches and Western Water Law," is a synopsis
of water law as it pertains to ditches in the arid west
and the Denver area in particular.
In Chapter 4, "Ditches in Contemporary Planning and
Urban Design," various ways are scrutinized in which
ditches are used or neglected as design features in our
urban and suburban landscape. Here I explore the
environmental design successes and problems that I found
along the ditches through the medium of a visual survey.
Also considered here are the consequences of various
policies on ditch maintenance and design as such issues
will seriously affect the existence of our remaining
The issues of landscape preservation as they relate

to ditches are discussed in Chapter 5: "Ditches and
Historic Preservation." Ditch preservation is a
relatively new field in the preservation community in the
western United States. I surveyed 14 arid western states
in search of preservation efforts and common denominators
in ditch guardianship. It is hoped that Denver area
ditches will be protected so that present and future
generations may enjoy this valuable cultural resource.
In conclusion, Chapter 6 endorses the benefits of
bringing people and interests together in a cooperative
effort to manage the practical, aesthetic, recreational
and environmental aspects of ditches for the benefit of
present and future communities.
It is hoped that this study will contribute to the
groundwork for the further assembling of information from
many different sources about ditches and for the
continuing exploration of ways in which historic
irrigation ditches can be beneficial elements of our
urban, suburban and rural landscape.

Chapter 2
A Selected Ditch History
The longer you can look back, the farther you can look forward.
Winston Churchill
When we plan for the betterment of our communities,
whether it is long range, comprehensive planning or
current development, a historical perspective is
invaluable. A knowledge of history enhances our
understanding of where we are today and how we got here.
Historical events and issues are tied to today's world as
threads in a tapestry.
Planning issues involving historic ditches did not
spring up out of nowhere, they evolved from certain
events and attitudes. The history of irrigation and ditch
building is intertwined with the development of the arid
west. Wherever people settled the ditches soon followed.
Sometimes the ditches were even built first the
harbingers of planned settlement.
Recognizing and promoting this history adds to our
appreciation of ditches in today's landscape, enriching
our sense of place. For these reasons a brief history of
ditch digging and irrigation centering on the Denver area
The diversion of water for irrigation is an old
practice. From the earliest civilizations there is

evidence of irrigation ditches. In ancient Egypt,
Mesopotamia, China and India, as well as in the New
World, societies grew and expanded from river valleys
that were, and in many cases still are, the sources of
their irrigation systems.
Where rainfall was scant, men had to band together
to build ditches and eventually sophisticated water
control systems to irrigate their land and provide water
for domestic use. Only with centralized organization and
cooperation could large land areas be made productive
enough to support large populations. In the 1950s Karl
A. Wittfogel proposed the theory of "hydraulic
civilizations" describing this phenomenon in arid and
semiarid lands.1 The great civilizations of the past
that developed along the Nile and Tigris-Euphrates Rivers
were set dramatically apart from settlements based on
rainfall farming. Water diverted in ditches and canals
supported and nourished these early civilizations as they
did in later times and in many other parts of the world.
Not only irrigation but also transportation was a
motivating factor in the construction of canals. Canal
building for transportation culminated in the opening of
^Karl A. Wittfogel, "The Hydraulic Civilizations." University of
Chicago Press, 1956, in Environmental Geomorphology and Landscape
Conservation, Vol.1: Prior to 1900. Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, Dowden,
Hutchinson & Ross, Inc. 1972, p.18-27.

the Suez Canal in 1869 and the Panama Canal in 1914.2 *
Then there are the cities of Venice, Amsterdam and
Bangkok, to name but a few, that are known for the beauty
of their canals.
In the eastern United States, canals were first
built for transportation and for turning the wheels of
manufacturing and industrial enterprises in the late 18th
century. By the mid 19th century these canals, e.g. the
Illinois and Michigan, the Chesapeake and Ohio, and the
Erie provided transportation which expanded opportunities
for new settlements to the west.
Because the humid east had plenty of water, canal
building for irrigation was never necessary on a large
scale, nor did it cause the controversies that it did in
the west where conflicts over water use reached fever
pitch. Ditch building in the arid west has its own
unique history. The land has a vastly different climate
and terrain, and water uses developed that were
compatible with the dry rugged country.
Ditches of the Prehistoric Southwest
In the southwestern United States the prehistoric
remains of the Mogollon culture in southwestern New
Mexico and southeastern Arizona, the Anasazi in the Four
2Robert Payne, The Canal Builders. New York, the Macmillan
Company, 1959, p.219 and 198.

Corners area and in particular the Hohokam in south
central Arizona all show evidence of organized
Along the Salt and Gila Rivers in the area of what
is now Phoenix, the Hohokam people built over 1200 miles
of irrigation canals. This extensive network connected
villages and cities to the streams. Archaeologists found
the ruins of one city nine miles from the nearest river.
Conjecture has it that the Hohokam people irrigated about
200,000 acres.3 These canals date from approximately 100
B.C. to 1450 A.D. and include over 1200 miles of canals.4
Only highly organized management and cooperation could
have built the extensive system for this hydraulic
society the largest prehistoric irrigation system in
North America.
In southwestern Colorado among the Anasazi ruins at
Mesa Verde National Park are the remains of ditches,
reservoirs and agricultural terraces. On a hot day in
August I trudged along the trail to Far View Ruin and
wondered at how the people who lived here long ago could
endure the heat and dryness. Upon reaching the mesa
3Matthew W. Sterling, "Indian Tribes of Pueblo Land," Chapter 4
in National Geographic on Indians of the Americas, Matthew W. Sterling,
ed. Washington D.C., National Geographic Society, 1955, p.113.
4Michael Fifield et al., Metropolitan Canals: A Regional Design
Framework. Tempe, Arizona, College of Architecture and Environmental
Design, Arizona State University, 1990, p.l.

ruins I marvelled at the remains of a man-made reservoir
and irrigation system built by these ancient peoples.
Early Ditch Building bv Spanish Settlers
By the time the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the
sixteenth century, the ancient southwestern cultures had
vanished. However the remaining Pueblo peoples whom the
Spaniards encountered still practiced a rudimentary form
of irrigation which was noted by the invaders.
The Spanish settlers who soon travelled into what is
now New Mexico brought with them a long tradition of
irrigation knowledge and practice. The old Castillian
culture from which they came had gathered expertise from
centuries of practice in the hot, dry lands of their
Spanish and Moorish ancestors. The earliest ditches in
Colorado, other than the prehistoric Anasazi traces at
Mesa Verde, were dug by these settlers who migrated north
when this land belonged to Spain and then to Mexico.
There was an early attempt by the Spanish along with
Comanche Indians to begin a colony near today's city of
Pueblo in 1787.5 This is the earliest documented attempt
at ditch digging in Colorado. They built the Pueblo
Ditch to divert water from the St. Charles River, a
sJudge A.W. McHendrie, "The Early History of Irrigation in
Colorado and the Doctrine of Appropriation," in A Hundred Years of
Irrigation in Colorado. The Colorado Water Conservation Board, Denver,
and Colorado Agricultural and Mechanical College, Fort Collins, 1952,

tributary of the Arkansas, to their crops. This
settlement of San Carlos de Jupes was unsuccessful as the
Comanches didn't care for the sedentary life of living in
houses and farming. Also, the Indians and Spanish were
usually at war with one another and hostility between the
two peoples did not promote cooperation. After a year or
two the project was abandoned.
After this several attempts were made at irrigation
ditches in Colorado, notably at Bent's Fort in 1832 on
the Arkansas River, but none were successful.6
The Hatcher Ditch near Trinidad was dug in 1846 but
did not operate for several years as Indians raided the
Hatcher Ranch soon after the ditch was dug.7 Now known
as the Lewelling-McCormick Consolidated Ditch, it is back
in operation today and has the distinction of being the
oldest operating ditch in Colorado, though not in
continuous use.8
In the mid nineteenth century Spanish land grants
attracted farmers to the San Luis Valley. These hardy
settlers understood arid country and irrigation, and were
successful in their ditch building endeavors. More than
6Ibid., p.15.
7Alvin T. Steinel and D.W. Working, History of Agriculture in
Colorado. Fort Collins, Colorado, State Agricultural College, 1926,
p. 175.
8Kenneth I. Helphand, Colorado: Visions of an American Landscape.
Niwot, Colorado, Roberts Rinehart Publishers, 1991, p.121.

