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Church Ditch - Constructed in 1870-71

Running through Stoney Creek Golf Course(Pictured left: Church Ditch - Running through the Stoney Creek Golf Course, North of West 96th Avenue and West of Alkire Street)

The Church Ditch originates on the western edge of Golden, where a diversion channel and headgate draw water from the north bank of Clear Creek and into the earthen canal. The headgate is located in the mouth of Clear Creek Canyon, along the south side of U.S. Highway 6 about 2,500 feet west of its intersection with Highway 93. Heading northeast through Golden, the ditch stays south of Highway 58 until it reaches Easley Road and 44th Avenue. It crosses to the north of Highway 58 there and then arcs to the north as it begins to make its way toward Westminster.

Northeast of Golden, the ditch runs along the east side of Easley Road, passing through open fields and rural residential properties. It crosses Van Bibber Creek north of 55th Avenue. From there it makes its way north to 64th Avenue and crosses Ralston Creek as it runs through the West Woods Golf Course in Arvada. Water can be diverted into the Church Ditch from Ralston Creek through a headgate at this crossing. After passing Quaker Street at 70th Avenue, the ditch snakes through the countryside and then curves along the southwestern, western and northern sides of Leyden Lake.

After crossing Indiana Street at 80th Avenue, the Church Ditch heads east and then southeast, running through the neighborhoods of northern Arvada. Several blocks east of Kipling Street, it takes a sharp turn to the northwest near 74th Street and Garland Street. It crosses Kipling Street again, passes 80th Avenue, and then approaches Standley Lake at 86th Parkway and Simms Street. The ditch continues to the northwest, north and then northeast, taking a broad curve through the open countryside. Along this arc are several diversion structures that allow water to be drawn from the ditch into the lake.

North of 96th Avenue, the ditch passes through the Stoney Creek Golf Course and crosses Woman Creek. East of Alkire Street, it runs across Standley Lake Regional Park, where it also passes through the bald eagle nesting area south of 100th Avenue. After crossing Simms Street, the ditch passes through Westminster’s Countryside neighborhood. It then curves back toward the northwest, crosses Simms Street, and heads into the Westminster Hills Open Space.

Just east of Great Western Reservoir, the Church Ditch curves again to the east, runs parallel to Walnut Creek for about 2,500 feet, and then disappears into a drainage structure. In this area, it also feeds into the Dry Creek Valley Ditch, which flows east into Westminster. From its headgate west of Golden to its terminus northwest of Standley Lake, the ditch extends for a total of approximately 27 miles. It supports massive cottonwood and willow trees along its route, along with habitat that serves as home to an abundance of plants and wildlife.

Church Ditch NW of Standley Lake(Pictured right: Church Ditch - Standley Lake Regional Park, Northwest of Standley Lake, South of 100th Avenue)

History of the Church Ditch

While many of the early pioneers drawn to the Colorado frontier sought riches in hard rock mining, others recognized a more solid opportunity in providing the alpine mining camps with provisions such as food, clothing and equipment. But to provide locally produced food, they had to claim land, secure vital irrigation water and then launch into building farms and ranches.

Among the earliest homesteaders in northern Jefferson County were George and Sarah Church. George Church was born in 1830 in Rochester, NY. In 1853, he moved to Iowa where he acquired tracts of land in three counties and started a farm of his own. Sarah Miller was born in Illinois in 1838 and moved to Iowa with her parents. During the 1850s, George boarded with the Miller family and met his future wife, who he married in 1861.

One month after their wedding, the Churches headed west to the Colorado Territory, driving a wagon hundreds of miles across the prairie. After attempting to mine near Idaho Springs for several months, George sold his claims and the couple purchased land in the vicinity of Mount Vernon Canyon west of Denver. They returned to Iowa, loaded all of their belongings into their wagon, and headed back to Colorado with supplies and a herd of 50 dairy cows. This second journey west took nine weeks to complete.

After their livestock failed to thrive in the foothills terrain of Mount Vernon Canyon, the Churches tried to start another farm near Boulder. This also proved unsuitable and in 1864 they settled for good on another 160-acre homestead. Their new farm was located along Walnut Creek, 12 miles northwest of Denver near what later became the intersection of 103rd Avenue and Wadsworth Boulevard. At the time, the farm was situated along the Denver-Boulder wagon road. In 1864, traffic along the road increased greatly as it became part of the Overland Stage Route that ran from Denver north to Laramie and Cheyenne, Wyoming. When the Churches arrived there, the area was largely undeveloped, neighbors were scarce, and Denver was a full day’s horseback ride away.

George Church constructed a two-story wood frame house on the property, replacing the rough shanty that was already located there. Before long he erected a nicer two-story home in front of the wood frame house, which was converted into a bunkhouse for travelers stopping for the night at what became known as Church’s Station. From that time on, the Churches devoted their time to building their ranch and tending to the needs of guests.

