What to do with the ‘oldest working thing’ in Denver?

Amid plans to cover 160-year-old ditch, metro-area historic groups seek preservation

Robert Tann
rtann@coloradocommunitymedia.com
Posted 8/23/22

The City Ditch, widely credited with Denver's early success as a Western American city, could soon be enclosed as the City of Englewood plans for a new piping project intended to modernize its drinking water infrastructure. 

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What to do with the ‘oldest working thing’ in Denver?

Amid plans to cover 160-year-old ditch, metro-area historic groups seek preservation

Posted

The City of Denver has seen many incarnations, each carrying over into its next.

From mining town to bustling urban center of the high plains, the metropolitan area has transformed in its roughly 160 years as a city, with an expanding web of suburban communities creating a mosaic of character. But as the break-neck pace of growth continues to manifest in new businesses, towering buildings and expanding tourism, the instrument responsible for Denver's present day-successes goes largely unnoticed. 

The City Ditch, an irrigation waterway that begins in what is now present-day Chatfield Reservoir, is by some historians' accounts the "oldest working thing" in the modern metro area.

Originally running 26 miles towards the confluence of the South Platte River and Cherry Creek tributary, near what is now Capital Hill, the ditch weaves throughout several suburban centers and is considered pivotal in Denver's ability to flourish as a Western American city. 

"In many cases, (metro areas) wouldn't exist if it weren't for that engineering marvel," said Matt Crabtree, president of Historic Englewood, Inc.

Today, only about two miles of the ditch are still open and visible, mostly throughout the cities of Littleton and Englewood. But much of it could soon be enclosed as the City of Englewood plans for a new piping project intended to modernize its drinking water infrastructure. 

“The ditch is one of the primary water supply convenience systems to the City of Englewood," said Pieter Van Ry, director of City of Englewood Utilities and South Platte Renew — the state's third-largest wastewater center.

As a main source of drinking water for more than 30,000 people, Ry said there are numerous benefits to enclosing the open sections of the ditch, which runs water into the Charles Allen Water Treatment Plant in Englewood. 

Ry said the project will help protect the water from contamination from street runoff, allow the ditch to be used for supply year-round and “provide a better product to our customers.”

Still, Ry has heard from historic preservation groups about concerns with covering the ditch, though portions of it will be left open past the treatment plant, he said. 

“I can understand that there’s a historic value to this infrastructure and it’s a current day water supply system … so it’s balancing those two things," Ry said. 

Larry Borger, a member of Historic Littleton, Inc., said keeping the ditch open in Littleton and Englewood will serve not just as a form of living history but an educational tool as well. 

“Future generations need to know how Denver was built, how Littleton was built," he said. 

Primarily constructed between 1864 and 1867, the roughly 4-foot-deep ditch brought irrigation to the semi-arid desert landscape of Denver where as many as 150,000 people flocked for gold just years before. 

Among them were farmers in need of fertile land to grow food for the mining community, while others were entrepreneurs at the forefront of Colorado's economic territorialization. 

They included William Byers, founder and editor of the Rocky Mountain News, whose company — Capitol Hydraulic — began digging the ditch in 1861, work that was eventually halted by the Civil War and would not be resumed for three years.

After the company reconsolidated, it hired New Hampshire surveyor Richard Little who was eager to make a name out west. Little, who would go on to lay the groundwork for the namesake City of Littleton, took over as the ditch project's general manager. 

A wealth of history followed and with the ditch's completion in 1867, Denver became an "oasis city in the great American desert," said Colorado historian Tom Noel. 

Along with farming and agriculture, the ditch's irrigation water brought greenery and shade from trees, Noel said. He agreed with Louisa Ward Arps, a celebrated state historian who died in 1986, who called the ditch "the oldest working thing in Denver.”

“I can’t think of anything older," Noel said. 

Borger said he wants to see Englewood explore alternative options to enclosing the ditch, such as piping that would run alongside the ditch as well as more historic signage near its open areas. And he wants Littleton to take "an active interest in that project." 

Littleton Public Works Director Keith Reester could not be reached for comment, but an agreement signed by both cities in 2013 affirms ownership and oversight of the ditch by the City of Englewood, which is currently enlisting a firm to help with preliminary design for the project, Ry said. 

The project is not expected to be completed until late 2023 or early 2024, according to Ry, who said an alternate plan, such as an adjacent pipe, could be more costly than piping and covering what has already been dug.

Still, Ry said he anticipates room for discussion with the historic groups as the city moves forward with its plans.

In a July request made to engineering firms, the city said any proposal  should include "plans for public engagement and solicitation of feedback on piping plans."

Crabtree, the Historic Englewood president, said his group has had conversations with Ry and other city staff about reaching a consensus on the ditch's future, though he said the group "hasn't gotten answers" to all its questions.

"We're hoping we can come to some sort of compromise with the city that can be good with the residents of the city from a water supply standpoint and protect some portions of the City Ditch that are in both Englewood and Littleton," Crabtree said. "It is not our intent to stop anything from an innovation standpoint." 

But he hopes some preservation of the ditch is still on the table. 

"Denver and Littleton and Englewood have a rich history, it's important to remember our past," he said. 

englewood, littleton, city ditch, denver, pieter van ry

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