A Ditch in Time
The City, the West, and Water
By Patricia Nelson Limerick, Jason L. Hanson
Fulcrum Publishing Copyright © 2012 Patricia Nelson Limerick and Jason L. Hanson
All rights reserved.
Here is a land where life is written in water, The West is where water was and is.
— Thomas Hornsby Ferril, "Here Is a Land Where Life Is Written in Water"
Those who favor our plan to alter the river raise your hand. Thank you for your vote. Last week, you'll recall, I spoke about how water never complains.
— Richard Hugo, "Plans for Altering the River"
Once upon a time, the area where Denver now sits was defined by water — in unmanageable and unimaginable abundance. The part of the planet we know as the Front Range of Colorado once sat "600 feet beneath the salty waves of a giant sea."
Seventy million years can make quite a difference.
And so can a hundred years, when human ingenuity enters the picture. In the mid-nineteenth century, American settlers took on a place that seemed irreparably short of water and thus nearly uninhabitable and turned much of it green and heavily populated. Americans did this by acquiring and transporting water from distant streambeds and directing it to lawns, gardens, parks, sinks, bathtubs, swimming pools, fountains, farms, and factories. The places where the water arrived were obviously transformed, but so were the places from which it departed.
The perspective offered by geological change over the millennia reminds us that landscapes and ecosystems are undergoing constant change; the idea of the balance and stability of nature is more romance than reality. Meanwhile, the perspective offered by historical change over a century reminds us that human beings have extraordinary powers to accelerate the pace of change and that their successes and achievements face a big challenge in maintenance and duration. Both the flow of water and the flow of time can mock human enterprise and intention in very dynamic ways.
Historical perspective also reminds us that there has been enormous variation in the assumptions that human beings have made about how much water they need. Two hundred years ago, with bison herds providing crucial subsistence for Indian people, following the herds put a premium on knowledge of the area's rivers and springs. As they traveled through the plains and foothills, Cheyenne and Arapaho people needed to know where to find drinking water for themselves and their horses. While access to water was the key aspect of choosing a campsite, modest demands for water made it unnecessary to store or divert it from its original channels. Moreover, before American farmers, ranchers, and urbanites lowered the water table by pumping groundwater and capturing much of the surface runoff, pockets of surface water, in the form of prairie lakes and perennial springs, were common, so water could be found in shorter spans of travel. The banks of streams and rivers also supplied wood for the building of lodges and for fires for cooking and warmth, while river valleys, with their bluffs, banks, and canyons, provided refuge from the worst of winter storms.
Indian people thus had few reasons to think of their home as too dry and therefore unfit for human habitation. Still, as historian Elliott West put it, "Hunters had to fashion their living in the great spaces away from dependable rivers," and part of that adaptation was knowing the routes to find water quickly before hardship took hold. A satisfactory arrangement with water was not always in the picture for Native people. A period of drought and the resulting decline of grass could mean very tough times for bison and horses, and, therefore, for human beings. In the mid-nineteenth century, dry spells occurred several times, adding to the troubles of Indian people as they were confronting American invaders. Altogether, the contrasts between Indian customs and American customs are important reminders that variations in culture and economy produce very different definitions of how much water humans need and how much the world must be reworked to provide it.
In 1806, on a journey of exploration that delivered more frustration than satisfaction, American explorer Zebulon Pike found unexpected promise in what he saw of western aridity. Traveling over the plains to the Colorado Front Range, Pike noted the absence of trees and the sparse flow of the streams and rivers. What he saw did not hold hope for American settlement. And yet, despite our images of nineteenth-century Euro-Americans as instinctual expansionists, in a memorable passage that reminds us of the difficulty humans face when they strain to see the future, Pike described this limitation as good news:
From these immense prairies may arise one great advantage to the United States, viz: The restriction on our population to some certain limits, and thereby a continuation of the Union. Our citizens being so prone to rambling and extending themselves on the frontier will, through necessity, be constrained to limit their extent on the West to the borders of the Missouri and Mississippi, while they leave the prairies incapable of cultivation to the wandering and uncivilized aborigines of the country.
Fearing that a republic would be overstretched if it went past a certain size in territory and population, Pike saw in the limited water supply of the interior West one of the few forces strong enough to restrict a people who were certifiably "so prone to rambling and extending themselves on the frontier." Along with keeping the nation at a size that would be compatible with its system of governance, aridity also seemed to offer a solution to the dilemma of Indian-white conflict. If the plains proved unworkable for white settlement, then, by that very quality, they could provide a refuge for Indian people who would find no permanent place in better-watered parts of North America. As historian William Goetzmann observed, Pike's "view of the West set the popular pattern for many years to come." The interior West "was no place for the extension of civilization with farms and towns and mechanical pursuits. Rather the West ... was a barrier which would contain the population and save the Union." This was not necessarily a misperception, Goetzmann explained further; in the early nineteenth century, the plains "were unfit for widespread settlement, given the level of American technology at the time."