In this
40 ditches there are still in use today.9
beautiful valley between the San Juan and Sangre de
Cristo mountain ranges, the San Luis People's Ditch was
built in 1852 and is the oldest continuously operating
ditch in Colorado.10 This ditch also has the first
priority water right in Colorado, drawing water from the
Culebra River, a tributary of the Rio Grande.
Communities in the small Hispanic towns in southern
Colorado and northern New Mexico still depend on their
ditches for farming, and every spring the people gather
to clean out the ditches and send water flowing through
them once again, just as they have for over a century.
Here the ditches are a big part of community life, and
water relationships are nearly as important as blood
relationships. To these people, water is "a commonplace
substance that can inspire passion like no other."11
Although this "Northward Expansion" of Spanish
speaking peoples did not reach the intense magnitude of
the Westward Expansion movement in what we know today as
the United States, it nonetheless had a lasting influence
on the lands where it occurred.
9LeRoy R. Hafen, Colorado: The Story of a Western Commonwealth.
New York, NY, AMS Press, Inc., 1933 (1970 ed.), p.96.
10Steinel and Working, p.177.
1:1Stanley Crawford, Mayordomo: Chronicle of an Acequia in Northern
New Mexico. Albuquerque, University of New Mexico Press,
1988, p.23-26.

Westward Expansion and Anglo-Saxon Settlement
It is not known exactly when the first white
explorers and traders came into Colorado, but early
written accounts are fascinating and filled with
descriptions of both the beauty and harshness of the new
land. Voyageurs in search of beaver pelts and
opportunists in search of adventure followed the Platte
River into unknown territory before the Louisiana
Purchase of 1803.
The name Platte comes from the French word plat
meaning shallow or flat. The river was said to have the
least water and the most mischief of all the rivers in
the west. This legendary reputation did nothing to stem
the tide of westward exploration and settlement along the
In 1820 the expedition of Major Steven Long labeled
the lands they travelled through on the maps they made
"The Great American Desert." This name stuck and for
generations afterwards the high plains were thought to be
uninhabitable by civilized people and certainly of no
agricultural potential.
Settlement progressed, however, especially after the
Homestead Act of 1862. Pioneers streamed westward
carving up the land according to the Jeffersonian grid,
but few people understood the long term impacts of the
lack of water in the new territory. An unusual exception

was Major John Wesley Powell, the first person in
recorded history to lead an expedition down the Colorado
River of the Grand Canyon in 1869 and again in 1871.
After these landmark explorations he traversed the
western plains and mountains many times. He recognized
the significance of the arid conditions and their
consequences to settlement as few other white men did.12
Denver's Early Ditches
In 1858 gold was discovered along the South Platte
River in what was then Kansas Territory. The fledgling
town of Denver soon sprang up on the arid plain. The
first ditches to be dug in the frontier gold mining camp
were "for the purpose of turning Cherry Creek and
bringing water to the dry diggings just west of town."13 *
There is no evidence of these ditches either in more
written accounts or on the land today, but they were
somewhere in Auraria.
The need for ditches to bring water to the growing
village soon become apparent. Water was needed for
agricultural and domestic purposes as well as mining.
12J. W. Powell, Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the
United States, with a More Detailed Account of the Lands of Utah.
Washington, Government Printing Office, 1878 (1879 ed.).
13"Local Items," Rocky Mountain News. 23 April 1859, Cherry
Creek, Kansas Territory, p.3, c.l. (The very first newspaper
publication in the mining camp that was to become Denver.)

The City Ditch
In 1859 enterprising citizens formed the Capital
Hydraulic Company and in 1860 received a charter under
the name Platte Water Company from the Territory of
Kansas. Before Colorado became a territory in 1861, they
started construction by the South Platte River south of
town on the first ditch planned to supply water to the
new town. Now known as the City Ditch, it still holds
water right Number 1 in District 8 of Division 1 on the
Platte, and may use the thirty c.f.s. of water decreed to
it in 1860 no matter how dry the season.14
The first attempt at excavation, carried out by
teams of oxen with plows and men with shovels, met with
failure as the engineer in charge, John Clark, did not
calculate enough fall when surveying the line of the
ditch. Because of this blunder water would not flow down
the trench, and Mr. Clark gave up engineering altogether
and moved on to other means of livelihood.15
One of Denver's earliest business men, John W.
Smith, continued work on the ditch in 1861 with a new
engineer and surveyor, Richard S. Little (for whom the
town of Littleton is named). These enterprising men were
able to complete the ditch with the help of a Rotary
14Louisa Ward Arps, Denver in Slices. Athens, Ohio, Swallow
Press, 1959 (1983 ed.), p.66.
15Earl A. Mosley, "History of the Denver Water System: 1858 to
1919." Unpublished manuscript, Denver Water Department, 1966, p.28.

Figures 3,4 and 5
The City Ditch in Washington Park
Photos by author, October 1993 and January 1995.

Canal Builder and Railroad Excavator which was shipped by-
wagon from the manufacturer in Illinois. When worked by
10 yoke of oxen the machine could do the work of 100 men.
The machine was "a mammoth four-wheel outfit, partaking
partly of the appearance of a fire engine, an artillery
wagon, a mowing machine and a colossal steam plow."1S
When construction of the ditch was held up because
of the outbreak of the Civil War, the existing three mile
ditch segment was put
to use by Richard
Little. He and his
partners began the
Rough & Ready Flour
Mill and used the
ditch to run the mill
wheel which was
brought across the
prairie by ox wagon.
The mill was
important in the
early economic growth
of Littleton, and the
mill race was a draw for children at play as well as
formal occasions. The mill met its demise in 1959. 16
16"Something New," Rocky Mountain News. 1 December 1864,
p 2, c 2 & 3 .
bfadh :, iji
Figure 6
The Rough and Ready Mill circa 1910
Courtesy of the
Littleton Historical Museum

Figure 7
A baptism takes place circa 1901
at the Rough and Ready Mill spillway.
Courtesy of the Littleton Historical Museum,
Figure 8
The Rough and Ready Mill burning down in 1959.
Courtesy of the Littleton Historical Museum.

Finally completed in 1867, Smith's Ditch had a fall
of approximately four feet to the mile.17 Smith's Ditch
is known today as the City Ditch. In Figure 9 we see the
old wooden flume which carried City Ditch water from the
Platte to thirsty communities.
Figure 9
The City Ditch flume diverts
water from the Platte River, late 1860s.
Courtesy of the Denver Water Department.
In 1869 Denver negotiated a contract with the Platte
Water company to build laterals from Smith's Ditch to run
along each side of Denver's streets.18 The 1870s and
1880s were the heyday of Denver's laterals, or side
17Mosley, p.53.
180.A. Whittemore, "Council Proceedings," Daily Colorado Tribune.
11 April 1869, p.l, c.2 & 3.

ditches that branched off from Smith's Ditch. By 1882
there were about 1,100 miles of street laterals.19 In
Figures 10 through 12 we see rare photographic evidence
of these early laterals. At last the dry town was
enhanced with trees, lawns and flowers.
In 1882 John W. Smith sold his ditch to the City of
Denver after several years of debate over public rather
than private ownership. In this country the municipal
ownership of public services first occurred in
Philadelphia in 1801 when a municipal water system was
Figure 10
Arapahoe and 16th Streets in 1873.
From Thomas J. Noel and Barbara Norgren, Denver: The City
Beautiful. Denver, Colorado, Historic Denver, Inc., 1987, p.4.
19"The Story of Denver's Famous Old City Ditch," Denver Municipal
Facts. Vol.l, No.17, 1909, p.10-11.

