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Farmers' High Line Canal - Constructed in 1860s - 1880s

Farmers' High Line Canal Hyland Hills Golf Course(Pictured left: Farmers’ High Line Canal at theHyland Hills Golf Course)

The Farmers’ High Line Canal originates at the intersection of Clear Creek and Archer Street in Golden, where a large headgate draws water from the north bank of the creek and into the ditch. The headgate is located adjacent to the Coors Brewery. From that point, the canal passes under the Golden Freeway (Highway 58) and then arcs to the northeast as it begins to make its way toward the City of Westminster. Along the way, it passes through open fields and residential subdivisions, crossing Van Bibber Creek, curving around the western shore of Hyatt Lake and then crossing Ralston Creek and Leyden Creek.

Near the intersection of Indiana Street and 78th Avenue, the earthen irrigation canal turns toward the east and runs through northern Arvada. It enters the City of Westminster at 86th Parkway just south of Standley Lake Running between residential subdivisions and passing through culverts under roads and shopping centers, the canal continues to the east and northeast past Wadsworth Boulevard just south of 92nd Avenue. Around 95th Avenue, it runs underneath U.S. Highway 36 and then heads east to pass Sheridan Boulevard. From there, the canal enters one of its most scenic stretches as it snakes its way through the Hyland Hills Golf Course. Turning toward the north, the canal crosses 104th Avenue and then curves around Margaret's Pond.

Beyond Margaret's Pond, the Farmers’ High Line Canal flows through a pipeline before daylighting again at Stuart Street. It then heads northeast and east through the Legacy Ridge development. After crossing Federal Boulevard, it runs between the historic Savery Mushroom Farm and Foxshire Park. Near Alcott Street and 109th Avenue, the canal exits the City of Westminster. However, this is not where it ends. The canal continues through Northglenn and Thornton, crosses Interstate 25, and runs through suburban areas and open lands to the northeast. It terminates in the Signal Ditch, which extends into the countryside west of Brighton. From its headgate in Golden to its terminus in Adams County west of Brighton, the canal extends for a total of about 26 miles.

Along its route through the City of Westminster, the Farmers’ High Line Canal Trail and the abandoned Niver Canal (which previously served as an outflow for Standley Lake) run parallel to the canal. These form a linear open space that provides Westminster residents with an enjoyable route for walking, jogging and bike riding. The canal also supports massive cottonwood and willow trees, along with riparian habitat that serves as home to an abundance of plants and wildlife.

Farmers' High Line Canal South of Standley Lake(Pictured right: The Farmers’ High Line Canal, South of Standley Lake)

History of the Farmers’ High Line Canal

The history of the Farmers’ High Line Canal is emblematic of the birth and growth of Colorado’s agricultural economy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. During the earlier decades of this period, pioneers and small farmers’ cooperatives launched the construction of individual ditches. Some of these were subsequently expanded into larger irrigation systems, often with the design assistance of professional engineers and funding provided by both Colorado and East Coast investors. As agriculture moved into the early twentieth century, a number of ditches extended into high ground among the state’s semi-arid northeastern plains, making farming in these areas more predictable and successful.

In May 1885, a group of around twenty farmers, businessmen and investors gathered on a farm west of Brighton to discuss the founding of a mutual irrigation company. While some of the men owned area farms, others were Denver investors with portfolios of dry farmland they were eager to improve and sell. Together, they shared the goal of bringing irrigation water to the fertile but arid lands in the countryside southwest of Brighton in the direction of Arvada and the town of Harris (this became Westminster in 1911). In particular, they were interested in irrigating the fertile lands along the Big Dry Creek Ridge. This higher ground about five miles wide and 30 miles long extends along a northeast-southwest axis and is bordered by the South Platte River, Clear Creek and Big Dry Creek. The meeting in the spring of 1885 resulted in the formation of the Farmers’ High Line Canal and Reservoir Company.

Over the following months, the fledgling company investigated possible routes for a new canal that would divert water from Clear Creek. Surveys of several possible routes were completed before the firm settled on purchasing and enlarging an existing ditch rather than launching into the more expensive option of constructing a new one. It was determined that by drawing water from a headgate in Golden, the company’s ditch would have enough elevation for the water to run downstream by gravity alone to lands along the Big Dry Creek Ridge. Also, if an existing pioneer ditch could be purchased, the mutual company would be acquiring its earlier water rights. This would ensure an adequate supply of water for the ditch and its stockholders.

After exploring a number of possible ditches, the Farmers’ High Line Canal and Reservoir Company settled on acquiring the Golden City and Arapahoe Ditch. Launched in 1859 to support a placer mining operation, its original two-mile length was originally known as the Davidson Ditch. In 1862, this was incorporated as the Golden City and Arapahoe Ditch, and extended an additional two miles to reach Van Bibber Creek. The ditch was then sold to new owners who intended that it be used for agricultural purposes, supporting the growth of food crops that would supply the mining camps in the mountains above.