Thirteen years later, the Stephen Long expedition reached very similar conclusions. After a crossing of the plains in 1819, the chronicler of the expedition, Edwin James, concluded that the area would "prove of infinite importance to the United States inasmuch as it is calculated to serve as a barrier to prevent too great an extension of our population westward."
An anachronism that would have wandered without a home in the nineteenth century, the term growth control policy did not appear in the vocabulary of these explorers. What Pike and Long saw in the limitations of the West's water supply was indeed something very much like a national growth control policy. In their judgment, the dryness of the West relieved Americans of the burdens of tough decisions. Using a constrained supply of water to carry its message, nature would act as legislator and decision maker and call a beneficial halt to westward expansion.
While not every observer joined Pike and Long in finding national benefit in the power of aridity to obstruct expansion, many matched their impression of the sparse natural assets of the plains landscape. In 1846, Boston Brahmin Francis Parkman traveled through the West, accumulating experiences that would shape his later prominent career as a historian. Just as much as trappers extracted beaver pelts and miners would extract minerals, East Coast writers like Parkman extracted literary nuggets from their travels and delivered them to markets back home. The West's mountains gave Parkman all the right opportunities to celebrate the romantic appeal of the landscape, but the plains made a writer's job harder. Taking in the country he saw as he traveled from Fort Laramie to Bent's Fort, Parkman was pushed past the borders of that excellent advice: "If you can't say something nice, then don't say anything at all." The best that Parkman could do with the discouraging landscape was to describe it, in his influential book of 1849, The Oregon Trail, as an "arid desert" where "the only vegetation was a few tufts of short grass, dried and shriveled by the heat."
Far more preoccupied with a search for water than a search for profit-delivering resources, people in Parkman's situation urgently inspected the landscape for signs of moisture. The West had water, he and many of his contemporaries knew, but it was often the wrong kind of water (mineral laden and undrinkable) or sometimes the right kind of water but located in the wrong place, not at hand when people most needed it. It was a happy, and rare, circumstance when the water presented itself in a manner that matched and suited the human desire for it. On one occasion in his journey, Parkman and his thirsty companions thought they were approaching a large stream. To their mortification, they found it to be completely dry. Parkman described the dismal scene: "The old cotton-wood trees that grew along the bank, lamentably abused by lightning and tempest, were withering with the drought, and on the dead limbs, at the summit of the tallest, half a dozen crows were harshly cawing, like birds of evil omen." The group went on to find enough water in the South Platte to make it hard to ford, and then they came upon Cherry Creek near the spot that would later come to be called Denver. "The stream, however, like most of the others which we passed," Parkman observed, "was dried up with the heat, and we had to dig holes in the sand to find water for ourselves and for our horses." Soon after, excess replaced scarcity, and the group was drenched by a tumultuous rainstorm. In the proportions of water present at the eastern base of the Rockies, too much could replace too little in the course of a few hours.
Americans arriving in the interior West from eastern points of origin traveled heavily laden with cultural baggage. A common element in that baggage was a preference for landscapes shaped by the humid climates they had left behind. By this preference, the western landscape, without lush vegetation, was disappointing and deficient. Thus, for four decades, as maps labeled the plains as the Great American Desert and overland travelers echoed the explorers' opinions of the unappealing strangeness of the arid lands, Pike and Long seemed to be pretty capable practitioners of foresight. But then a factor that had never entered into their minds lowered their performance as prophets.
The discovery of gold in the Rockies unleashed a rush into the region. Even though American settlement remained precarious in the first years after the rush, Pike and Long's prediction was soon looking shaky and unconvincing. In hindsight, it is clear to us that seasonal constraints on exploration and travel had led to a misappraisal of the water resources of the West. Waiting for the growth of grass for their livestock before leaving the Mississippi and Missouri Valleys, nineteenth-century travelers rarely reached the foothills of the Rockies in time to see the heavy spring runoff, produced by the melting of the snowpack, which in many years filled streambeds and sometimes overflowed banks. By the time the explorers and travelers arrived on the scene in the summer, the runoff was far downstream, headed to the oceans, and many of the so-called rivers and streams of the plains, even close to the foothills, seemed shrunken and paltry. The enormous expanses of plains between the rivers, combined with their diminished state in summer, had fostered the impression that the region was irreparably short on water.
The founding and growth of the city of Denver seemed to invalidate these earlier predictions of intrinsic limits to the settlement of the region. Pike and Long, after all, had understood American settlement to mean "farms," and a future role for cities had not been on their minds. And, just as they had not anticipated a mineral rush that would lead to a concentration of settlers in towns, they also had underestimated the extraordinary force of human ingenuity and enterprise.