Figure 11
Trees taking hold along 15th Street in the 1870s.
Stereoscope picture courtesy of the
Denver Public Library, Western History Department.
Figure 12
Well established trees along 14th Street circa 1880.
Note the ditch at bottom right.
Courtesy of the Denver Public Library, Western History Department.

built to supply the city with water from the Schuylkill
In the west the depression of 1893 and the decade
long drought that lasted into the 1890s made it difficult
for private ditch companies to survive. By the mid 1890s
most of them had collapsed, and many of these became
public ventures.21
Even before work began on building the City Ditch,
some citizens favored public ownership.22 Quibbling
between the city administration, the ditch company and
water users began before a drop of water ever reached
Denver via Smith's Ditch. Today there is still an
atmosphere of antagonism between these factions not only
in Denver and its suburbs, but throughout the arid west.
After being sold to the City of Denver, Smith's
Ditch became officially known as the City Ditch.23 The
ditch further beautified the city by feeding ponds in the
Denver Country Club, Washington Park and City Park.
20Paul William Turelli, "Denver's Water Supply: From the City
Ditch to Two Forks. M.A. Thesis, Department of History, University of
Colorado at Denver, 1991, p.10.
21Donald J. Pisani, To Reclaim a Divided West: Water, Law and
Public Policy, 1848-1902. Albuquerque, New Mexico, University of New
Mexico Press, 1992, p.105.
22"Water for Denver," Rocky Mountain News. 26 September 1863,
p. 2, c. 2 .
23Arps, p.4.

Figure 13
The City Ditch is piped under a walkway
before flowing into Smith Lake in Washington Park.
Photo by author, October 1993.
Today the ditch still serves Denver and communities
to the southeast. The upper four miles were inundated by
Chatfield Dam when it was completed in 1976. The only
part of the ditch to remain above ground within the
Denver city limits is in Washington Park. The last
segment was piped underground in 1976.24 What remains
above ground in communities south of the city is rapidly
disappearing into underground pipes.
The High Line Canal
We are fortunate to have the High Line Canal still
part of the landscape today. This historic waterway
24Denver Water Board, "Exchange of Right-of-Way for the City
Ditch with the City and County of Denver." Document, J.L. Ogilvie,
27 October 1976.

meanders more that 70 miles through Denver and three
surrounding counties. Originating from the South Platte
River in Waterton Canyon (also called the Platte Canyon)
to the southwest of
town, it once flowed
for nearly 90 miles.
To the delight of many
walkers, joggers,
bikers, and
equestrians a
recreational trail
parallels the canal
for 67 miles.
British, Scottish
and American
capitalists started
digging the canal in
1879. James Duff came
to Colorado to manage
Figure 14
the Colorado Mortgage
and Investment Company
for Lord James W.
Barclay back in England, who was a member of Parliament,
a banker and a director of the company. The Platte Land
The High Line Canal near
University Park in 1916.
Courtesy of the
Denver Public Library,
Western History Department.
Company was a subsidiary corporation organized to buy up
land from the railroad companies and develop it along

Figure 15
The High Line Canal near Blackmer Common.
Photo by author, July 1995.
Figure 16
The High Line Canal near Belleview Avenue.
Photo by author, October 1993.

their canal, i.e. sell it to settlers. Another
subsidiary, the Northern Colorado Irrigation Company, was
organized to build and manage the canal, thus providing
water for the whole scheme.
When it was completed in 1883, its priority water
right that had been decreed in 1879 was in line behind 87
other priority rights and the canal was never able to
adequately provide water for its users. In years of
severe drought like 1890, farmers patrolled headgates
with rifles, and finally there were lawsuits against the
Northern Colorado Irrigation Company for failure to
deliver water.
The "English Ditch," more often referred to as the
Englishman's Folly, never came close to meeting the needs
of its builders or the people who depended upon it for
President Ulysses S. Grant had grandiose plans for
the canal. In 1873 he proposed to Congress that a canal
divert water from the eastern foot of the Rocky Mountains
to the Missouri River. With this accomplishment the
Great American Desert would be turned into a lush
agricultural garden. Like the Englishmen and most early
settlers, President Grant had no idea of the impacts the
scarcity of water would have on limits to development.
Much of Denver's and Aurora's early growth was
dependent on the canal. William Smith, a Scotsman and a

relative of Lord Barclay, settled on a choice quarter
section of land along the canal where he raised a family
and ran a successful farm. He planted many of the
cottonwoods along the canal near his farm by the Sand
Creek Lateral, including Robert Michael Pyle's "Thunder
Tree" where Robert and his brother took shelter from a
deadly hail storm in 1954. Smith was an educator and
donated land for the first school in the town of
Fletcher, which became Aurora in 1907. He served for
many years as secretary of the school district and
strongly supported education.25
Windsor Farm along the canal was begun by the
English Company to grow food for the company's Windsor
Hotel. Other fine nineteenth century hotels were
provisioned by Windsor Farm, among them the Brown Palace
Hotel. A lateral of the canal which branched off at
Windsor Lake provided water for land to the east of
Denver on the rise above the City Ditch. This area
included Baron Walter von Richthofen's Montclair
development and his stone castle which thrived with
trees, lilacs, roses, and even a small moat.26
Other landmarks watered by the canal include the
Gutheil Nursery which eventually became the site for
25Robert Michael Pyle, The Thunder Tree. New York, Houghton
Mifflin Co., 1993, p.72-73.
26Ibid., p.74-76.

Fitzsimons Army Hospital. Also the beautifully
landscaped grounds of Fairmount Cemetery, where many of
Denver's prominent pioneers are buried, were made
The original rock and timber diversion dam for the
High Line is still in use today in Waterton Canyon near
the mouth of the
Platte, as is the
tunnel that was
blasted through solid
rock. The tunnel is
still the canal's
first pathway as it
leaves the Platte.
The old wood flume
leading from the
tunnel out of the
canyon was replaced
by a concrete one in
the late 1940s. The
railroad tracks that
were on the river
bank opposite the
flume are gone, and
the right of way is
now used as a service
Figure 17
The High Line Canal flume
at the mouth of the Platte Canyon.
Photo by William Henry Jackson, 1884.
Courtesy of the
Littleton Historical Museum.

Figure 18
Ladies on an excursion
by the D.S.P. & P. Railroad tracks
in 1904, opposite the flume in Figure 17.
Courtesy of the Littleton Historical Museum.
Figure 19
The concrete flume and service road today.
Photo by author, February 1995.

Figure 20
East portal of the High Line Canal
tunnel leading into the concrete flume.
Photo by author, February 1995.
Figure 21
The west portal of the tunnel
seen from the bottom of the diversion dam.
Photo by author, February 1995.

road and trail leading into the Colorado Trail. This
trail goes all the way to Durango in southwestern
The old wooden flumes that once guided the canal
over creeks and gulches have been replaced by new
structures like the
flume in Figures 22
and 23 over Dad Clark
Gulch. Other
crossings, on the
High Line as well as
along many ditches in
the metro area, are
accommodated by pipes
and drop structures.
Figures 22 and 23
The High Line Canal is carried
over Dad Clark Gulch by a wooden flume.
Photos by author, October 1993.

