Vanishing Ditches of Fort Collins

The last 150 years during which Fort Collins has been homesteaded, farmed, and urbanized has resulted in a tangle of ditches, canals, pipelines, and other water works. While there are dozens of water structures traversing Fort Collins today, some of the area’s earliest ditches have disappeared from the landscape after owners determined they were no longer useful. Two ditches in particular that represent a trend of vanishing ditches in Fort Collins’ history: the Josh Ames Ditch and the Arthur Ditch.

Josh Ames Ditch: An Abandoned Ditch

The Josh Ames Ditch, constructed during Colorado’s first period of irrigation development, was one of the Fort Collins area’s earliest ditches.1 As use for the land irrigated by the Josh Ames Ditch shifted away from agriculture towards different industries, the need for the ditch eventually disappeared. Currently fading from the landscape, the Josh Ames Ditch provides an example of how changing water use led to the abandonment of some agricultural ditches and laterals in and around Fort Collins.

In 1862, a young pioneer by the name of Josh Ames headed west to Fort Collins, a military post on the Overland Trail. Hoping to establish himself as a farmer, Ames filed a homestead claim in 1864 of a 160-acre lot that is just south of what today is Andersonville neighborhood between Vine Street and Lemay Avenue. Irrigating farmland with water from the local Cache la Poudre River had become a very common practice in Fort Collins by the time Ames settled in the area. In fact, it was common for new farmers to dig their own ditches, and so, Ames collaborated with his neighbor, Peter Anderson, to construct a 1.75 mile irrigation canal to water both of their fields. This irrigation canal came to be known as the Josh Ames Ditch. At its peak the ditch moved 35 cubic feet of water per second. Although Josh Ames lived in Fort Collins for only a short time—he sold his farm and moved away in the 1870s—the ditch that he created continued to be used and bear his name. The ditch continued to irrigate the farms of Anderson and those who had purchased Ames’ lands after he moved. 2

Between the 1870s and 1899 Anderson maintained ownership of the ditch with a few partners and continued to operate the Josh Ames Ditch for solely irrigation purposes. This changed when Anderson, Alexander Barry, and J.H.C. Walker established the Josh Ames Irrigation Ditch Company in 1899. The ditch was now a profitmaking enterprise engaged in the sale of water rights and real estate, but it maintained its original use—irrigating the expanding agricultural lands in the Fort Collins area. The Josh Ames Irrigation Ditch Company continued to operate into the early twentieth century. From around 1903 when the Great Western Sugar Company opened until the plant closed down in 1955, the Ames Ditch provided much of its water to the plant. The sugar company used the water to wash the beets as they came through the factory. While it is likely that Great Western Sugar rented the water from the Josh Ames Ditch Company, the exact relationship between the two enterprises is unclear. 3

In 1926, the Josh Ames Irrigation Ditch Company again restructured and became a non-profit mutual ditch company. A small portion of the water from the ditch continued to be used for agricultural irrigation, but the Great Western Sugar Company utilized most of the water provided by the Josh Ames Ditch. As of 1926 the ditch was only moving 17.97 c.f. of water to irrigate roughly 700 acres of farmland in northeast Fort Collins. The Josh Ames Ditch Company sustained this level of use into the 1950s.

In 1955, the Great Western Sugar Company factory in Fort Collins closed, and the water the sugar company used from the Josh Ames Ditch was no longer needed. Fort Collins was changing. Industrial infrastructure was sprouting up around the city, and the need for irrigation water provided by the ditch was disappearing. Further industrial development, such as the Fort Collins airpark, diminished the need for water from the Josh Ames Ditch. 4

After a series of dry years between 1963 and 1966, the Josh Ames Ditch Company built a new headgate, diversion dam and pipeline where the original 1910 cobblestone dam and diversion had been located. The new diversion dam redirected the excess water back into the river. It is possible the ditch company built these structures to compensate for the lack of flow provided by a dry meander into the original headgate caused by the dry years. The new structures carried the water underground in pipelines from the headgate under Shields Street after which it returned to the surface and continued on in the ditch. 5

