Friday, January 8, 2010
Whew! It's a wee bit of a struggle talking about these stories that are so near and dear to my heart. Thanks for bearing with me as my voice cracked and I had to stop to wipe the tears. I feel better now. It's wonderful to be able to share with people who understand. I see our little group has grown and I want to welcome those who have joined us here on the riverbank. You're so welcome! We're glad to have you with us and hope you sit for a while. We're enjoying the fresh air and the beautiful surroundings and the view and sound of the river.
You might be wondering about the tunnel and why it's so important to me and why a place as famous as the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park would honor it with a centennial celebration. Most people don't even know it exists. I didn't. So let me tell you about the tunnel.
It's rumored that a local Frenchman named F. C. Lauzon dreamed of a tunnel that would divert water from the Gunnison River to the Uncompaghre Valley. In 1853 Captain J. W. Gunnison described southwestern Colorado as "a desert unfit for cultivation and inhabitation only by savages..." The Ute Indians of the area had been relocated (against their wishes) to Utah. The Uncompaghre Valley drew many new homesteaders. They dreamed of farming. Unfortunately, irrigating the land became quite a problem. Of 170,000 acres thought to be worth farming less than 30,000 were being used. They needed water. Lauzon was determined that a tunnel could divert water from the Gunnison River to the Uncompaghre Valley and make the land usable for farming. He persisted in promoting his beliefs. Eventually legislators in Colorado backed the idea but they needed more money. Federal funding became available under the 1902 Reclamation Act. President Roosevelt was an outspoken proponent of western irrigation which helped to get the legislation passed. Building of the tunnel was authorized in March of 1903 and work commenced in 1904. The work was done under the Bureau of Reclamation. To speed up the process of constructing the tunnel work was done from four locations. River Portal - or East Portal as it's called now - was one of those four locations. Work on the tunnel was difficult and the operations continued 24/7. Day and night these workers toiled at the tunnel which was a little more than six miles long. It took 5 years to complete. 26 men lost their lives in the process. On September 23, 1909 the tunnel project was officially opened by President William Taft when he hit a bell that triggered the opening and the water began to flow. In response bells rang throughout the valley communities. The impact on the valley was tremendous. The irrigation provided gave people the water they needed and the valley became very productive farm land. The tunnel operations were turned over to the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association in 1932 who continue to operate it. Many of the people farming here now have no idea that they're dependent on irrigation from a tunnel that was a major feat of engineering in its time. The tunnel has been designated a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark. I'm incredibly proud that my great grandfather contributed to this project. The pieces of paper I passed around have a link to a great site on the internet if you want to check out more info when you leave here.
Did you notice the sign over there? It commemorates this event.
Let's take another break and have a stretch and a little walk around before I continue with my stories. I want to tell you about my great grandfather and how he came to be in River Portal.