A July 1909 photograph of the camp at the Ladore Dam site.

Museum of Northwest Colorado

A July 1909 photograph of the camp at the Ladore Dam site.

Moffat County history: Ladore Canyon dam project

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The battle over water in the West has been long and ongoing since the first settlers jolted across the mountains to the dry plains. Much of the wide expanses that beckoned to the exploring spirit were short of the precious commodity that can make the difference between fertile fields and barren wasteland. Some of those farmers and ranchers in California cast an eye back toward Colorado, thinking of the great rivers that ran through it. If they could capture that water, they could greatly increase their production and profits.

Ladore Canyon, with its steep rock walls seemed like a perfect place to capture the water running down from the Rockies. Properly placed, it also would help control the spring runoff and prevent flooding. The dreamers even caught the ear of President Theodore Roosevelt.

A hundred years ago, the Routt County Courier combined news with editorial input when it reported about a government project, which, had it been successful, would have changed the entire topography and economy of Northwest Colorado.

"The Reclamation Service outfit are still drilling and probing in Ladore canon. It seems to be a part of the business of men employed by the government to keep their faces closed, not to tell what little they do know, but the word has got out somehow that a favorable report has been made lately to headquarters that bedrock has been found, or at least ground upon which a safe foundation for a dam could be built." (Routt County Courier, Dec. 24, 1908)

There isn't much information remaining about the project mentioned, but one obscure journal sheltered in the archives of the Museum of Northwest Colorado sheds some light on what those hoping to build a dam were up against.

The journal begins Jan. 1, 1909, and is a daily account of the work done for nearly a year in the beautiful canyon. The author, Chester A. Jones, was the drill foreman for the United States Reclamation Service. It wasn't the beginning of the job, but it seems to be a narration of the end of the dream.

"Jan. 1, 1909 - Owing to the conditions of the river no work was done in (the) canyon. Made a purchasing."

The Courier had reported that several of the Browns Park ranchers were making their way to Rock Springs, Wyo., for supplies. The paper's correspondent reported that "the river has been open free from ice mostly, until the 16th and 17th, when the fall weather changed to winter with about three inches of snow and zero weather." (ibid)

"Jan. 5 - Finished roads around lower rapids - showers, hot winds blowing thawing river."

The crew didn't just drill and blast - they also were responsible for maintaining a supply of firewood and hay for the horses that pulled their wagons and equipment. They had to keep an eye on the river as the weather changed and water threatened their camp and equipment. The camp was a group of tents set up on the opposite side of the river from the present Ladore campground. The wall tents had small stoves in them and wood part way up their sides. One tent was used as a communal dining room and another for an office.

"Jan. 9 - Weather warm, ice going out. Moving machinery to high ground owing to rise in river 1/2 day."

There wasn't any drilling done in January because the river and weather were unstable. The men kept busy with camp chores, always with an eye to the river.

"Feb. 3 - 2 men on trails in canyon. River unsafe, falling rapidly. 1 man hauling hay.

"Feb. 4 - 2 men on canyon trail, 1 man on general work. Snow. Will work hand rig as I believe it will be possible to get big outfit to lower site."

A hand rig was a primitive drilling tool, consisting of a rod about 30 inches with a four-part bit at one end. The rod would be driven into the ground, with a slight rotation after every blow from a large hammer. It required two men to operate - one to shoulder the rod and turn it and the second to deliver the blows.

The main drill rig was used to take core samples to determine whether there was a stable bed on which to build the proposed dam. It was called a Diamond Drill because it had industrial-grade diamonds embedded into the bit. The men used a derrick with a pulley system to drill a hole. They then put casing into the hole, threading sections together as they went down.

Even with the Diamond Drill, the work was tedious and slow. Sometimes they could only get down a few inches in a day. Sometimes the rock won and they just had to move on.

"Feb. 7 - went to lower site. Pulled casing out of hole #12 as we cannot finish hole at this point."

February brought a combination of rain, snow and ice breaking up in the river.

"Feb. 15 - 3 men on trails, 1 man after team and help. Owing to the continued warm weather we, in order to be safe, must move out," Jones wrote.

A couple of days later, the crew was back working on hole No. 12. Jones recorded each layer of material as the men worked down toward what they hoped would be bedrock.

Feb. 16 Set up rig and drilled 38' on hole No. 12; 0-12, fine sand; 12-14, coarse sand and gravel; 14-22, fine sand, clay; 23-25; fine sand quick; 35-38; blue clay no sand.

The men fired three shots of dynamite in the hole to break up boulders. The next day, they found something unusual in their drilling.

Feb. 17 38-44, blue clay sandy; 41-59, quicksand, rotten wood, 59-66 1/2, blue clay sandy; 66 1/2 -67 1/2, rock. Red sandstone.

On Feb. 27, after managing to drill only 8 inches in more than a week, Jones recorded, "Cannot make headway." The men moved to another place and began drilling a new hole. Hole No. 12 and others would come back to haunt them later in the year.

The crew continued through the spring, doing camp chores in addition to drilling when they could. The bits had to be sharpened frequently, and the horses still needed to be fed hay until the pasture grew.

"March 30 - 7 men on drill. 90-91' 6" - boulders and gravel, 2" of sand makes it hard to get shots to bottom.

"April 2 - 95' - made no headway. Fired four shots, material hard and solid."

Jones kept detailed notes about the project throughout the summer. His crew worked hard, but they did have a little time off to rest and recreate.

"July 25 - Sunday - Ethel Chew (and) myself enjoyed the day at her parents on Douglas Mountain. Our photos taken in a.m."

As summer gave way to fall, crew members came and went and the drilling went on. By October, they were still hitting quicksand, boulders and other difficult drilling conditions.

"Oct. 31 - Sunday. Crew moving out of canyon:I measured canyon, found it at a width of 869 feet.

"Nov. 1 Finished getting outfit out of canyon at 12 a.m."

As the crew packed up and left, Jones hauled lumber and other material to the Chew ranch and packed up his equipment and the leftover supplies.

Shannan Koucherik may be reached at honeyrockdogs@msn.com.

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