In June of 1971, the City of Fort Collins found it necessary to purchase water rights to supplement the city’s water supplies. The city purchased water rights from several ditch companies, including the Josh Ames Ditch Company. In the case of Josh Ames Ditch, the city did not purchase the ditch or its associated structures, just the water rights. The city then elected to convey the water rights to the North Poudre Irrigation Company. With the loss of the water rights, the ditch’s infrastructure became useless, and the Josh Ames Ditch ceased to function. 6

While the remains of the Josh Ames Ditch still traverse northern Fort Collins and portions of the 1966 head gate located at the intersection of North Shields Street and the Cache La Poudre River were still intact up until 2013, the ditch’s mark on the land has been quickly fading. Erosion, deterioration, and vegetative growth have overwhelmed the once flourishing ditch and are erasing it from existence. The city dismantled the remains of the head gate and reclaimed the area where the structures were located in 2013. This is certainly not the only early irrigation ditch to slowly disappear from the landscape, but it is one of the oldest and largest abandoned ditches in Fort Collins’ history. 7

Arthur Ditch: A Covered Ditch

Perhaps a more resilient ditch in Fort Collins history is the Arthur Ditch. The Arthur Ditch continues to operate, but some sections of the ditch flow under the city of Fort Collins while other sections remain uncovered. The ditch is mostly invisible to the public through residential neighborhoods and peeks out in various places across the Fort Collins landscape. Just as it did when first constructed, Arthur Ditch provides water to agricultural and domestic users in and around Fort Collins to this day.

Constructed in 1869, the Arthur Ditch served the same original purpose as the Josh Ames Ditch: irrigating farmland from the Cache La Poudre River. The Arthur Ditch has gone by a number of names including its original title of the Fort Collins Irrigation Ditch and its colloquial designation as the Town Ditch. The ditch was called the Town Ditch because it provided water for domestic use for the citizens of Fort Collins as well as for agricultural purposes. 8

Arthur Ditch, which is roughly eight miles long, runs along the western boundary of Old Fort Collins, with the Cache La Poudre forming the northeastern boundary of the town (see map of early Fort Collins). Arthur Ditch flows southeast through the center of modern Fort Collins and through Colorado State University Campus. After crossing Spring Creek, it becomes Sherwood Lateral, which heads east to fill Williams Lake and Nelson Reservoir (Lake Sherwood) and provide irrigation water to southeast Fort Collins. 9

In 1887 James B. Arthur, a prominent businessman and politician in Fort Collins, together with Jay Bouton and Charles Mantz, established the Arthur Irrigation Company. James Arthur then purchased the rights to the Fort Collins Irrigation Ditch. Although it is unclear who renamed the ditch, it quickly became known as the Arthur Ditch and became the flagship of the Arthur Irrigation Company. 10

The early twentieth century proved to be a tumultuous time for Arthur Ditch. The ever-expanding city of Fort Collins entirely surrounded the northern half of the ditch. Between 1900 and the 1930s, citizens living along the ditch filed a series of petitions and complaints about the safety and sanitation of Arthur Ditch. Disparaged as an eyesore and a safety hazard, residents petitioned for the ditch to be relocated or covered. During the 1930s the ditch became such an issue and safety concern that the city applied for emergency funding with the Federal Emergency Administrator of Public Works to place the ditch underground in a conduit where it traversed through the city. 11; Fort Collins City Commissioner of Safety and Ex-Officiate Mayer to the Board of Directors of the Arthur Irrigation Company, 16 September 1933, ADC; Resolution by the City of Fort Collins to fund the expenses to put the Arthur Ditch Underground in a Conduit, 17 March 1933, ADC; Meeting Minutes, Arthur Irrigation Company Board Meeting with Mayor of Fort Collins, CO, 16 September 1933, “Meeting Minutes,” Arthur Ditch Historic Archive Collection, Department of Utilities, City of Fort Collins, Colorado [hereafter ADHAC]. See documents regarding relocation and elimination of Arthur Ditch through Fort Collins in ADHAC.]

