North Poudre Irrigation Company, 1901-Present

The North Poudre Irrigation Company began with a tumultuous and complicated early start as a conglomeration of multiple early irrigation companies along the Poudre River watershed. Despite the company’s low appropriation and decree ranking on the Poudre, North Poudre Irrigation Company (NPIC) had shrewd leaders who recognized the company’s potential. By buying up smaller, faltering irrigation companies, building many large reservoirs, and selling reservoir water in trade of direct river flow, NPIC managed to hold its own in the fiercely competitive irrigation industry to become one of the leading ditch companies in existence today.

When settlers first came to the Poudre River Valley near what would become the town of Fort Collins, they quickly realized that the only successful way to produce agricultural crops was through irrigation. Camp Collins, a military outpost that later became the town of Fort Collins, relied on local agricultural production, and when the town was first laid out in 1867, and the Union Colony at Greeley was founded three years later in 1870, a flood of people came to the Northern Colorado region. One of the first major ditches constructed on the Poudre was the Larimer and Weld Canal, the brainchild of Benjamin Eaton, a local farmer and businessman. Constructed between 1878 and 1879, the Larimer and Weld Canal brought about a boom in irrigated agriculture in the Box Elder Valley. On February 25, 1881, local farmers and businessmen including Franklin C. Avery and N. C. Alford incorporated as the Larimer County Ditch Company. This company, which later reincorporated as Water Supply and Storage Company, built the Larimer County Ditch to link the Poudre River and Box Elder Creek. These two ditches became the lifeblood of irrigation in the Fort Collins area.

Meanwhile, other farmers north of Fort Collins needed their own irrigation ditch. Between 1878 and 1901, six different enterprises incorporated with the goal of building a ditch to divert water from the North Fork of the Cache la Poudre River. Most of these enterprises were unsuccessful; three never even turned a shovel of dirt in ditch construction, and most dissolved within a few years. [1]

One of the earliest and ultimately most successful of these companies was the North Fork Irrigation Canal Company, incorporated in June 1878 by William C. Stover, John C. Mathews, Alfred F. Howes, and Henry C. Peterson. The following month the company reincorporated as the North Fork Irrigation Company, along with Ledru R. Rhodes and James Galloway. This company would become one of the forerunners of NPIC. Another early forerunner was the North Poudre, Box Elder and Lone Tree Canal Company, incorporated in 1879 by John Mason, John C. Abbott, and John C. Mathews. [2]

The most colorful character involved in the North Fork Ditch project was the Englishman Francis L. Carter-Cotton. Carter-Cotton came to Northern Colorado hoping to build an irrigation system and turn a profit. However, the irrigation business was far more expensive and labor-intensive than he assumed. In 1880, Carter-Cotton incorporated as the North Poudre Land, Canal and Reservoir Company, a grandiose title for a company that ultimately had little to show for itself. Carter-Cotton obtained the funding for his ventures from the Colorado Mortgage and Investment Company (also known as the “English Company”), a London-based organization that issued loans to irrigation companies throughout the state of Colorado. Additional funding came from Traveler’s Insurance Company of Hartford, Connecticut. However, Carter-Cotton had not anticipated how expensive ditch building was. His plan was to divert water from the North Fork of the Poudre inside a tight canyon via a wooden flume, and then out to the valley below. The hefty first bill that Carter-Cotton’s engineer brought him reflected the high expense of building a flume within the steep. As construction estimates first for the flume and then for the ditch continued to grow, Carter-Cotton found himself forced to take out more and more loans. Meanwhile, actual construction progress moved at a snail’s pace. [3]

Carter-Cotton’s collaboration with other North Fork projects resulted in his company in many ways melding with that of the North Fork Irrigation Company and the North Poudre, Box Elder, and Lone Tree Canal Company so that all three could pool resources for the building of a common ditch. [4]

One of the reasons why Traveler’s Insurance Company had agreed to back Carter-Cotton was through the good word of T. C. Henry, an irrigation developer and speculator in the San Luis Valley of southern Colorado. Henry’s verbose assurances of his own developments as well as Carter-Cotton’s were inflated, however. In 1891, Traveler’s foreclosed on Henry’s land and ditches in the San Luis Valley, and realizing that Carter-Cotton had also borrowed more than the insurance company could hope to ever see returned on its investment, the company came after the Englishman as well. However, Carter-Cotton had already assessed his dire predicament. In 1886, deeply in debt and having defaulted on his loans with the English Company, Carter-Cotton had very quietly snuck out of Fort Collins, never to be seen or heard from again. By the time Traveler’s accused him of defaulting on loans, Carter-Cotton had fled the country and could not be tracked down. [5]

