Big Dry Creek and the Bull Canal - Constructed in 1910-11
(Pictured left: Big Dry Creek
- North of 128th Avenue
in the vicinity of Bull Reservoir)
Big Dry Creek and the Bull Canal form an interconnected irrigation system that runs toward the northeast from Standley Lake, passes through the City of Westminster and then exits the municipality in its northeastern corner. Along its route, the creek is paralleled by the Big Dry Creek Trail, providing residents with an excellent route for walking, jogging and bike riding. Although its name implies a lack of water, Big Dry Creek supports extensive riparian habitat and marshlands along its entire length. These serve as home to an abundance of plants and wildlife.
Big Dry Creek originates among the barren, windswept lands east of Highway 93 and north of Highway 72, in the area known as Rocky Flats. From these heights, it runs eastward for several miles before disappearing into Standley Lake. The creek then re-emerges from the base of the lake’s massive earthen dam and continues along a northeastern course through the City of Westminster. This initial stretch of the creek, both east and west of Standley Lake, contains a small stream of water. To the northeast, Big Dry Creek snakes lazily past Wadsworth Parkway, Wadsworth Boulevard and Highway 36. Along the way, it picks up additional water from ponds and natural drainages. By the time the creek runs through Westminster City Park it has become a larger watercourse.
After providing water to City Park Lake, the creek continues along its northeast journey, passing Sheridan Boulevard and 112th Avenue. It then winds its way through the Big Dry Creek Open Space, where since 1994 it has also supplied water to College Pond. North of 120th Avenue and west of Federal Boulevard, the creek runs along the eastern edge of the Metzger Farm Open Space and continues to 128th Avenue. A quarter mile east of Zuni Street, the previously snaking Big Dry Creek becomes a channeled waterway as it runs along the south side of Bull Reservoir and its surrounding marshland.
Along the east side of Bull Reservoir, the creek turns and heads toward the east and then northeast, finally exiting the City of Westminster near Interstate 25 and 132nd Avenue. At the point where the creek turns eastward near Bull Reservoir, a headgate diverts water into the Bull Canal. The concrete-lined irrigation canal heads toward the northeast, passing Huron Street and the Big Dry Creek Wastewater Treatment Facility. From there, the Bull Canal takes a more northerly course, winding its way through the open fields between 136th Avenue and 144th Avenue. At about 142nd Avenue, the canal passes beyond the city boundaries. It continues for miles through the countryside to the north-northeast, staying east of Interstate 25 until it terminates in the vicinity of Dacono, Frederick and Firestone.
(Pictured right: Bull Canal in the vicinity of 144th Avenue)
History of Big Dry Creek and the Bull Canal
The history of Big Dry Creek and the Bull Canal is directly tied to the growth of Colorado’s farm economy in the early 20th century and the expansion of irrigation systems into previously unreached areas of the state’s semi-arid northeastern plains.
In 1902, Denver retailer and real estate investor Thomas Croke teamed with Ottawa Joseph (“O.J.”) Standley and Milton Smith to incorporate the Farmers Reservoir and Irrigation Company (FRICO), an enterprise whose goal was to develop a profitable system of irrigation canals and reservoirs that would provide water to the rapidly developing farm country north of the city. New Jersey native Milton Smith lived in Denver, where he worked as an attorney. O. J. Standley, a native of Nebraska, also resided in Denver and served as vice-president of Chicago Title and Trust. The men pursued the development of irrigation projects not as farmers, but as entrepreneurs and investors. Their effort coincided with the explosion of the sugar beet industry in northeastern Colorado, which boosted the agricultural economy over the following decades.
For some time, Standley had been seeking a site to build a water storage reservoir north of Denver, initially settling upon Barr Lake near Brighton. However, Croke and Standley decided instead to greatly enlarge and improve Kinnear Reservoir northwest of the city into what became Standley Lake. Built around the late 1870s, Kinnear Reservoir was conveniently located along the course of Big Dry Creek, with additional drainages and irrigation canals feeding into it from the west. It also happened to be owned by the Croke Land and Livestock Company, whose owner was Thomas Croke.
To accomplish their ambitious goal of developing a massive irrigation system, the men created the Denver Reservoir and Irrigation Company. The Denver Company served as the construction division of FRICO and moved forward with their projects. From that time on, O. J. Standley served as company president and became the driving force behind the creation of the massive Standley Lake Irrigation System.