The City of Fort Collins and the Arthur Irrigation Company compromised with one another. The city and the company placed underground multiple portions of Arthur Ditch that traversed through Fort Collins and interfered visually or physically with development as the city continued to expand. In 1935, Fort Collins and the Arthur Irrigation Company buried the portion of the Arthur Ditch extending from Vine Street to Laurel Street—the northern half of the ditch—in a conduit using funds from the Federal Emergency Administrator of Public Works. However, this did not eliminate all of the challenges associated with Arthur Ditch. Fort Collins continued to expand over the years, and the Arthur Ditch travelled a path that now was located in the center of the ever-growing city. Colorado State University gradually covered portions of the ditch that wound through its campus. Nevertheless, Arthur Irrigation Company and its successor, the Fort Collins Irrigation Company, had a legal right of way through the city of Fort Collins and that could not be changed. Additionally, the ditch continued to provide irrigation to farmers in and around Fort Collins, as well as to the city itself. 12

Despite tensions and some Fort Collins citizen’s attempts to alter or eliminate Arthur Ditch through the city, it still persists. It has become a nearly invisible ditch, no longer posing a serious threat to health and safety and still able to provide domestic and irrigation water to the residents and farmers of Fort Collins, Colorado.

The Arthur Ditch and Josh Ames Ditch both served Fort Collins in its early development as an agricultural community. However, as the City of Fort Collins grew, so did its needs as different types of industry moved into the area. The Arthur Ditch adapted to the changing city, providing water for multiple uses, and it was able to disappear from sight but not from use. In contrast, the Josh Ames Ditch’s sole purpose had been to provide water for the agricultural industries in northeast Fort Collins. When those industries waned, so too did the Josh Ames Ditch. Without a purpose, it was left to fade away.

  1. Water adjudicated for the Josh Ames Ditch holds priority number 25 on the Cache la Poudre River.
  2. Tatanka Historical Associates, Inc., Josh Ames Ditch: Cultural Resource Analysis of the Headgates, Diversion Structure, and Segments West of College Avenue, Prepared for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Denver, CO Regulatory Office (Fort Collins: Tatanka Historical Associates, 2013), 10-11; Ansel Watrous, History of Larimer County, Colorado (Fort Collins: Courier Printer and Publishing Co., 1911), 71.
  3. Tatanka, 14; Jay Trask, “Irrigation and Water-Related Structures in the Cache la Poudre River Corridor” (unpublished manuscript, 1993), 66.
  4. Tatanka, 12-13.
  5. Tatanka, 14-15.
  6. Tatanka, 14-16.
  7. Trask, 66.
  8. Watrous, 72 and 500; Trask, 11-12; Victor Elliott, Decree in the Matter of Priorities of Water Rights in Water District No. 3 (Fort Collins: Evening Courier Printing House, 1882), 31. Arthur Ditch’s original priority on the Cache la Poudre River was 32, though the ditch’s enlargements and water rights purchases added higher and lower priorities over time. It was adjudicated as the Fort Collins Irrigating Canal Company.
  9. Trask, 11-12.
  10. Trask, 11-12.
  11. Fort Collins City Attorney to John Pershing, 17 September 1935, Arthur Ditch Collection, Fort Collins City Clerks Office, Fort Collins, Colorado [hereafter ADC
  12. Fort Collins City Engineer to the Honorable D.C. Armitage, Commissioner of Works, 15 September 1933, ADC; Documented Series of Court Cases and Petitions Regarding the Safety and Sanitation of the Arthur Ditch through Fort Collins between 1904-1935, ADC; Certificate of Full Payment to Arthur Ditch Company, 1887, ADHAC. Fort Collins Irrigation Company took over ownership in 1944. See Trask, 12.

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