Primarily interested in raising livestock and providing meat to Denver and the mining camps, George increased the size of his herd. In 1869, he introduced some of the first Hereford cattle to Colorado, shipped by rail to Cheyenne and then driven to the ranch. Durham cattle were later raised there. While his livestock grazed on pasture each spring, summer and fall, George grew hay and grains that were used to sustain the cattle through the winter months. He acquired additional parcels over the years, and the Church Ranch grew to encompass thousands of acres stretching from today’s Sheridan Boulevard west to the foothills.

During the summer months, George and his ranch hands drove cattle from the home property in Jefferson County to land he acquired in Middle Park. At the 2,700-acre 4-4 Ranch, the livestock grazed on the rich grass and drank from mountain streams. The area where this alpine ranch was located west of the town of Fraser became known as Church Park.

A reliable source of water was necessary to the Churches’ ranching operation in the arid climate of northern Jefferson County, both to support livestock and grow crops. George had to secure water rights so that he could begin constructing an irrigation system that would bring water from the mountains to his ranch on the plains. He initially acquired priority #40 along Clear Creek, dating from Feb. 18, 1865, for a flow of 41 cubic feet of water per second. Additional rights were later secured, adjudicated as #62 dating from Nov. 18, 1877. However, because so many parties had prior rights along Clear Creek, it left the Church Ditch short on water. Ultimately, seven decrees dating from the 1860s through the 1880s, and totaling 213 cubic feet per second, were secured for the Church Ditch.

In 1870-71, George dredged the irrigation canal with a horse-drawn scraper, extending it from a headgate near the mouth of Clear Creek Canyon west of Golden into the countryside to the northeast. In addition to developing the Church Ditch, he constructed two storage reservoirs that became known as Church’s Upper Lake and Lower Lake. Over the following decades the ditch was expanded and improved. It ended up providing irrigation water to approximately 50,000 acres of land along its length, distributed to the fields through at least 124 headgates that diverted the water into as many lateral ditches.

In 1863, Sarah gave birth to a son they named John (however he became known as “Frank.”) Unable to have additional children, they adopted a niece of Sarah’s named Mary and raised her as their own. Other family members joined George and Sarah in their Colorado home. Frank married a young teacher from Kansas named Katherine Jones in 1892, and the couple settled in their own home on the Church Ranch near today’s Wadsworth Boulevard and Church Ranch Boulevard. There they built a sizable farmstead, which a few decades later took on a new role in the history of the ranch.

George died in 1918 and was followed three years later by Sarah. Frank inherited the Church Ranch, and the farmstead where he and Katherine lived became its headquarters. Occupied with community affairs and banking in both Denver and Arvada, Frank turned daily management of the ranch over to his wife. Katherine took advantage of the opportunity to invest in acquisitions of land and cattle, and she proved to be a savvy businesswoman. However, a depression in the cattle market during the 1920s and the impact of the stock market crash of 1929 caused some of the mortgaged Church Ranch landholdings to be lost.

Although the Church Ranch survived the Depression, it did so as a somewhat smaller operation. The original ranch settled by George and Sarah in the 1860s was scaled down to about one hundred acres in the vicinity of Frank and Katherine’s farmstead near Wadsworth Boulevard and Church Ranch Boulevard. The family also retained three thousand acres of open pasture in the area along the foothills known as Rocky Flats.

Following Frank’s death in an accident, his son Marcus inherited the ranch. He continued to pasture cattle on the Rocky Flats acreage until 1951, when the federal government acquired about half of the land for construction of the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant. Marcus died in 1979 and his nephew Charles McKay, George and Sarah’s great-grandson, inherited what remained of the family business. This is still headquartered today in Frank and Katherine’s former farmstead. Charles continued to raise livestock and has been actively involved in area land development.

By the 1980s, the Church Ditch ended up under the shared ownership of the Farmers Reservoir and Irrigation Company (FRICO), together with the cities of Broomfield, Northglenn, Thornton and Westminster. Westminster began acquiring shares in the ditch around 1960. Each of these cities received some of its water from the ditch, with Westminster storing its share in Standley Lake. As a carrier ditch, the Church Ditch transported water that was both used by the cities and sold to consumers. Many contracted recipients of the ditch water were small landowners along its length.

Ownership of the Church Ditch was reduced to the cities of Westminster (1/3) and Northglenn (2/3) by the early 2000s. Water conveyed by the ditch is stored in Standley Lake for municipal and recreational use. In addition, it has continued to supply more than 100 agricultural users through 55 active headgates. Over time, the decreed capacity of the ditch was reduced to 113 cubic feet per second of water. In the early 2000s, the ditch was modified to convey stormwater from upstream developments in Arvada. This was done as a means of preventing urban runoff, with its attendant fertilizers, oils, etc., from entering Standley Lake and polluting municipal water supplies.

Prepared by Ron Sladek of Tatanka Historical Associates Inc. See research sources.