The canal ends today in Adams County northeast of
Denver. The west branch, pictured in Figure 24, goes to
Figure 24
The High Line Canal near Tower Road
heads toward the Rocky Mountain Arsenal.
Photo by author, June 1995.
Figure 25
The High Line Canal in Green Valley Ranch.
Note the new development
under construction on the left.
Photo by author, June 1995.

feed the Derby Lakes in the Rocky Mountain Arsenal. The
east branch winds through Green Valley Ranch, the last
development the canal passes through before it comes to
an end near the new Denver International Airport. Far
from the Missouri River, the canal disappears into the
parched earth of the High Plains.
Clear Creek Ditches
Where Clear Creek, a tributary of the Platte, flows
out of Clear Creek Canyon onto the plains, there are more
ditch headgates than anywhere else in the Denver area.
In 1859 David Wall began irrigating his fields from Clear
Creek near what is now Golden.27 He was the first farmer
in the Denver area to grow abundant crops, and his
success was noted by others who soon followed suit. The
first official filing and decreed water right on Clear
Creek is the Wannamaker Ditch, also dug in 1859.
As early as 1860 settlers began to construct ditches
in every major drainage. Many of them have been
abandoned and filled in. Some, like the Brown Ditch
pictured in Figure 26, were never filled in and their
traces can still be seen. These weed covered trenches
are reminders of a once vigorous agricultural economy in
areas now subdivided, populated and engulfed by
suburbanization. Other ditches have been piped
27Steinel and Working, p.180.

Figure 26
Headgate on the Brown Ditch circa 1930.
Courtesy of the Denver Water Department.
Figure 27
The Agricultural Ditch in
Lakewood near Green Gables School.
Photo by author, August 1994.
unde rground. Whe t he r
piped or abandoned, most
of them have disappeared
in the currently built up
area, but some remain
The Welch
Ditch/Agricultural Ditch
and the Rocky Mountain
Ditch flow south from
Clear Creek. Along the
north side of the creek
the Church Ditch/Dry Creek
Valley Ditch, the Farmer's

Figure 28
The Welch Ditch Headgate in Clear Creek Canyon.
Photo by author, October 1993.
Figure 29
Above the Welch Ditch headgate.
Photo by Katrina Kienast, October 1993.

Figure 30
The Welch Ditch flume
heads out of Clear Creek Canyon.
Photo by author, October 1993.
Highline Canal/Signal Ditch and the Croke Canal can still
be seen.
The Church Ditch was begun in 1863 by a group of
farmers. At first it was called the Golden City and
Ralston Creek Ditch. When the ditch was leased to George
H. Church in 1877, he proceeded to improve and extend it
and the watercourse became known as the Church Ditch.
George H. Church was an enterprising pioneer who was
dedicated to developing irrigation on his land and in the
state of Colorado.28
2BWaters of Gold: A History of Arvada, Colorado, During- the
Period 1850-1870. Arvada, Colorado, Arvada Historical Society,
1973, p.22-23.

Bear and Turkey Creek Ditches
In the Bear and Turkey Creek Drainages to the
southwest of town, the Pioneer Union Ditch, the Ward
Canal, the Warrior
Canal and parts of
the old Harriman
Ditch still survive.
More Platte
River Ditches
The Brantner Ditch
on the west side of
the South Platte
River was dug by
Samuel Brantner and
eight other farmers
just above Henderson
Island. Dug in
1860, it was the
Figure 31
The Ward Canal in first ditch to
Lakewood along Morrison Road.
Photo by author, August, 1994. irrigate the area to
the northeast of
town. To the southeast the Nevada Ditch flows through
the South Platte Park.
The Fulton Ditch, Burlington Ditch and O'Brian Canal
flow from the east side of the Platte northeast onto the
prairie, still serving agricultural communities.

Figure 32
Check gates on the Brantner Ditch
at the Poor Farm in Adams County circa 1915.
Courtesy of the Denver Water Department.
Figure 33
The Brantner Ditch today at the old
Poor Farm site, now the Adams County Golf Course.
Photo by author, November 1993.

Figure 34
The Fulton Ditch just south of 120th Avenue.
Photo by author, 1993.
Figure 35
The Fulton Ditch
on the north side
of 120th Avenue.
Photo by author,
November 1993 .
Colorado's Golden Age of Irrigation
I would like to note that Denver was not the only
area in Colorado where a profusion of ditches was

springing up beginning in the 1860s. Although the Denver
area became the most populated and developed part of
Colorado, many other areas were settled by Anglo-Saxon
settlers moving west, mostly from the eastern U.S.
Irrigation ditches were dug for the first time in the
Arkansas River Valley in the 1860s. The Union Colony, a
communal farm near Greeley, is known for its successful
canal building in the 1870s. Also, the western slope
settlements along the Grand River (renamed the Colorado
River in 1921) began irrigating in the 1880s after the
Utes were banished from the land.29
The Denver gold rush attracted rapid settlement and
many prospectors left the raucous mining camp to prospect
in the mountains. The Hoosier Pass Ditch, built in 1860
for a mining operation above the Blue River drainage near
Breckenridge, was one of the first diversions of water
from the western to the eastern slope.30 Although trans-
continental divide water diversion is beyond the scope of
this study, the fact that it began so early in Colorado
along with the first ditch building, is a significant
factor in western irrigation history.
Irrigation data was first reported by the U.S.
Census in 1889.31 In 1890 the Colorado State Engineer
29Helphand, p.123.
30Turelli, p.13.
31Ibid., p.125.

reported that 10,000 miles of irrigation ditches,
4,000,000 acres "under ditch" or within reach of the
ditches, and 1,500,000 acres of irrigated land were to be
found in Colorado.32 During the 1890s Colorado
experienced a period of rapid growth, and by the turn of
the century Colorado was the number one state in the
nation in irrigation, surpassing even California from
1899 to 1919.
A Legacy of Benefits and Problems
In the early days Denver's ditches were seen as
utilitarian features essential for the distribution of
water and were not yet widely considered as recreational
or aesthetic amenities. But there were inklings of the
recreational use and aesthetic appreciation yet to come.
Children played in the ditches, and people of all ages
appreciated their splashing presence in the dry
Along with the benefits that ditches bestowed upon
the landscape came trouble. In the summer of 1879 a
typhoid epidemic broke out. It was believed that the
ditches were a breeding ground for typhoid, cholera, and
other water borne diseases.
The ditches were a big attraction for hogs out on
the streets. In early Denver it was legal for hogs to
32Pisani, p.211.

run loose if they were licensed, and they became rather
numerous. Of course they loved to wallow in the ditches
and root up the streets. One irate citizen declared
"When we worked last election to put our best men in
office, we little thought that in less than three months
they would turn our city into a hog ranch."33
Boys who played in the ditches occasionally drowned
in them, adding to arguments over the need for the
presence of open ditches.
Water scarcity caused friction between ditch water
users, especially in the dry years, and finally
officialdom had to intervene to prevent scrapping between
rural-agricultural and urban-domestic water users. This
all too familiar scenario continues today in every water
court in the arid west.
In 1874 Denver instituted water police whose sole
function was to patrol the ditches and keep people from
fighting over the water, keep children from diverting
water for their own contraptions and generally keep the
peace around the ditches. By 1882 there were 30 water
police under the leadership of Sidney Roberts, the water
commissioner. These guardians of the ditches patrolled
nearly 1,000 miles of street laterals.34 *
33M.V.B., "A Nuisance and a Growl," Weekly Colorado Tribune.
13 July 1867, p.l, c.5.
34"The Story of Denver's Famous Old City Ditch," Denver
Municipal Facts. Vol.l, No.17, 12 June 1909, p.10-11.