In 1863-1864, the Golden City and Arapahoe Ditch was lengthened northward again to reach Ralston Creek. Future plans called for it to be extended through the countryside to the northeast as far as the South Platte River. A portion of these plans came to fruition a decade later, when between 1872 and 1875 it was lengthened across the open prairie toward the area now occupied by the cities of Arvada and Westminster. By the mid-1880s, the ditch had reached the vicinity of today’s Standley Lake.

The original two-mile length of the Davidson Ditch held water priority No. 9 on Clear Creek, with an appropriation date of July 1, 1860 and a decree of 39.8 cubic feet per second (cfs). The Golden City and Arapahoe Ditch Company held an additional decree of 154 cfs and priority No. 57 in association with the early 1870s extension of the ditch. When it purchased the ditch in January 1886 for $50,000 ($1.25 million in 2013 dollars), the Farmers’ High Line Canal and Reservoir Company acquired these water rights. At the same time, the company purchased the more than 10-mile-long Extension Ditch, which ran through the countryside northeast of the Golden City and Arapahoe Ditch. Over the following two years the ditches were cleaned, enlarged and connected to one another, allowing the resulting Farmers’ High Line Canal to reach thousands of acres of farmland along the Big Dry Creek Ridge in northeastern Jefferson County and western Adams County (both part of today’s City of Westminster).

Water traveling along the approximately 26-mile canal took 48 hours to run from the headgate on Clear Creek to the area west of Brighton. Along the way, the canal provided irrigation water to hundreds of farms in Jefferson and Adams counties, including a smaller amount of acreage in southwestern Weld County. Throughout the late 19th century and into the early 20th century, the company invested heavily in maintenance of the ditch and the acquisition of additional water rights. By the mid-20th century, the canal supported more than 23,000 acres of irrigated land. In addition, it provided water to nurseries, greenhouses, dairies, truck farms, hobby farms and schools.

To accommodate its customers, between the 1860s and 1890s the Farmers’ High Line Canal and Reservoir Company increased its water rights from Clear Creek to just over 733 cubic feet per second. Between 1872 and 1905, additional water rights were secured along Big Dry Creek, Ralston Creek and Leyden Creek. In addition, between the 1880s and 1950s, the ditch company battled the numerous mine and mill owners in the hills above who were polluting Clear Creek’s waters by dumping wastes into the stream. The ditch company also had to deal with periods of drought that alternated at times with years of adequate precipitation and water supply.

During the first half of the 20th century, many farms along the Farmers’ High Line Canal shifted from growing grains and cereal crops to more lucrative sugar beets and garden produce. These crops required increased irrigation later in the growing season, when snowmelt and precipitation began to taper off. This strained the canal company’s ability to provide adequate supplies of water to its stockholders. Pressure began to mount for the ditch company’s managers to develop water storage reservoirs, and the resulting search for affordable sites extended over many years. Although the company completed Leyden Reservoir in 1909, this soon proved inadequate to meet demand and the search for additional storage reservoir sites continued. Although the subject of water storage remained a major concern for decades, the Farmers’ High Line Canal and Reservoir Company never acquired or constructed another facility.

Starting in the mid-1930s, the canal company began purchasing water from the Denver Water Board. Through this arrangement, western slope water originating in the Fraser River was transported to the Front Range by way of the Moffat Tunnel, completed in 1936. The City of Denver brought the water down South Boulder Creek and across Rocky Flats. From there, the purchased water was diverted into Leyden Creek and Ralston Creek, from where it flowed into the canal. This continued through the late 1940s.

Following World War II, the City of Denver and its suburbs exploded in population and size. The cost of securing additional water rights skyrocketed after the war, making it almost impossible for ditch companies to afford. Suburban growth throughout the second half of the 20th century also increased property values, leading many farm owners to sell their acreages and ditch rights to developers and municipalities. Along the Clear Creek basin, around 3,000 acres of farmland was lost each year to development.

By the 1970s, the Farmers’ High Line Canal and Reservoir Company had 264 stockholders. Municipalities and other government agencies owned 51 percent of the shares, and farmers owned just 35 percent. The two largest cities owning shares were Thornton and Westminster, with a smaller interest held by the City of Arvada. By the early 2000s, the canal’s use had changed dramatically as more than 85 percent of its water was being used for municipal purposes by the cities of Arvada, Northglenn, Thornton and Westminster. This change signaled the demise of area farming and the growth of Westminster and its sister cities.

Today much of the land along the Farmers’ High Line Canal in Westminster is owned by the city as open space or park land. The Hyland Hills Park and Recreation District has also preserved the canal in a natural setting as it meanders through the Hyland Hills Golf Course.

Prepared by Ron Sladek of Tatanka Historical Associates Inc.

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