Water Shapes Neighborhoods

The Cache la Poudre River and its tributaries have shaped many of Fort Collins’ neighborhoods in significant ways. The dramatic difference between how waterways affected and continue to affect some neighborhoods is not merely happenstance. In Fort Collins, socioeconomic class has affected where residents located neighborhoods and how exposed they were to the dangers posed by water. For instance, Tres Colonias, a traditionally low-wage labor area, sits low in the floodplain and is under constant threat of flooding, separated from the city center by a levee and the path of the river, while the Sheely neighborhood, part of the post-World War Two expansion of middle-class and suburban sprawl, perches on a hill where residents enjoy views of Spring Creek but are safe from encroaching waters.

Tres Colonias

The Cache la Poudre River shaped the layout, development, and culture of the neighborhoods of Buckingham, Alta Vista, and Andersonville. In the late nineteenth century, city leaders and farmers realized sugar beets, supported by irrigation from the river, could provide an economic boon to the city, leading them to build a sugar processing factory in 1903. Growing sugar beets for the Great Western Sugar Company’s factory required more labor than the local population could provide; therefore, farmers and Great Western recruited groups of Germans from Russia who had experience with beets and the difficult stoop work needed to harvest them. To house the newly-arrived laborers, Great Western created neighborhoods northeast of the Cache la Poudre River near the factory in the area collectively known as Tres Colonias today. 1 In November 1902, Great Western constructed small dwellings on land owned by Boulder banker Charles Buckingham next to an oxbow in the river to house farmers and factory workers and called the settlement Buckingham. The following year, Andersonville formed out of an assemblage of migrant worker shacks built on land owned by Peter Anderson. Seasonal Hispanic field and factory workers became more common at Great Western as European immigration slowed during and after World War One and as descendants of the Germans from Russia became more established in Fort Collins. In 1923, Great Western established a “Spanish Colony,” now known as Alta Vista, northeast of the sugar factory on Dry Creek to entice laborers to stay and supplied straw and other materials for making adobe houses, a feature that made Tres Colonias architecturally distinctive from the rest of Fort Collins. 2

The neighborhoods were not only situated within walking distance of the fields and factory, but, as is often the case for poor and minority groups they were located on marginal land on the broad floodplain of the Cache la Poudre River, a situation that would bring destruction to the area several times. On May 21, 1904, a devastating flood washed away many of the homes and structures in the settlements and interrupted the efforts of the inhabitants to incorporate Buckingham and improve the Andersonville area. However, the natural disaster brought awareness of the communities to the rest of Fort Collins. In 1906, the city annexed Buckingham as the result of a petition to annex the neighborhood as its own town. Fort Collins did not annex Andersonville and Alta Vista, located further northeast, until 1974. 3

Despite their eventual incorporation into Fort Collins, the city continued to isolate the neighborhoods across the river by failing to provide the communities with basic infrastructure. The city did not even connect a sewer line to Alta Vista until the early 1970s, or pave the roads until 1980. Mrs. Inez Romero, a former resident of Andersonville, recalled relying on cisterns and wells that pulled from the water table created by the Cache la Poudre River. “Most of the time,” Romero recounted, “we had to throw half of the water out because it was full of so many things that you couldn’t drink after that.” 4 Elvira Ortega noted while growing up in Alta Vista during the 1950s, there were still outhouses and mud streets. 5

Infrastructure such as gutters, storms sewers, and other water diversion systems are still an issue for the area that includes Tres Colonias, but as development extended to the northeast of Fort Collins, the city recognized the problem. In the Northside Neighborhoods Plan issued by the City of Fort Collins on January 18, 2005, the city noted, “The lack of adequate drainage for the neighborhoods is a major safety concern. The neighborhoods of Alta Vista and Buckingham are in the 100-year floodplain and have flooded in the past. The streets in these traditional neighborhoods lack curb and gutter.” 6 Furthermore, inadequate drainage poses major limitations to the development and redevelopment opportunities of the area.