In the summer of 1875 the ditch water didn't reach
the city because farmers and householders on the land
upstream turned all the water in the ditch onto their own
land. When the water police arrived to patrol the
headgates to allow water to get to the thirsty city,
housewives attempted to "drive them away with clubs,
brooms, mops and second-hand umbrellas."35 The water
police began to lock headgates to allow water to flow
into town. In 1902 farmers retaliated by smashing the
gates open with axes and standing guard with shotguns.
They threatened trouble to anyone who attempted to stop
them from watering their fields. A warrant was issued
for one Julius Brazee, the alleged leader of the raid on
the City Ditch, but he was never apprehended and a battle
never ensued. The city then threatened to cancel the
water contract, which had to be renewed every year, of
any farmer who resorted to such tactics.36
Ditches that were not in Denver's jurisdiction also
experienced shotgun confrontations, but 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 1871 Denver's first water works was built at the
35"No Rest for the Water Police," Denver Daily Times.
13 August 1875, p.4, c.l & 2.
36"Mob the Ditch," The Daily News. 19 August 1902, p.5, c.3.

foot of 15th Street by the Platte. Two Holly pumps, a
new engineering marvel in their day, drew water from a
large well in the gravel beds of the river. The 15th
Street Pumping Plant, dubbed the "Holly Water Works," had
the capacity to provide the thirsty town with 2,500,000
gallons of water daily.37 In 1872 the new Holly plant
began to pipe domestic water to Denver's citizens. This
new technology marked the end of the domestic use of
ditch water and a shift to agricultural uses. Water was
in greater demand than ever before to supply farmers and
ranchers with the means to grow food for the growing
Building extensive systems of ditches was quite an
engineering accomplishment in the nineteenth century. At
first men with shovels, picks and scraping tools carved
out ditches in the hard packed bentonite clay soil.
Horses, mules and teams of oxen were put to work pulling
plows, scraping tools and later hauling machinery. The
Rotary Canal Builder that built the City Ditch has
already been mentioned. The Bycrus steam shovel in
Figure 36 was a technological marvel in its day. The
following pictures, through Figure 40, show men with
horses and machinery struggling on the dry prairie to
build water providing ditches.
37Mosley, p.199.

Figure 36
The Bycrus Steam Shovel circa 1899
digging the Harriman Ditch and Marston Lake.
Courtesy of the Denver Water Department.
Figure 37
Working on the Harriman
Ditch and Marston Lake circa 1899.
Courtesy of the Denver Water Department.

Figure 38
Cleaning the Harriman Ditch in 1900.
Courtesy of the Denver Water Department.
Figure 39
Reconstruction of the Marcy Gulch
flume for the High Line Canal in 1934.
Courtesy of the Denver Water Department.

Figure 40
Machinery speeds work on the Marcy Gulch flume in 1934.
Courtesy of the Denver Water Department.
Figure 41
The City Ditch flume just north
of Littleton in a frozen December, 1914.
Courtesy of the Littleton Historical Museum.
Not only
building the ditches
but maintaining them
was an enormous
undertaking. The
constant freezing and
thawing in winter and
erosion in the summer
caused major damage.
The wooden flumes
especially were
susceptible to the
ravages of severe

Figure 42
A break in the High Line Canal
flume in the Platte Canyon in August of 1935.
Courtesy of the Denver Water Department.
Figure 43
A closer look at the damage.
Courtesy of the Denver Water Department.

The railroad era greatly expanded water development
possibilities. In 1870 Denver was connected to Kansas,
Missouri, Wyoming, Utah, California and local
destinations. Then in 1870 the Denver Pacific Railroad
connected Denver to Cheyenne and thus to both coasts.38
Now the means were in place to provide the city with
materials for water conduits first wood stave and later
sheet iron pipes. With the new technology men proceeded
to bury ditches in pipes underground, sometimes following
the course of the ditch, and sometimes not.
Figure 44
Construction of wood stave conduit
on the west side of the Platte River, 1910.
Courtesy of the Littleton Historical Museum.
38Thomas J. Noel and Stephen J. Leonard, Denver: Mining Camp to
Metropolis. Niwot, Colorado, University of Colorado Press, 1990,
p.36-38 .

Figure 4 5
Dirt clogged pipes
disrupt the City Ditch in 1935.
Courtesy of the Denver Water Department.
Figure 46
New steel pipe is put in
place for the City Ditch in 1935.
Courtesy of the Denver Water Department.

Piping was not without its own problems. Frequently the
pipes became so clogged with dirt and debris that they
had to be excavated and cleaned out or replaced.
By the late 1880s Denver had thoroughly outgrown the
capacity of its available ditch water, and plans were
afoot to build a reservoir up the Platte, more water
pipelines and even sewers. As these features were built
to accommodate the expanding city, some open ditches and
laterals were still maintained for agriculture. The open
urban ditch went largely unnoticed and unappreciated.
Ditches in Twentieth Century Denver
When the City Beautiful movement began to catch on
in Denver in the early twentieth century, urban ditches
were looked upon with favor once again. Along with
creeks and roadways they were part of the interconnected
landscape envisioned by the progressive builders of the
new urban environment. For the first time ditches were
officially appreciated for their own inherent beauty.
Denver's Mayor Robert W. Speer is remembered for his
energetic promotion of many City Beautiful projects,
among them the Civic Center, Speer Boulevard along Cherry
Creek and the Marion Street Parkway featuring the City
Ditch flowing down the median.
Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. recognized that ditches
are a unique and fascinating element in our landscape.

In a 1910 report for the Boulder City Improvement
Association, a City Beautiful Committee, he described
them as an
...extraordinary opportunity for civic beauty...a
veritable treasure of municipal decorations, now
for the most part neglected and defaced, but all
retaining their essential elements unspoiled and
ready to shed beauty all about them if only given
the proper setting.39
During the depression the construction of ditches
was no longer a priority. The tide of public effort
began to turn, along with the shovels, to fill in the
ditches and pipe ditches underground. Many open ditches
were covered over during the Works Progress
Administration projects of the 1930s. Figures 47 through
50 show the landscape transition that resulted from one
such project along Marion Parkway.
Some ditches were enjoyed rather than covered up in
the 1930s. Suburbanites living along the High Line Canal
south of Denver formed the Slow Leak Yacht Club and
floated the canal in inner tubes provisioned with playing
cards and champagne .40
The ditches were rapidly disappearing, however, and
many people mourned their passing. Children had to look
farther afield for places to play. Not only in recent
39Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., The Improvement of Boulder,
Colorado, 1910, as quoted in Helphand, p.257.
40Jim Carrier, "Wild Meets Well-Kept at Canal," Denver Post.
4 April 1993, p.lC.

Figure 4 7
The City Ditch at
Marion Parkway near Alameda Avenue, 1913.
City of Denver, Vol.l, p.16, July 12, 1913,
as shown in Louisa Ward Arps, Denver in Slices.
Athens, Ohio, Swallow Press, 1983, p.S4.
Figure 48
The City Ditch goes
underground near Alameda Avenue in 1938.
Courtesy of the Denver Water Department.