Traveler’s Insurance Company took over the North Poudre Land, Canal and Reservoir Company and attempted unsuccessfully for a few years to keep the company afloat while still progressing on the ditch and several reservoirs, although it did succeed in completing Reservoir No. 1 in 1887 and Reservoir No. 2 in 1893. In 1896, F. C. Grable and his National Land and Irrigation Company bought the North Poudre Land and Canal Company, but was unable to manage it financially. As a result, the company went into receivership in 1898, and Burton D. Sanborn purchased the company in 1901. Sanborn was a Greeley real estate, loan, and insurance broker. Like many Northern Coloradoans, Sanborn was frustrated with corporate investors and developers from back east or from England who did not supervise their irrigation projects or know what was best for the region. He wanted to return the North Fork Ditch project to localized management. Sanborn and a group of fellow local investors purchased the North Poudre Land, Canal and Reservoir Company, along with the North Fork Irrigation Company and the North Poudre, Box Elder and Lone Tree Canal Company for $67,000. The price included the unfinished North Fork Ditch, seven planned or partially built reservoirs, and 16,000 acres of land. The result after reorganization was a new company, the North Poudre Irrigation Company, with Sanborn as its first president. North Poudre Irrigation Company faced many difficulties in its first few years of incorporation in terms of assuring its water supply. Under the capable hand of President Sanborn, however, the company quickly rose to the challenge. [6]

One of the first challenges faced by NPIC was dealing with decrees to Poudre River water. As more and more companies filed water rights and constructed ditches, the issue of whose water was whose and who had priority rights became very muddled. As a result, the water courts of 1878 and 1881 settled decrees claimed by ditch companies to Poudre water. So many companies had incorporated in the 1860s and 1870s that even though the companies now absorbed in NPIC were not that late in terms of year, NPIC was far from one of the first in having priority rights to the river. The water courts ranked NPIC’s claim to water as 97th. This meant that ninety-six other interests had rights to the water to use as much as their shareholders needed before NPIC could have use of the remaining water. Such junior water rights meant that there was no way NPIC shareholders could get enough water from the Poudre alone. [7]

While many ditch companies folded because they did not have senior enough water rights to supply all their shareholders, President Sanborn and the rest of the board of directors at NPIC came up with creative solutions. The company’s capital stock at the time of incorporation in 1901 was $150,000 but Sanborn boosted it to $400,000 to cover immediate construction costs. Solving the water shortage problem was the company’s first priority, and the first way to deal with the problem was to complete construction of the North Fork Ditch, now known as the North Poudre Canal and the unfinished reservoirs so that the system could begin functioning as quickly as possible. [8]

When completed, the North Poudre Canal was the last and northernmost of the three large east-west canals above Fort Collins, with the Larimer-Weld and Larimer County canals further south. [9] This unique placement provided a special opportunity for NPIC to maximize its water storage potential and obtain extra water. Most of the planned or partially built reservoirs that NPIC had acquired in 1901 lay “under the ditch.” That is, they were below and downstream from where farmers actually needed the water. Companies could not return water stored in these reservoirs back uphill to the lands closer to the river where agricultural needed the water. This could have been a terrible problem for NPIC, but instead the company turned it into one of its greatest strengths. When the senior rights holders on the Poudre had exhausted their supply late in the season but still needed more water, NPIC could share some of its reservoir water to the south in exchange for direct flow water from the river. Ditches could be extended from NPIC’s reservoirs to other systems further south, such as the Larimer-Weld and Larimer County canals, so that reservoir water could go to southern irrigation companies late in the season when they needed more water. In return, these companies would let NPIC take an equal amount of water from the North Fork of the Poudre after NPIC’s 97th appropriation had run out. This collaborative water exchanges approach to water rights and irrigation has ultimately worked in NPIC’s favor, although for many years water shortages remained a problem. [10]

