Journal Staff Writer
The 128-year old McElmo Creek Flume – a relic of pioneer ingenuity that operated until 1991 – was nearly swept away by flood waters in 2006.
But today the historic irrigation structure stands strong, saved by gambling money and determination.
A ribbon-cutting was held Nov. 30 to mark its revival.
“The McElmo Flume is saved, it is off the endangered places list,” said Linda Towle, who led the effort.
The structure’s foundation has been rebuilt, and the wooden trough that carried water for more than 100 years has been restored. A paved parking lot provides access to the historic site off U.S. Highway 160, east of Cortez.
“It is a wonderful attraction for our county and a wonderful representation of our history,” said Montezuma County commissioner Keenan Ertel.
Local contractors did the work, including paving by D&L Construction, foundation by Western Triad and trough work by Ramco Development Inc.
“It illustrates who we are as community and shows what we can do when we come together for something we believe in,” said James Dietrich, natural resource planner for Montezuma County.
The $475,000 restoration was funded by more than $300,000 in grants from the Colorado Historical Fund. The money came from gambling revenue earmarked under the state constitution for preservation projects, said Mike Owen, of the state historic office in Durango.
The Federal Highway Administration awarded the project $252,000 for the paved pullout, parking and interpretive overlook as part of the Colorado Scenic and Historic Byways Program.
The point of interest and highway pullout is the first in 10 years on the Trails of the Ancients Scenic Byway, said coordinator Susan Thomas.
“It is a nice stop for people and tells a fascinating story,” she said. “What’s remarkable is that so many people here remember when it operated.”
McElmo Flume No. 6 is the only survivor of 104 wooden flumes built by early water companies to irrigate the Montezuma Valley.
The No. 6 McElmo Flume was one of 33 on the Highline Canal that delivered water to southern Montezuma Valley farms and the Ute Mountain Ute tribe.
Wooden flumes were the technology of the day to cross canyons and arroyos, said Les Nunn, longtime manager of Montezuma Valley Irrigation District. The suspended troughs carried water over drainages and were supported by pillars that kept the water flowing downslope.
“They always built a flume, because the water companies did not have the equipment to move dirt to fill in arroyos,” Nunn said. “They were built with lumber from the McPhee saw mill.”
Workers added and removed spill boards to the flume depending on flows. A gate in the middle opened into into McElmo Creek, which allowed flooding downstream. The flumes would become water-tight as the wood swelled.