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Environment / Sustainability

Colorado's Gunnison Tunnel celebrates 100 years

July 30, 2009

If you've ever sat in ski traffic or waited for roadwork stoppage near Loveland Pass on I-70, you may have caught yourself contemplating the engineering behind the Eisenhower/Johnson Memorial Tunnels. But the first tunnel in Colorado to inspire awe was the Gunnison Tunnel, one of the first five federal projects in the West, which was completed in September of 1909 to augment irrigation flows in the fertile Uncompahgre Valley.

And if someone told you that two tunnels in Colorado have been designated as National Civil Engineering Landmarks (by the American Society for Civil Engineers), it would seem obvious that it must be the two tubes of asphalt and concrete burrowing through the Rockies at Loveland Pass.

Not even close. In fact, Colorado's true landmark tunnels were built many decades before I-70 was even a serious consideration. The Moffat Tunnel was completed initially as a transmountain railroad tunnel in 1926 and now also serves as a water diversion for Denver Water.

Gunnison Tunnel completed in 1909

But the first was the Gunnison Tunnel, one of the first five federal projects in the West, which was completed in September of 1909 to augment irrigation flows in the fertile Uncompahgre Valley. Construction took five years of around-the-clock excavation through almost six miles of western Colorado’s gneiss, schist, and shale. Perhaps because you can’t ride a train or drive an automobile through it, most Coloradoans don’t even know it’s there, but its story is probably one of the more inspiring in Colorado’s history.

The story of the Gunnison Tunnel begins with a splintered community of ex-miners, railroaders, and first-generation homesteaders. Western Colorado, and particularly the small populations of the lower Uncompahgre, were struggling to define their identity in the late 1800s. Out of 170,000 acres of irrigable land, less than 30,000 acres were being farmed. The soils of the valley were clearly productive, but due to the unpredictable availability of irrigation water, making a living from agriculture during this time was a difficult task. Although runoff from the San Juan Mountains would threaten the Uncompahgre River with flooding in May or June, by late July the river bed would often be mostly exposed. Irrigating a crop to full term in these parts was no business for the sweaty palmed producer.

Tapping the Gunnison River for irrigation

The Gunnison River was a more substantial river than its sibling the Uncompahgre, and irrigators were aware of its tendency to produce flows deeper into the irrigation season. As producers began to build canal networks and form local ditch companies, such as the Montrose, Uncompahgre, and Delta Ditch companies, it was only a matter of time before tapping the Gunnison to supplement local irrigation was considered.

Legend has it that a local, F.C. Lauzon, was visited in a dream by the idea for a tunnel diverting water into the valley. Dream or not, this industrious Frenchman began to advocate strongly for the project in 1890. Sometimes he would spend entire days on Montrose street corners preaching to any who would listen about the obvious benefits of a tunnel full of Gunnison River water emptying its wet wealth into the Uncompahgre Valley. In 1894, his persistence paid off, and Colorado legislature backed the project to the tune of $25,000. The U.S. Geological Survey, or USGS, agreed to a reconnaissance survey of the project under the direction of Frederick Newell, an MIT-trained engineer who would ultimately become the Bureau of Reclamation’s first director. After mapping the region and likely tunnel routes, all that prevented the digging from starting was a full survey within the Black Canyon to accurately locate the proposed tunnel’s eastern portal.

Finding suitable inlet point a challenge 

In the summer of 1900, a party of five, including William W. Torrence, set out from Montrose to boat the Gunnison through the Black Canyon and determine a suitable inlet point for the tunnel. Additional men were sent to watch from the cliffs above and relay updates back to family. After spending three weeks in the canyon, losing one of their two boats, and running out of food, they abandoned the survey
short of their objective at the “Fall of Sorrows.”

Torrence, who had a reputation for getting things done, placed an advertisement in the newspaper seeking a survey companion of “adventurous spirit” and “strong constitution” with “no family” to help him keep the Gunnison Tunnel project alive. In August 1901, he returned with Abraham Lincoln Fellows, an engineer from the Cortez canal system (now the Montezuma Valley Irrigation Company). After retracing the steps of the 1900 expedition, they swam the treacherous Black Canyon Narrows, a short segment of wild river bracketed by sheer rock faces only 40 feet apart. After riding the Gunnison’s whitewater for 10 days, mostly without boat or raft, they emerged from the mouth of the canyon battered but successful; the tunnel project could proceed.

Federal funding allows project's completion

The state commenced construction in the fall of 1901. Unfortunately, this first attempt was soon abandoned as the project quickly outgrew its limited funding. As the first attempt was faltering, Colorado Congressman James Shafroth, a member of the House Committee on Irrigation, began meeting regularly with Representative Newlands of Nevada, who was probably in the early stages of composing the 1902 Reclamation Act. The fact that recently inaugurated President Roosevelt was a vocal advocate for western irrigation was of no harm to this congressional alliance either.

