Shown is the construction of the Duffy Tunnel between 1904 and 1910.  The people in the photo are unknown.

Museum of Northwest Colorado

Shown is the construction of the Duffy Tunnel between 1904 and 1910. The people in the photo are unknown.

Moffat County history: The story behind Duffy Tunnel



Wilma Taylor-Baker

The west side of Duffy Tunnel is shown here in 2001.

The stories of Craig and Moffat County's history written for this series in 2009 are made possible through a generous grant from the Kenneth Kendall King Foundation to the Museum of Northwest Colorado.

Northwestern Colorado has been a draw for adventurers and people of vision since the first white men ventured across its broad spaces. It was never a place for the weak of heart or those who didn't want to work hard to make things happen.

One of those early men was Charles Duffy, who saw a need and took on a project that would have stopped many lesser men.

Born on April 6, 1853, in Watertown, Wis., Duffy came to Colorado as a young man seeking his fortune. He arrived on the Eastern Slope in 1876 and began to build a livestock business, but he soon felt the draw of hidden riches in the Colorado mountains.

He sold everything he had accumulated and headed to Leadville, where, like so many others, he sought his fortune in the mines that riddle the high peaks. He soon found that prospecting wasn't as lucrative as other endeavors, and he headed farther west.

Duffy arrived in Northwest Colorado in 1881 and took up a homestead near Juniper Springs. He quickly discovered that he had met his calling in life and settled down to a promising future. He took advantage of the land offers available and soon owned 750 acres of productive land.

In the early 1900s, Duffy realized that the production on some of his land was limited due to lack of water. He studied the Bear (Yampa) River and the surrounding hills and devised an ambitious plan to bring water closer to those acres that showed promise.

The Dec. 22, 1904, edition of the Routt County Courier reported the initial plans that Duffy had developed with the help of an engineer. "A plan has been under consideration : to irrigate a large portion of the Bear Valley above Juniper Mountain comprised of the Hodges, K Diamond, Duffy and Murray ranches. : The plans are to tunnel through a spur of the mountain in the large bend of the river just above the ranches. The tunnel will be a little over 2,000 ft. long and will raise the water about 18 ft. above the river at the place where the tunnel emerges from the mountain."

The work had to be done mostly in the winter with men and horses hauling out the rock and dirt that was blasted from the heart of the mountain. It took six years of hard work and considerable expense to finish the tunnel, which originally was lined with cedar posts.

The project wasn't without its problems. The engineer made a miscalculation when figuring the digging route - done from both ends and designed to meet perfectly in the middle and the end of the tunnel that was supposed to be the lower, ended up two feet higher than the input end. Some adjusting and extra digging solved the problem.

"It took $4,000 worth of powder alone to dig the tunnel. While not a cheap irrigation proposition, the water will not be expensive for the tract of land that is to be irrigated." (Routt County Courier, Nov. 18, 1910)

The estimates of land irrigated varied widely from 1,800 to 4,000 acres, but the water turned unusable dryland into productive hayfields to feed the growing herds of cattle in the area.

Nicholas "Nick" Nicodemus was in charge of tunnel upkeep for many years. He maintained the tunnel with new cedar posts he cut and placed on the sides and top of the tunnel. He was employed by the Duffy Ranch and the Sweeney family who had purchased the K Diamond Ranch. His sons Dick and Bob worked for the Sweeneys as youths, learning to put up hay using horses and tractors.

The cedar posts lasted for a long time, and they often were replaced after a collapse, but by 1948, the mountain was winning the battle to close the tunnel so new technology was adopted to update the project.

Dick and Bob Nicodemus began working on the tunnel after their tours of duty in the Navy during WWII. They used two-foot wide sections of galvanized culvert, bolted together to form a new and stronger tunnel frame.

Bob's wife, Berdena, handled the cooking chores in the dugout they lived in during the work periods. She also became the unofficial photographer for the project, producing many photos that documented the progress of the retrofit job.

The men would clear a short section of the tunnel, bolt in the next one or two sections and throw as much of the debris ahead of them onto the newly installed culvert. When they couldn't get any more on top, they would haul out the rest in a repurposed mine cart that ran on tracks they had laid down. When they got the cart to the mouth of the tunnel, a horse would take over and haul the cart to a dumping area at the side of the river. At one point, Dick purchased a small tractor, hoping to use it in the tunnel, but he soon found that the tractor couldn't do the job as well as the men and the horse.

Working in the tunnel was always dangerous. "Sometimes we would bolt a piece (of culvert) in and take the cart out to dump. When we would come back, the ceiling would have fallen in right where we had been working," Bob recalled.

Berdena kept an ear cocked at the tunnel as she prepared the meals. "If they didn't come in on time, I'd have to listen to make sure they were still hammering. Then, I'd know they were OK," she said.

One night while they were sleeping, an entire side of the dugout collapsed, covering Berdena with dirt. A large rock barely missed her head. "We just got up and shook out the bed and shoveled out the dirt," she continued.

They weren't alone in the dugout at night, either. Mice sought out the relative warmth and the chance to nibble on food. The Nicodemus' would set out a line of mouse traps and as they lay in the dark, they would count the snaps as the traps went off. "We'd get up, empty the traps and set them again," Bob remembered.

The men finished installing the culvert in 1950. To commemorate the completion of their job, they used the soot from their carbide lamps to write "1950" on the roof of the tunnel. They left the dugout to the mice.

Today, the Duffy Tunnel continues to provide plenty of irrigation water to the ranch lands of Bear Valley, feeding the livestock that is so important to the economy of Moffat County.

Shannan Koucherik may be reached at


rousar 8 years, 1 month ago

Thanks for this very interesting story. I would like to see a map showing where the canal is located. I live out of state and visit Craig once a year with my son during hunting season. We think the people there are great and the history of the area is extremely intersting. Don Rousar


Frank Estey 8 years, 1 month ago


Approx location of Duffey Tunnel:

West of Craig, CO N40 25.74' W107 51.40'


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