Figure 49
Workers cover the City Ditch
at 16th Avenue and High Street in 1935.
Courtesy of the Denver Public Library,
Western History Department.
Figure 50
Marion Parkway near Alameda Avenue today.
Photo by author, April 1994.

times have people lamented the disappearance of ditches.
The following plaintive words speak to us from over a
century ago.
Ditches have been banished from many parts... There
are portions of the city, however, where a visitor
may see the irrigation ditches in all their
pristine, purling beauty, and listen to the silvery
twitter as they chase themselves down the light
decline. We, who for so many years have listened
to their chippering voices, miss them as one of the
lost domesticities of our earlier Colorado
In the transformation of Denver from "mining camp to
metropolis," the inclusion of ditches as urban design
enhancements has been neglected until recently. Historic
rights-of-way such as railroad beds, pioneer trails and
irrigation ditches are being reconsidered as valuable
landscape elements. The potential of ditches as
connecting corridors, historic landmarks and welcome
water features in our arid landscape is beginning to be
41W.G.M. Stone, The Colorado Hand-book: Denver and its Outings.
Barkhauser and Lester, Denver, 1893, p.87, as quoted in Arps, p.69.

Chapter 3
Ditches and Western Water Law
A river is more than an amenity it is a treasure that offers a
necessity of life that must be rationed among those who have power over it.
Oliver Wendell Holmes
From the beginning of recorded history arid lands
have had irrigation laws to apportion water from scarce
desert rivers.
If anyone opens his irrigation canals to let in
water, but is careless and the water floods the
field of his neighbor, he shall measure out grain
to the latter in proportion to the yield of the
neighboring field.
Babylonian inscription in stone
Code of Hammurabi, circa 1800 B.C.42
A discussion of any issue involving water and
irrigation ditches in the arid west is not thorough
without touching on water law and how it pertains to the
evolution and development of water use.
Westward expansion and settlement in the mid to late
1800s is intertwined with the development of irrigation
and the building of ditches, canals and reservoirs.
Disputes over water and the laws regulating it in the
west occurred from the beginning of westward exploration,
and they continue in the present.
Steinel and Working, p.244.

Nineteenth Century Arid Climate Theories Clash
In the mid 1800s opposing theories developed about
the arid environment and its potential for settlement and
farming west of the 100th meridian of longitude. In the
vicinity of the 100th meridian, which extends from the
Dakotas south through Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and
Texas, an abrupt decline in average annual rainfall
occurs. Here the traveller across the prairie can sense
a sharp change in the atmosphere and the land. From
above 20 to even over 80 inches of rain per year occurs
to the east of this meridian, whereas 16 inches or even
less occurs to the west. Denver gets about 15.5 inches
of rain per year.
A dominant theory which began in the late 1860s was
that settlement would be the cause of more precipitation,
that wherever people plowed the land and grew crops
plenty of rain would follow and the west would be
naturally transformed into a green and bountiful land.
The slogan "rain follows the plow" was coined by Charles
Dana Wilber, a land speculator and developer, and
supported by F.V. Hayden and Cyrus Thomas, a
climatologist of the times who later regretted his
support of the theory.43 In the late 1860s a humid cycle
occurred on the prairie, giving credibility to the idea.
43Wallace Stegner, Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell
and the Second Opening of the West. Boston, Houghton Mifflin Company,
1954, p.4 03.

The theory, however, was not based on any scientific
investigation, and over time proved to be totally
erroneous. In 1886 a severe drought struck and lasted
for a decade. The planting of trees and crops (along
with emissions of locomotive smoke and explosions of
dynamite which some people believed contributed to the
generation of rainfall) did nothing to alter the
geographic and meteorological forces that cause aridity
west of the 100th meridian.
Land speculators who supported the theory were
joined by growing numbers of developers, railroad
companies and political proponents of rapid growth in the
west, among them William Gilpin, Colorado's first
territorial governor. Their opponents were in the
minority, westward expansion being a feature of the
times, and scientific, nonpartisan observation of the
arid west being largely ignored. Rain does not follow
the plough, but theory follows the dollar.
Among the opponents was John Wesley Powell, already
mentioned in Chapter 2. He had experienced firsthand the
harsh arid conditions of the west. Powell understood
that the west did not have enough water to support the
rampant development promoted by the railroad companies
and land speculators. He understood that "wet-weather
institutions and practices were being imposed on a dry-

Nowhere is this more evident than in
weather country."44
the attempted application of riparian water law to the
arid west.
The Development of Prior Appropriation Water Law
In the eastern U.S. where water is plentiful, the
riparian doctrine of water law recognizes the rights of
land owners bordering waterbodies to use the water.
Water rights are attached to these lands. It is
generally accepted that this doctrine has its roots in
English common law.45 In the east where there is plenty
of water this works fine, but in the west, riparian law
doesn't work, for two reasons. First, water is scarce
and the few and far between rivers and lakes that do
exist are smaller than they are in the humid east.
Second, water sources are usually found far from where
they are needed for development. As land along western
waterbodies became occupied, available land was to be
found farther and farther from essential water sources.
By the early 1880s land along the Platte River was
settled by farmers for at least 50 miles above and below
Denver.46 There was only one feasible way that settlers
44Ibid., p.297.
45David H. Getches, Water Law in a Nutshell. St. Paul, Minnesota,
West Publishing Co., 1984, p.12.
46Pisani, p.209.

on land away from the river could get water diversion
through irrigation ditches.
Land use laws should conform to regional
characteristics. Also, laws reflect the values of the
society making them. This is evident in the Homestead
Act of 1862 which served to draw hordes of settlers
westward. The encouragement of settlement along with the
subduing and conquering of wilderness were values of the
times. Consequently, water laws evolved that reflect
these values and that are unique to the arid west.
The earliest western miners and settlers were
located mostly on public domain. They didn't own the
land so even if riparian rights were in effect they
wouldn't have had rights to the water. In rare instances
when they did own the land, it was most often far from
the waterbody. A system limiting water rights to those
owning land bordering a waterbody would have prevented
western settlement from occurring on the large scale that
it did.
The doctrine of prior appropriation, or "first in
time, first in right," evolved from early mining customs.
It was in California that the first disputes over water
in the west occurred between miners after gold was
discovered in 1849. Although the first gold discoveries
were in streambeds where the gold had washed down from
its source in the mountains, most of the goldrush mines

were located far from streams. Because water was
essential to the mining operations, it was necessary to
divert water from its source. It was a mining practice
for the initial water diversion from a stream to have the
first right to take water, then the second earliest, and
so on through time to the most recent one. All too often
there was not enough water to meet the demand, and the
sequence in time of the diversions was argued. Because
there was not yet any official law controlling water use,
and more and more of the water was being used, confusion
and disputes escalated.
The time for federal water legislation had come.
The Mining Act of 1866 and the 1870 Amendment to the
Mining Act formally sanctioned the right of prior
appropriation on public lands. Under this doctrine, water
rights are based on use of the water, not on ownership of
the land along the waterbody.47 This act was amended and
refined, but it remains the basic doctrine of water law
in the west despite efforts at reform. Under it water
cannot actually be owned by private parties, but can be
diverted and put to beneficial use. A water right, like
a property right, may be inherited or sold. Unused water
must be returned to its source or it is considered to be
47Getches, p.83.

wasted. Also, the rights to use water are considered
abandoned if the water is not put to use within a certain
period of time.
Prior Appropriation and the Colorado Constitution
The doctrine of prior appropriation is also referred
to as the "Colorado Doctrine" because Colorado was the
first state to make prior appropriation the law of the
land. This action predated the Mining Act of 1866,
putting Colorado in the forefront of western water
legislation. In 1861 the first Colorado territorial
legislature passed an act to the effect that an owner or
occupant of land not adjacent to a flowing stream had the
right to construct a ditch between his land and the
stream for the purpose of diverting the water for
The doctrine of prior appropriation, dealing with
surface water law, was written into the Colorado State
Constitution in 1876. Article XVI contains mining and
irrigation law. In §5 it is stated that all water in
natural streams not already appropriated is public
property to be used by the people of the state. The
important factor here is that water cannot be privately
owned, rather it can be used. Section 6 goes on to state
that "The right to divert the unappropriated waters of
48McHendrie, p.17.

