Early Agricultural Colonies and Cooperative Irrigating

Many of Colorado’s Front Range towns began as agricultural colonies. Colonies were often semi-cooperative with a decidedly utopian bent, and they provided an instant community and planned infrastructure where people with like-minded values could settle. Present-day Fort Collins contains two former agricultural colony sites within its boundaries—the Mercer Colony and the Fort Collins Agricultural Colony.1 In the 1870s, founders placed both colonies near the decommissioned Fort Collins site on the bench lands south of the Cache la Poudre River. Successful settlement depended on moving irrigation water from the river onto the arid highlands. Understanding this, the colonies planned for irrigation ditches along with schools, businesses, and churches. Pooled resources allowed colony members to build longer and larger ditches than those dug by farmers a decade earlier, coinciding with a state-wide period of cooperative irrigation development.2 Soon long canals carrying water to farms flowed through previously dry land.

In September 1869, a group of men from Mercer County, Pennsylvania, including a young Alfred Augustus Edwards, founded the Mercer Colony, the first colony along the Cache la Poudre River, on land currently occupied by Grandview Cemetery, City Park, and neighborhoods to the north.3 The colonists immediately formed the Mercer Pole and Ditch Company and began digging the Mercer Ditch south from the Cache la Poudre River slightly upstream from Laporte.4 They quickly ran out of funds, and the colony appears to have dissolved shortly afterward. A group of men recharterd the New Mercer Ditch Company in 1872 and completed the canal.5

The success of some Colorado colonies caused town development companies to advertise new town sites as colonies. For example, in 1872, members of the Union Colony (Greeley) formed the Larimer County Land Improvement Company, which created the Fort Collins Agricultural Colony. The Larimer County Land Improvement Company built the Agricultural Colony, a colony in title only, right next to the “Old Town” that had grown up around the former military fort and added 3,000 acres of subdivided land to the colony for both town and farm plots.6 Aware that farmers could not succeed without water for their crops, colony leaders awarded contracts for building several irrigation canals the same year—the town ditch (Arthur Ditch) and Larimer No. 2 Canal (completed 1873) and the Lake Canal (completed 1874).7

The canals built by the Agricultural Colony caused friction between the Fort Collins colony and the Union Colony in Greeley, which diverted water from the Cache la Poudre further downstream. By the 1870s, water in the Cache la Poudre had been over-appropriated, so that demand for water was greater than supply. In 1874 shortly after completion of the Larimer No. 2 and Lake Canals, a drought exacerbated the situation. Greeley demanded that Fort Collins respect that its diversions were older, but at the time there was no legal recourse to force Fort Collins to honor Greeley’s claims.8 The two settlements compromised, but more importantly, the colonies’ disagreements over water use priorities spurred clarification and enforcement of the Doctrine of Prior Appropriation in Colorado’s 1876 state constitution, central to Colorado water law today.9

  1. James F. Willard and Colin B. Goodykoontz, Experiments in Colorado Colonization, 1869-1872 (Boulder, 1926), xiv-xvii.
  2. Greg Silkensen, The Farmer’s High Line Canal and Reservoir Company: A Century of Change on Clear Creek (Denver: North Suburban Printing, 2000), 12; Richard Stenzel and Tom Cech, Water, Colorado’s Real Gold: A History of the Development of Colorado’s Water, the Prior Appropriation Doctrine and the Division of Water Resources (Richard Stenzel, 2013), 77.
  3. Union Colony, now the site of Greeley, Colorado, came shortly after in 1870.
  4. The men also attempted to cut trees in the mountains and float them down the Cache la Poudre River for fence poles, but log jams left them unsuccessful. See Alfred Augustus Edwards, “Autobiography,” 1928, in the Colorado State University Archives and Special Collections.
  5. Ansel Watrous, History of Larimer County, Colorado (Fort Collins: MM Publications, 1911), 229; Willard and Goodykoontz, xiv-xvii, xxxvi-xxxvii; “The Colonies,” Fort Collins Express, January 1, 1894. Accessed in the Colorado Historic Newspapers Collection; Edwards, “Autobiography,” 1928; Alvin T. Steinel, History of Agriculture in Colorado (Fort Collins: State Agricultural College, 1926), 203.
  6. Watrous, 230-231.
  7. John C. Abbot and Benjamin H. Eaton won contracts for Larimer No. 2 Canal and Lake Canal, and A. R. Chaffee won the contract for the town ditch. The Lake Canal ran through the floodplain north of the river, rather than south. See Watrous, 233, 283.
  8. James E. Hansen II, Democracy’s College in the Centennial State: A History of Colorado State University (Fort Collins: Colorado State University, 1977), 65; “The History of Water Law and Water Development in the Cache la Poudre River Basin and Rocky Mountain West,” Appendix B: Historical Context, The Poudre Runs Through It, http://www.cwi.colostate.edu/ThePoudreRunsThroughIt/files/Historical_Context_Water_Law_Cache_La_Poudre.pdf.
  9. Tatanka Historical Associates, Inc. Historical Structures Along the Cache la Poudre River Corridor, Mulberry Street to Shields Street (Fort Collins: Tatanka Historical Associates, 2013), 21.

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