(Photo: Steep cliffs above the Gunnison River.)

In the wake of the Reclamation legislation, the USGS recommended the Uncompahgre Valley as one of the suitable locations to begin spending this new pot of federal funds. The Gunnison Project was officially authorized by then Secretary of the Interior Ethan A. Hitchcock in March 1903, along with four other projects in Wyoming, Montana, Nevada, and Arizona. In keeping with the Act’s requirements, local landowners also merged the valley’s major ditch companies, forming the Uncompahgre Valley Water User’s Association. The “Water Users” became the beneficial entity responsible for managing and maintaining the project and for repaying the government for the costs of its construction.

Five years of tough work, 26 fatalities

Construction on the tunnel began in earnest in late 1904. To expedite the process, tunnel excavation was attacked from four locations: the western portal, eight miles east of Montrose near the Cedar Creek railroad point, the eastern or river portal that included a 12-mile access road of double digit grades, and two shafts. About 500 men worked on the tunnel, many of whom came from the Appalachian coal mines. Work wasn’t easy and turnover was high, with the average stay being about two weeks.

After five years of persistent toil that included navigating a fault-line, uncorking an underground hot spring, and 26 fatalities, the tunnel was finally completed nearly 20 years after Lauzon’s legendary dream. Remarkably, when the tunnels met in the middle they were offset by only 18 inches (the Eisenhower tunnel missed by 40 feet). The finished tunnel was 32,650 feet long, which at the time was the longest irrigation tunnel in the world. It was 11 x 13 feet at the mouth with a capacity of 1,300 cubic feet per second, which is still the case today.

President Taft, ringing bells open tunnel

The Gunnison Project was officially opened by President William Taft on Sept. 23, 1909. As the President pressed a golden bell to a silver plate, water began flowing through the tunnel and into the South Canal. The surrounding community responded by ringing bells in reply, and the sound simulated the Uncompahgre’s new water supply as the ringing moved down the valley from Montrose to Delta.

The 11-mile South Canal was also completed in 1909 and diverts water to the Uncompahgre River just north of Colona. Some project water is also sluiced over the river at this point via the West Canal to feed the western side of the Valley. Even today, engineers worldwide still marvel at how the nearly 800 miles of canals, laterals, and drains work over 1,000 feet of fall in concert with the Uncompahgre River and pre-existing arroyos to irrigate the valley.

Swift and dramatic impact on Uncompahgre Valley

The impact of the Gunnison Tunnel diversion on the Uncompahgre Valley community was swift and dramatic. By 1923, the Valley’s population had doubled to over 6,000, and the irrigated acreage within the project expanded from 37,000 acres in 1913 to 64,180 acres in 1933.

Producers quickly capitalized on the improved irrigation conditions, and at various times in its history the Uncompahgre has provided some of the most productive land in the country for potatoes, apples, peaches, sugar beets, alfalfa, onions, dry beans, and livestock. Today, the Uncompahgre Project irrigates over 66,000 acres around Montrose, Olathe, and Delta, and is renowned for its sweet corn and a wide variety of agriculture that includes melons, specialty vegetables, and beef cattle.

The Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association took control of the renamed Uncompahgre Project in 1932, and its headquarters are still located on Montrose's Park Avenue in the original Bureau of Reclamation office building. The Water Users are managed by Marc Catlin, who is passionate about the legacy of the tunnel and deeply concerned that it is being taken for granted.

Valley beginning to test its limits

“Most people in this area don’t realize they are having an experience with Gunnison River water in the bed of the Uncompahgre River,” he said. Catlin’s comment strikes at the heart of the primary tension around water in the area. The Valley is beginning to test its limits with rapid population growth and a stressed agricultural economy and, as 2001 and 2002 roved, there is high potential for droughts to cause serious problems.

Dan Crabtree, operations manager with the Bureau of Reclamation who works closely with Catlin on managing water delivery to the tunnel, expresses his awe for the Uncompahgre Project’s longevity. “Who would have thought we’d be here 100 years later with the tunnel still fully intact, operating much like it did in 1909?” he asks.

Tunnel Days celebration Sept. 26

To help celebrate the centennial of this profound achievement, Catlin and the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association are organizing a special “Tunnel Days” celebration for Saturday, Sept. 26, 2009. “I want people to be proud of the foresight and fortitude it took to make this Valley what it is today,” Catlin said.

For more information, see Page, Arthur W. (August 1907). "Running A River Through A Mountain: The Six-Mile Gunnison Tunnel." The World's Work: A History of Our Time XIV: 9322-9330. Includes construction photos.

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Original article written by Denis Reich, water resource specialist, Colorado State University Extension and originally published in Colorado Water, the newsletter of the Water Center of Colorado State University, July/Aug. 2009, Vol. 26, Issue 4.

Co-sponsored by Colorado Water Institute, CSU Agricultural Experiment Station, CSU Extension, Colorado State Forest Service, and the Colorado Climate Center.