On July 7, 1858, a prospecting expedition led by William Green Russell of Georgia, working along the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains, discovered placer gold near the mouth of Dry Creek as it empties into the South Platte River in present-day Englewood.
This was not the first discovery of gold in this area, at the time part of Kansas Territory, but it proved to be the best publicized and therefore the most consequential. On August 26, 1858, the Kansas City Journal of Commerce announced the news: "THE NEW ELDORADO!!! GOLD IN KANSAS!!"
The word spread, and in the spring of 1859, close to one hundred thousand people headed for the part of Kansas that would be organized as Colorado Territory two years later.
In the American West and many other parts of the world, mineral rushes dramatically accelerated the pace of migration into areas that had previously been judged unsuitable for settlement. The discovery and extraction of minerals led to the immediate founding of towns. As merchants realized the opportunities presented by mining the miners, what historian Gunther Barth called "instant cities" came into being by trade and commerce.
Where the plains met the Rockies, new arrivals seized the opportunities that might converge for a town placed at the base of the mountains. The creation of the town was far from a thought-out and organized project. Entrepreneurs founded the towns of Auraria and Denver on opposite banks of Cherry Creek in 1858. These two communities competed with each for a spell, until Denver gained the upper hand and engineered a merger in April 1860. In a fine example of the long-lasting consequences of decisions made in the early days of a community, the streets and lots of the towns had been laid out with grids set at different angles, and the split origins of the city of Denver have sent numerous visitors off on indirect and unintended journeys as they tried to navigate their way through those two misaligned grids.
Like many residents of western towns, early Denverites found themselves in precarious and tenuous living conditions. In April 1863, fire destroyed most of the business district. This was a very common pattern of western towns, to the point that extraterrestrial observers would have puzzled over the motivation and strategy of the peculiar species that bustled around piling up wood in a central location, igniting those piles, and then experiencing apparent regret and distress when the wood burned. Efforts to avoid such misadventures led to both city regulations requiring the replacement of wood with brick in business districts and to the recognition that, when fire threatened, a reliable water supply could prove to be an essential element of the safety of the community.
If Denverites had unintentionally but very effectively put themselves in the line of fire, they had intentionally placed themselves equally in the line of water. Settlers lined the banks of the South Platte and Cherry Creek, near the point where the two rivers converge, with homes, churches, and businesses. To claim and hold a central place in the community, the Rocky Mountain News went so far as to build its offices in the sandy bottom of Cherry Creek's dry bed. In May 1864, heavy rains caused the creek to rise. With astonishing speed, the deluge destroyed the News offices and sent machinery, including a three-thousand-pound iron press, downstream. Five newspapermen sleeping in the building's second story awoke to a terrific "roaring noise" and saw the flash flood charging down the creek bed. As the building washed away, onlookers threw the trapped men some rope. The five barely escaped with their lives. Others were not so fortunate. Twelve people drowned as Cherry Creek and the South Platte River submerged neighborhoods, toppled buildings, and did its best to wash away the fledgling settlement.
Soon after the flood, an observer found a warning in and drew a lesson in restraint from the flood. "Men are mere ciphers in creation," reflected Professor O. J. Goldrick in the Daily Commonwealth and Republican. "Had we continued thickly settling Cherry Creek as we commenced, and thoughtless of our future, see what terrible destruction would have been our doom, in a few years more, when the water of heaven, obeying the fixed laws, would rush down upon us, and slay thousands instead of tens!" Rhetorically awash, Goldrick was nonetheless engaged in the important project of drawing a practical lesson from calamity. To at least a limited degree, newcomers were trying to understand and deal with their changeable relationship to water. After the 1864 flood, the Denver City Council asked the legislature for power to regulate building in Cherry Creek. The legislature granted the power the following year, and the city outlawed the construction of houses or businesses in the creek bed.
Despite the occasional flood, scarcity of water posed a more-persistent challenge. Visitors often noted the town's lack of trees and other greenery. Stopping in Denver in the summer of 1859, journalist Albert Richardson dismissed the aspiring city as "a most forlorn and desolate-looking metropolis" situated upon a bleak setting of "low sandy hills entirely destitute of trees and with thin ashen grass dreary enough to eyes familiar with the rich green prairies of Kansas and Missouri."
Even the Rocky Mountain News briefly let honesty compromise its usual unrelenting boosterism by describing the landscape in 1860 as "treeless, grassless, bushless." (Continues...)
Excerpted from A Ditch in Time by Patricia Nelson Limerick, Jason L. Hanson. Copyright © 2012 Patricia Nelson Limerick and Jason L. Hanson. Excerpted by permission of Fulcrum Publishing.
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