Year Listed: 2011
Construction Date: 1890
Threat When Listed: Natural Elements
Status: IN PROGRESS
The Montezuma Valley is naturally arid, but by the early 1880s had become a place of great promise for settlers in Southwestern Colorado who saw an opportunity for 200,000 acres of irrigated crop land, if only water could be diverted from the Dolores River.
In 1878 a ditch company was formed, and by the next year more than a hundred men began work digging a mile-long tunnel under the Dolores Divide. Though the first ditch company went bankrupt, the effort continued; canals were dug, flumes were built, and by 1889 the tunnel was complete. In April of 1888, the Montezuma Journal called the system, “…one of the greatest irrigation enterprises, not only in the state, but in the West.” By 1920, when the Montezuma Valley Irrigation Company was formed, the system included more than 100 wooden flumes and 150 miles of canals.
Today, only a single flume remains of the 104 originally constructed. It serves as a reminder of the spectacular engineering feat that was instrumental in developing Southwestern Colorado. The McElmo Creek Flume, which bridges a natural arroyo east of Cortez near Highway 160, is in serious disrepair and will likely collapse and be lost forever unless immediate action is taken to preserve this significant historic resource. In continuous use for more than 100 years, the Flume was seriously damaged by flash floods in 2006, and again by heavy winds in 2010.
Colorado’s history is inextricably linked with the availability of water for mining, agriculture, and community development. The loss of the McElmo Creek Flume would mean the loss of an irreplaceable opportunity to tell the story of water and settlement in the Montezuma Valley.
Fortunately, the McElmo Creek Flume is located very near a turnout on Highway 160 and therefore offers a tremendous opportunity for the installation of interpretive panels to educate residents and visitors alike about the significance of a historic resource that has been largely forgotten. The Montezuma Valley Irrigation Company, still in the business of managing water, owns the planer used to bevel the edges of the boards that make up the wooden trough portion of the Flume and has offered to make it available for the restoration effort. The State Historical Fund has awarded the county funds to complete structural analysis on the flume and prepare CDs for the stabilization work. Foundation repairs and construction of new stop on the Trail of the Ancients Scenic Byway that features the McElmo Flume have also been completed through a grant from the State Historical Fund.
The next steps include repairing the wooden trough of the Flume.