The Cache la Poudre River not only contributed to the marginalization of Tres Colonias, it also helped to influence a unique and vibrant cultural area that is important to contemporary Fort Collins. The river itself shaped the experiences of the inhabitants of Tres Colonias. Up until the 1950s, the Cache la Poudre River bowed east right up to the boundaries of Buckingham. “The river was the only place to hang out when you were a kid,” recounted Debra Bueno, “Back then the river ran by First Street in Buckingham, so we had wild animals like pheasants, quail, and lots of animals.” 7 The river also helped shape and sustain folk culture. Bueno recalls collecting wild spinach that grew along the banks of the river for her grandma from which she made herbal medicines. Bueno and Frank Martinez both recollect the story of “La Llorrona.” A folktale from Mexico, La Llorrona was the spirit of a woman who had drowned her children and was used to scare the local kids who were told that if they cried, La Llorrona would knock on their doors seeking her children and take them away. 8 Buckingham residents viewed the river as a source of help and anxiety.

Sheely Neighborhood

The development of the Sheely neighborhood took place under a much different context than the Tres Colonias area. Following the end of World War Two, the Unites States saw unprecedented growth in population, income, and homeownership. This trend held true for Fort Collins. In 1944, the city covered 1,840 acres, but by 1959, the city had grown to 3,575 acres. The Sheely neighborhood was a product of this post-war growth and Fort Collins’ first affluent World War Two subdivision. In 1951, Arthur C. Sheely purchased water rights and forty-acres of land just south of Colorado A & M from Carl W. and Pauline E. Birky. Two years later, the Olds and Redd Construction Co., purchased the land and began the heaviest development of the area. The development of Sheely coincided with a post-war interest in cars and leisure and innovations in architecture, construction materials and techniques, and landscape planning, all of which made Sheely one of the most unique neighborhoods in the city. Ranch houses, particularly of a high style and influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie style and Usonian design ideals, dominate the neighborhood. 9

Prior to the 1960s, the Fort Collins only required drainage infrastructure (such as gutters and storms sewers) to be designed to accommodate minor storms, and the city had not conducted any floodplain studies. This lack of design standards allowed for the Sheely neighborhood to take on a unique plan. The neighborhood’s layout took advantage of the natural topography of the area shaped by Spring Creek. The creek and natural area bordered Sheely to the south, and a major storm drainage channel at the bottom, southwest end of the neighborhood effectively enclosed the neighborhood, which sat on a ridge and had no through streets. Instead, the streets meandered their way along a rolling hill, which provided the homes a view overlooking Spring Creek and the natural areas created by its flood plain. By design, Sheely Drive had no sidewalks or gutters to direct the flow of stormwater. Instead, the lawns ran together, and water made its way down the hillside around the houses and low stone walls that demarcated property boundaries and into the creek. 10

Sheely’s development also coincided with a rapidly increasing need for water to serve the city’s growing population. Resident Dennis Bode recalled: “This was a period that Fort Collins was just starting to—to really grow. Then on top of that, one of the most severe droughts in the century occurred from ’53 to ’56. And so all of a sudden the city kind of found itself a little bit short of water.” 11 The city enforced sprinkler restrictions, updated the water system, and acquired water from existing water systems, such as irrigation. At the same time, the sprawling suburb with its wide green lawns required water to sustain its look and the demands of the houses. This neighborhood also boasted the first backyard swimming pools in the city. 12 This increasing consumption of water stood in tension with the layout of the neighborhood, which was meant to let people feel closer to nature, a nature indelibly shaped by water.

These two neighborhoods, although very different from each other in historical context, geographic location, and socioeconomic makeup, reveal how water shaped urban development in Fort Collins. Tres Colonias was situated on marginal land, exposed to the power of flowing water, and separated from the rest of Fort Collins, creating an atmosphere where a unique identity was forged. Sheely was built in the context of a rapidly changing post-World War Two nation high above Spring Creek. New technology and building materials helped form the character of the neighborhood and so did the flood plain below it. Despite their differences, Tres Colonias and Sheely neighborhood both continue to be influenced by the waterways that flow in and around them.