any natural stream to beneficial uses shall never be
denied." Priority of uses is also defined in this
section. Domestic purposes are to be served first if
there is not sufficient water to serve all demands, next
comes agricultural use and lastly manufacturing and
mining use.
In §7 right-of-way law for ditches and flumes is
delineated as follows:
All persons and corporations shall have the
right-of-way across public, private and
corporate lands for the construction of
ditches, canals and flumes for the purpose of
conveying water for domestic purposes, for
the irrigation of agricultural lands, and for
mining and manufacturing purposes, and for
drainage, upon payment of just compensation.
The rights-of-way of ditches, or flowage easements,
are recognized by the jurisdictions through which they
flow. These surveyed rights-of-way, however, are
sometimes in conflict with prescriptive rights-of-way
that stem from historical use. When urbanization occurs
the question of which right-of-way is the more valid -
the historical one used over many years or the official
surveyed right-of-way creates problems for land owners,
water providers and water users.
The Legacy of Spanish Water Law
Not taken into consideration in the Colorado State
Constitution is the traditional Hispanic method of water
distribution which has its roots in a communitarian

system. In a few areas of the Southwest, Hispanic
communities still irrigate their fields according to
these traditional water distribution practices. Spanish
and Mexican water law was based on the communal sharing
of water. The Spanish crown, and later the Mexican
state, owned the water, and it was distributed to farmers
by acequias, or community ditches. Each irrigator took
his share according to how much land he irrigated, not
taking into account who was there first.49 The pion, or
share of ditch water, is not a water right related to a
river and cannot be transferred away from the ditch.50
Landmark Legislative
and Judicial Decisions in Colorado
In 1879 the Irrigation Statute was passed by the
Colorado legislature to give effect to the provisions for
irrigation in the Colorado Constitution. This act
created authorities to administer the water decrees and
their priorities. After being declared unconstitutional
in part by the courts, it was modified by the next
session of the legislature in 1881.51 Now state water
divisions along with districts and officials to
49Pisani, p.38-39.
50Crawford, p.173.
51M.C. Hinderlider, "A Century of the Development of Water
Administration in Colorado," in A Hundred Years of Irrigation in Colorado.
The Colorado Water Conservation Board, Denver, and Colorado Agricultural and
Mechanical College, Fort Collins, 1952, p.26.

administer them were in place. To this day the statute
has changed little, and water from Colorado's rivers is
being diverted in ditches, pipes and tunnels and put to
beneficial use according the provisions of this early
statute. The State Engineer, whose office was created by
this act, still assigns a water right or decree along
with a priority number to each new water diversion
Groundwater law in Colorado is more recent, and is
to be distinguished from surface water law. The first
law regulating groundwater was not enacted until 1957
when well registration was required.52
The doctrine of prior appropriation was first upheld
over the riparian doctrine by the Colorado Territorial
Supreme Court in Yunker v. Nichols, 1 Colo. 551 (1872) .53
This seminal case recognized that riparian laws which
worked in the humid east were not appropriate to the
necessities of the arid west.
Another landmark case was decided ten years later in
1882. This case allowed the diversion of water out of
one watershed into another. In Reuben F. Coffin et al v.
The Lefthand Ditch Company, 6 Colo. 443 (1882), the
52Colorado Water. Denver, Colorado, League of Women Voters of Colorado,
1988, p.17.
53Getches, p.21.

Colorado Supreme Court ruled the doctrine of prior
appropriation to be the only one recognized in Colorado.54
The Evolution of Private Ditch Companies
Two distinct types of private ditch companies
evolved from Denver's early ditch endeavors. Mutual
ditch companies, organized to distribute water to
members, were not for profit and their scope was usually
limited to water rights and the ditch system itself.
Carrier ditch companies, on the other hand, were for
profit companies whose interests extended far beyond a
community of water shareholders. Few carrier companies
are still in existence today as they evolved into
irrigation districts or mutual companies.55
Measuring Water Flow
Along with more organized and complicated water
distribution agencies came technologically improved
devices to measure water flow. Figures 51 through 53
show devices for the control and measurement of water,
from the primitive to the most recent. The study of
water measurement and flowage is beyond the scope of my
thesis, but pertinent data is included in Appendix A.
54Getches, p.22.
55Getches, p.409.

Figure 51
Early headgate
adorned with a
horseshoe on
the McLaughlin
Ditch, 1912.
Courtesy of
the Denver
Water Department.
Figure 52
A modern Parshall flume
on the High Line Canal near County Line Road.
Photo by author, July 1995.

Figure 53
Parts of an old headgate survive
on the City Ditch in Washington Park.
Photo by author, October 1993.
Water Law Paves the Way for Denver's Growth
With prior appropriation firmly established many
ditch companies were organized and myriad diversion
ditches were constructed in and near Denver. The
expanding system of ditches allowed new communities and
agricultural operations to extend farther and farther
from the Platte River and its tributaries. Also, much
larger areas of settlement were made possible on the dry
The importance of water rights in Denver's growth
cannot be overemphasized. As we see in Figure 54, the

availability of water rights takes precedence over land
value on this prime parcel for sale in Aurora.
The development of water law unique for its time and
place was a major factor in making it possible for Denver
and the surrounding area to move forward from a rough
frontier mining town to a settled and growing western
Figure 54
Water rights and land for sale
along the High Line Canal near
Chambers Road and Alameda Avenue.
Photo by author, July 1995.

Chapter 4
Ditches in Contemporary Planning and Urban Design
We are the children of our landscape; it dictates behavior
and even thought in the measure to which we are responsive to it.
Lawrence Durrell, Justine.
People are connected with the landscape they live in
not only by the physical reality of everyday contact, but
also by their psychological responses to the landscape.
In urbanized areas, undeveloped spaces have a unique
appeal. An appreciation for the natural environment
doesn't have to happen on a mountain peak or a coral
reef, it can also happen in a city or a suburb. Even
small spaces remaining shreds of undeveloped land,
pocket parks, trees along a busy street, a vacant lot or
a ditch add to the possibilities of contact with nature
within the metropolitan area. Ditches frequently flow
through land that is not considered "developed" or even
attractive, but these wasteland spaces have their own
intrinsic value.
Kevin Lynch explored the value of wastelands. He
appreciated them as "...a pleasant relief in the stony
intensity of a great city."56 Wastelands, or undeveloped
spaces, are an integral part and an essential component
of a city. Free from spatial controls, these informal
56Kevin Lynch, Good City Form. Cambridge, Massachusetts, The MIT Press,
1981 (1990 ed.), p.217.

spaces are sought out by both children and adults. More
recently Robert Michael Pyle praised these "secondhand
lands, the hand-me-down habitats,"57 in his book about
growing up near the High Line Canal in Aurora.
Whether they are in "vacant" land or in formally
planned settings, water features in the landscape have an
especially strong appeal in an arid place like Denver.
Despite today's lush lawns and trees, this is the same
country referred to by Major Stephen Long as The Great
American Desert.
Although few ditches survive in the urbanized area
of Denver, those that are left are interesting
curiosities to the city dweller. The farther away from
the city and suburbs one gets, the more ditches are to be
found. In these outlying areas not yet overrun by
development, ditches are still tied to the land as useful
tools for agricultural irrigation.
Ditches flow through countless different settings
and have their own "ditch personalities." Some are
aesthetically pleasing; some are in various stages of
decay. While some ditches give a powerful sense of
nurturing the land, others have a more playful character.
Stanley Crawford's ditch is a "moody creature,
unpredictable. 1,58
57Pyle, p.xvii.
58Crawford, p.74.