Construction of Standley Lake began in 1908 and continued into early 1910 with a massive effort to raise the earthen dam wall. Rather than employing horse-drawn scrapers, as in earlier years, this work was accomplished with large steam shovels and dragline dredges. By early 1910, FRICO had expanded to provide water to more than 200,000 acres of agricultural land across several irrigation districts north of Denver. It also held a developing system of irrigation canals and reservoirs, and acquired the rights to more than 400,000 acre-feet of water.
Despite the business skills, connections, and excellent reputations of its founders, the company was unable to forestall financial problems that soon beset the Standley Lake project. With rapid expansion, by 1910 the Denver Reservoir and Irrigation Company had taken on so many ambitious efforts in such a short period of time that it found itself overextended and short on funds to finish several of its projects. In May 1910, work at Standley Lake ground to a halt and the site went silent. The massive earthwork sat partially built, awaiting an uncertain future.
Ten months later, in March 1911, Denver newspapers reported that the effort would be restarted with funding from Banque Franco-Americaine, with offices in Paris and New York. The bank agreed to provide $2,000,000 for the completion of various irrigation projects already launched by the company, including Standley Lake. However, the agreement also called for the Denver Reservoir and Irrigation Company to go into receivership and be placed under bank control. Croke, Standley and Smith had no choice but to let Banque Franco-Americaine take the financial reins of the project, and Arthur Day of New York City was appointed receiver. However, the three Denver founders continued to serve as directors and officers of the company.
When work resumed in spring 1911, hundreds of laborers were brought from Denver each day to work at the site. Excavators and trains delivering equipment and soil to the site moved at a remarkable pace, setting records in the heavy construction industry. At the same time the dam was being finished, the outflow canals, embankments and downstream ditches had to be prepared.
Dedication of the Standley Lake Dam took place on Sept. 7, 1911. Upon completion, the earthen dam was reported to be the largest of its kind in the United States, and possibly the second largest in the world. The lake was filled with water from Clear Creek, Coal Creek, Ralston Creek and Leyden Creek. Some of this water was delivered by way of the Croke Canal and Church Ditch. Water also entered the lake from the upper reaches of Big Dry Creek and Woman Creek. Additional water was secured from the Farmers High Line Canal. The twin outflow from Standley Lake to the east divided the water below the dam between the Niver Canal and Big Dry Creek.
In tandem with the construction of Standley Lake, the Denver Reservoir and Irrigation Company acquired a right-of-way for a new canal that would be constructed downstream, with its headgate along Big Dry Creek. Between 1909 and 1911, numerous farmers in northeastern Jefferson County and western Adams County sold rights for the irrigation ditch to cross their properties. The canal would bring much-needed irrigation water to the dry expanse of countryside north of Denver and west of the South Platte River. Around 1909, noted Denver civil engineer George M. Bull was engaged to design this water conveyance structure. From that time on, the ditch was known as the Bull Canal.
George Mairs Bull was born in Troy, New York in 1873 and in 1897 received a civil engineering degree from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. His first job out of college involved reconstruction work on the Erie Canal. Following that, Bull enlisted in the 1st Volunteer Engineers and served in Puerto Rico. Discharged after the Spanish-American War, he obtained employment with the Chicago Northwestern Railway and worked on a bridge project across the Des Moines River. Between 1900 and 1903, Bull was employed as deputy engineer with the City of Troy, where he was placed in charge of the construction of municipal buildings and a new waterworks system. The next three years were spent in the employ of the New York State Barge Canal, working on hydraulic studies and the design of the Champlain Diversion Project. From 1906 to 1909, Bull worked as a design engineer for J. G. White and Company and the Arnold Company of Chicago. He then relocated to Denver, where he opened a consulting office and spent the next four decades providing engineering services on numerous water projects throughout the state.
Constructed in 1910-1911, the Bull Canal emerged from a headgate located along Big Dry Creek seven miles northeast of Standley Lake and adjacent to Bull Reservoir. Over the years following the canal’s construction, it was expanded beyond its original northeastern terminus and bifurcated to form the Bull Canal II and Bull Canal III extensions, along with five lateral ditches. From the headgate along Big Dry Creek, the entire canal eventually extended for over forty miles to the northeast, reaching all the way to Dacono, Frederick and Firestone. Over the following century, the Bull Canal served as an integral part of FRICO’s massive Standley Lake Irrigation System, and it remains in use today.
Although Big Dry Creek is a natural drainage, over the past century it has been supplied with water from Standley Lake, effectively turning it into an irrigation canal. Yet it still flows along its original course, snaking through the city and providing Westminster with a place of natural beauty and recreation.
Prepared by Ron Sladek of Tatanka Historical Associates Inc.