  1. The communities are also collectively known as BAVA.
  2. Carl McWilliams and Karen McWilliams, <i>Agriculture in the Fort Collins Urban Growth Area 1862-1994. Historic Contexts and Survey Report</i>, Presented to the City of Fort Collins Planning Department (Fort Collins: Carl McWilliams and Karen McWilliams, Cultural Resource Historians, 1995), 29; Adam Thomas, Work Renders Life Sweet: Germans from Russia in Fort Collins, 1900-2000 (Westminster: SWCA Environmental Consultants, 2003), 8-9; Adam Thomas and Timothy Smith, The Sugar Factory Neighborhoods: Buckingham, Andersonville, Alta Vista (Westminster: SWCA Environmental Consultants, 2004), 1; John Feinberg, Principle-in-Charge, Architecture and History of Buckingham, Alta Vista, and Andersonville: Fort Collins, Colorado Neighborhood History Project (Boulder: Community Services Collaborative, 1983), 14; Adam Thomas, Hang your Wagon to a Star: Hispanics in Fort Collins, 1900-2000 (Westminster: SWCA Environmental Consultants, 2002), 6. The company offered 50-by-85-foot lots in the “Spanish Colony” that workers could purchase through an installment plan.

    The water from the Cache la Poudre River did more than irrigate beets. It also served as a barrier that geographically and socially isolated the factory and immigrant laborers’ neighborhoods from the rest of Fort Collins, a trend that continued well into the city’s contemporary history. Early Fort Collins residents saw Buckingham and Andersonville as seditious, suspect, and dangerous, and they called the area as “the Jungles,” a reference to the industrial ghettos depicted in Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel, The Jungle. Locating immigrant housing northeast of the river and the rest of Fort Collins kept these perceived dangers and foreign influences from making their way into the city proper. [3. Thomas and Smith, The Sugar Factory Neighborhoods, 11; Thomas, Work Renders Life Sweet, 9.

  3. Thomas, Hang your Wagon to a Star, 7; Fort Collins History Connection, “Sugar Beets, Streetcar Suburbs, and the City Beautiful, 1900-1919,” Poudre Library District, http://history.fcgov.com/archive/contexts/sugar.php (accessed, May 7, 2014). The annexation of Buckingham was part of a trend of city expansion that occurred between 1891 and 1909. See “City Grew Most in Last 10 Years,” Fort Collins Coloradoan, August 16, 1959, page 5. City of Fort Collins Museum of Discovery, Archives, Fort Collins; Fort Collins History Connection, “Buckingham, Andersonville, AltaVista Neighborhoods,” Poudre Library District, http://history.fcgov.com/archive/1940s/n6.php (accessed, May 7, 2014).
  4. Interview of Mrs. Inez Rivera Romero by Charlene Tresner and Loyd Levy, April 14, 1975, City of Fort Collin Museum of Discovery, Archives, Fort Collins, 33.
  5. Thomas, Hang your Wagon to a Star, 9.
  6. Community Planning and Environmental Services, Advanced Planning Department, Northside Neighborhoods Plan (Fort Collins: City of Fort Collins, 2005), 9.
  7. Interview of Frank Martinez and Debra Bueno by Tri Jordan Madrid and Zak Turley, December 13, 2005, Oral History: Cache la Poudre River History and Culture, City of Fort Collins Museum of Discovery, Fort Collins.
  8. Ibid. For more information, see “La Llorrona,” https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/lxl01.
  9. “Fort Collins has Come a Long Way,” Image, Fort Collins Coloradoan, August 16, 1959, page 5. City of Fort Collins Museum of Discovery, Archives, Fort Collins; Debra Applin and Polly Puleson, “Local Historic Landmark Designation Nomination Form: Sheely Drive,” (Fort Collins: Historic Preservation Office, 2000), City of Fort Collins Historic Preservation Office, Sheely property file, 7; Historic Builidng Inventory Record, 1600 Sheely Drive, Fort Collins, CO (Denver, Colorado Historical Society, 2000), City Of Fort Collins Historic Preservation Office, 1600 Sheely Drive property file.
  10. Stormwater Master Plan: Executive Summary Report, September 2003, City of Fort Collins Utilities, 4; Applin and Puleson, “Local Historic Landmark Designation Nomination Form: Sheely Drive,” 5.
  11. Interview of Dennis Bode, “History of the Fort Collins Water System,” (May 19, 1985), City of Fort Collins Museum of Discovery, archives.
  12. Molly Nortier and Mike Smith, From Bucket to Basin: 100 Years of Water Service (Fort Collins: Fort Collins Water Utilities, 1982), 16. To complicate matters further, the city used water as a tool of annexation. When Fort Collins demanded that fringe users sign a contract for water use that opened them to the possibility of annexation, landowners refused. The conflict was only resolved when heard in the Colorado Supreme Court.

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