A Visual Survey
Ditches are included in a variety of design
treatments in the Denver area. They wander through
parks, greenways, cemeteries, golf courses, subdivisions
and other places, both public and private. The
kaleidoscope of conditions includes developed urban sites
and rural farm land, neglected ditch rights-of-way and
attractively landscaped settings. Following is a visual
survey of this range of conditions.
I have categorized this survey into various land
uses. This classification could be done in other ways,
for instance by jurisdiction, degree of urbanization or
by watershed, but I feel that my grouping of uses
provides the best way of exploring ditches from an urban
planning point of view.
This survey is also an exploration of the inclusion
or exclusion of ditches in the planning process and how
this worked out. Are the results an enhancement or
detraction to the landscape, a benefit or hazard to
inhabitants of the land?
Residential Areas
In the Denver area ditches flow through a large
variety of residential sites from the upscale homes of
Cherry Hills Village to manufactured housing tracts.
From elaborate to simple, high to low density, somewhere

in the city a ditch flows through the entire spectrum of
housing varieties.
Usually the houses are set back from the ditch with
the rear of the house facing the ditch. In Figure 55 is
a typical example of the way houses are placed in
relation to a ditch. The ditch was there first, and the
configuration of the lotting plan conforms to the contour
line that the ditch follows. Thus both natural and
historic city form are determined by the ditch. Note
that the houses are placed far enough away from the ditch
so as not to encroach on the right-of-way.
An unusual exception to this placement is the
charming old home on South Clarkson Street where the City
Ditch actually flows underneath a section of the home.
One of the first farm houses to be built in Englewood,
Figure 55
The Church Ditch in Broomfield, northwest of Denver.
Photo by author, June 1995.

just south of Denver, it was built long before the
subdivision around it grew up. Over the years the house
was enlarged out
over the ditch, and
today the ditch
irrigates beautiful
gardens and grounds
on the property.
Ironically, the
presence of the
ditch lowers the
property value of
the house itself
and precludes the
house from having a
When ditches
flow through
densely settled
urban areas,
Figure 56
"Ditch House" on Clarkson Street,
The ditch flows under the
porch, behind the flower bed.
Photo by author, July 1995
particularly residential ones, they are carefully
monitored so as not to cause property damage in years of
heavy spring runoff. The heavy bentonite clay soils of
this area do not absorb water very well, resulting in the
flooding of low lying areas during and after a downpour
or wet season. Because ditches follow contour lines,

Figure 57
The City
Ditch leaving
the property on
Clarkson Street.
At this edge the
formal landscaping
recedes and the
ditch regains its
wilder, more
rural character.
Photo by author,
July 1995.
Figure 58
Check dam and graded inlet on the City Ditch.
Photo by author, July 1995.

they have a "high side" and a "low side." In Figure 55
(page 78) this can be clearly seen. When the low side
leaks or erodes, the property damage that results can
lead to annoyance, anger and even litigation.
To prevent erosion downstream when flooding occurs,
check structures like the concrete one in Figure 58 on
the City Ditch in Englewood serve the dual purpose of
holding back fast running water and collecting refuse.
The graded inlet to the left leads into a low flow pipe.
High water flows down into the pipe, paralleling the
ditch underground, eventually rejoining the natural
watercourse from which it came, in this case the South
Platte River.
Ditches have great potential as subdivision entry
features and greenway elements within subdivisions. The
New Union Ditch is utilized in this way at Woodglen in
Thornton, northeast of Denver. This community, built in
the early 1970s, is one of the few to set an example for
the way in which a ditch can be used to enhance a
Here we begin to see that uses overlap, rigid
categories are broken down. I have placed this
subdivision enhancement here. It could equally well be
included with greenways or parks. Ditches included in
one land use have relevance to others.

Figure 59
The New Union Ditch flows through a small
greenway, Woodglen Park, before it is siphoned
under the street to emerge on the east side.
Photo by author, April 1994.
Figure 60
The ditch on
the east side
of the park in
the median of
Woodglen Boulevard.
Photo by author,
November 1993.

Office and Business Sites
Commercial properties are not as numerous as
residential sites along ditches, but they are inevitably
found as ditches cut across the urban fabric. Some
businesses are far enough away from commercial strip
development so as to maintain the flavor of a rural
setting as we see in Figure 61.
Where development is dense solid fencing can shut
out ditches. Some jurisdictions actively discourage such
fencing, allowing
only open fencing or
no fencing at all.
Along the High Line
Canal in Aurora a
restaurant was
required to remove
every other picket in
their solid fence
which bordered the
On some sites
zoned for commercial
uses along ditches,
it is the absence of
buildings rather than
their presence which
Figure 61
The High Line Canal in Aurora
flows through a commercial
zone with a rural ambiance.
Photo by author, July 1995.

Figure 62
This attractively landscaped entry
sign confuses the canal with a creek.
Photo by author, July 1995.
Figure 63
A typical office
development along the High Line Canal.
Photo by author, July 1995.

is notable. Aurora denied a mini-storage development
bordering the High Line Canal. The mini-storage usage is
a classic example of a gated community even though it is
a commercial venture rather than a residential enclave.
It was Aurora's strong open space policy along the High
Line Canal that prevented this incompatible use from
being built.
Another Aurora site, where the High Line Canal flows
under 1-225, is "vacant" although it is zoned for
commercial use. Nothing has been built here because
seepage from the low side of the canal onto land that
slopes away from it has actually created a wetland over
the years. Cracks in the paved trail, foliage rustling
in the breeze, birds calling and the startling feeling of
Figure 64
A wetland has materialized on this commercial site.
Photo by author, July 1995

being removed from a busy city characterize this site.
On a summer day it is amazingly quiet considering the
proximity of the freeway visible in the background. The
original developer of this site had such difficulty with
it that the effort was abandoned. Recently a new
developer has proposed to build here.
Industrial Sites
This spectacular ditch in Adams County, the O'Brian
Canal, passes through many land uses. The paving company
on the right is one of many industrial sites to be found
along the ditch. As it heads out to the prairie to water
thousands of acres of agricultural land, this ditch means
Figure 65
The 0'Brian Canal flows through an industrial area.
Photo by author, July 1995.

Figure 66
The High Line Canal near Colfax Avenue.
Photo by author, June 1995.
Figure 67
A warehouse site
borders the canal in northeast Aurora.
Photo by author, July 1995.

The site pictured on the left side of the fence in
Figure 66 is not "pretty" nor should it be. Here the High
Line Canal helps to create a linear edge separating the
operation from the wasteland and trail to the right.
Industrial sites do not need to equate with bleak
and ugly. They should be visually appealing, well
landscaped places for people to work in and for vehicles,
bicyclists and pedestrians to pass through. The
northeast area of Aurora is largely zoned for warehouse
and light industry, and here several surprisingly
attractive sites are to be found. The High Line Canal
meanders through much of this industrial area, crossing
Colfax Avenue three times.
Institutional Spaces
Ditches flow through and next to cemeteries,
government properties, school, churches and hospitals.
The Agricultural Ditch flows through a large part of the
Denver Federal Center in Lakewood, and the Welch Ditch
crosses the far southwestern corner.
In Aurora the High Line Canal passes the new
Municipal Justice Center, a courthouse, jail, library and
museum complex designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.
To build the new complex in the late 1980s, Oxbow Park,
which included the canal, had to be vacated and the canal
realigned to the north, much to the chagrin of some local