During the presidency of Burton D. Sanborn from 1901 until 1905, NPIC’s system grew and expanded tremendously. The system of water exchanges was the motivating factor for the construction of Fossil Creek Reservoir in 1902, which at the time was Northern Colorado’s largest water storage reservoir with a capacity of 350,000,000 cubic feet. Located in the southeastern corner of the NPIC system, the company intended Fossil Creek Reservoir solely for water exchange with companies downstream from NPIC. The wooden flume that Francis Carter-Cotton had built in the North Fork canyon had started to rot and cause problems with water leakage. NPIC thus replaced the flume with the mile-long North Poudre Tunnelthrough the canyon wall to carry water through the canyon to the North Poudre Canal. By 1903, NPIC had fifteen reservoirs with a total storage capacity of over two billion cubic feet of water. In 1909, plans to construct Halligan Reservoir at the mouth of the North Fork’s canyon would add another 279 million cubic feet to NPIC’s reservoir storage capacity. [11]

When increased construction of reservoirs still did not give NPIC enough water to meet its shareholders’ irrigation needs, the company turned to other creative buying and selling options. Many small irrigation companies had proliferated in the early years of Northern Colorado irrigation, but by the turn of the century irrigation was starting to consolidate among fewer and more extensive ditch companies, which meant that smaller companies were not able to compete. NPIC bought up many of these small companies. Not only did this increase NPIC’s system and infrastructure, but many of these companies had priorities to Poudre water that were more senior than NPIC’s own, so securing these companies meant taking over their prior decrees, which meant more direct flow water supply from the Poudre. [12]

**Essay incomplete, needs to be resumed from this point**

Notes

[1] Ann Hilfinger, “Origins of the North Poudre Irrigation Company,”(1993, 16pp., WNPI (North Poudre Irrigation Company Collection), Box 1 Folder 2, Water Resources Archive, Colorado State University Archives and Special Collections), 1.
[2] Hilfinger, “Origins of the North Poudre Irrigation Company,” 3; “The Continuing Story of the North Poudre Irrigation Company: A Chronology or, The River Runs To It,” (WNPI Collection (North Poudre Irrigation Company Collection), Water Resources Archive, CSU Archives and Special Collections. Box 1, Folder 1. Company Chronology and Officers. 1993. e20pp.).
[3] Hilfinger, “Origins of the North Poudre Irrigation Company,” 1, 4-5, 11; “The Continuing Story of the North Poudre Irrigation Company: A Chronology or, The River Runs To It.”
[4] Hilfinger, “Origins of the North Poudre Irrigation Company,” 4.
[5] Hilfinger, “Origins of the North Poudre Irrigation Company,” 1, 4-5.
[6] Hilfinger, “Origins of the North Poudre Irrigation Company,” 4-6; “The Continuing Story of the North Poudre Irrigation Company: A Chronology or, The River Runs To It.”
[7] Hilfinger, “Origins of the North Poudre Irrigation Company,” 12.
[8] Hilfinger, “Origins of the North Poudre Irrigation Company,” 14.
[9] Hilfinger, “Origins of the North Poudre Irrigation Company,” 8, 10.
[10] Hilfinger, “Origins of the North Poudre Irrigation Company,” 14.
[11] NPIC Officers and Board Members, Box 1, Folder 1, Company Chronology and Officers, (1993, e20pp, WNPI Collection (North Poudre Irrigation Company Collection), Water Resources Archive, CSU Archives and Special Collections); Hilfinger, “Origins of the North Poudre Irrigation Company,” 11, 14-15.
[12] Hilfinger, “Origins of the North Poudre Irrigation Company,” 15.

Further Reading

Hilfinger, Ann. Origins of the North Poudre Irrigation Company. 1993, 16pp. WNPI (North Poudre Irrigation Company Collection), Box 1 Folder 2, Water Resources Archive, Colorado State University Archives and Special Collections.

WNPI Collection (North Poudre Irrigation Company Collection), Water Resources Archive, CSU Archives and Special Collections. Box 1, Folder 1. Company Chronology and Officers. 1993. e20pp. Water Holdings and Abbreviations (revised 2-13-93).

WNPI Collection (North Poudre Irrigation Company Collection), Water Resources Archive, CSU Archives and Special Collections. Box 1, Folder 1. Company Chronology and Officers. 1993. e20pp. NPIC Officers and Board Members.

WNPI Collection (North Poudre Irrigation Company Collection), Water Resources Archive, CSU Archives and Special Collections. Box 1, Folder 1. Company Chronology and Officers. 1993. e20pp. The Continuing Story of the North Poudre Irrigation Company: A Chronology or, The River Runs To It.

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