Roller dam, irrigation system took a while

The government Highline Diversion Dam is 14 feet high and 546 feet long. The three roofed substructures spaced along the top of the dam are tower houses, which contain the machinery that raises and lowers the roller gates to control the flow of water. This roller gate type of dam is the largest in the United States and one of only four such dams in the country.

Whether driving east or west on Interstate 70, a traveler can’t help but notice the magnificent roller dam spanning the Colorado River about eight miles upriver from Palisade. This diversion dam has supplied the lifeblood of water to farmers in the area since it was completed in 1918.

In the late 1890s, Mesa County farmers made another attempt for the construction of the Highline Canal. Promoters of the project got a bill introduced in the state Legislature appropriating $10,000 for construction of the Mesa County State Ditch. After the bill passed, the city of Grand Junction appropriated the sum of $1,500 to complete a survey for the canal, but for some unknown reason, the project fizzled.

In 1902 there was renewed hope that the project would be given a new life when President Theodore Roosevelt signed into law the Federal Reclamation Act. The hope was short-lived.

On Sept. 23, 1902, the Chamber of Commerce scheduled a vote to be taken Sept. 25 on a resolution favoring support of the government project. However, at the Sept. 25 meeting another resolution was introduced on the basis that private investors were interested in building the diversion dam. The vote went with the private sector, and the “feds” backed out.

However, T.C. Henry, who was promoting the private sector, soon told the chamber that he had no plan or prospects for the project. The project was put on hold again.

After being rejected by the Grand Junction Chamber of Commerce, the government moved on and, in 1904, started building the Uncompahgre Project at Montrose that began delivering water to farmers in the Montrose area six years before the Government Highline Canal project was completed in the Grand Valley.

Finally, in 1907 the Highline Canal government project was approved. Surveying began in 1908, but construction didn’t start until 1912.

The dam was modeled after an experimental German design. It was a roller-crest configuration — the largest such structure ever built in the United States.

The government pushed the project forward, hiring 300 men at the dam site and another 459 working on canal construction.

The canal was 57 miles long, the first six miles passing through three tunnels.

Construction camps were erected at the dam site — Clifton, Appleton and Loma. The two and one-half miles of concrete-lined tunnels were constructed by the Reclamation Bureau in two years. Construction of the valley section was leased to private companies.

Dam construction hit a snag when the rollers became victims of WWI. The original rollers were fabricated in Germany to be sent to America by ship. However, the German vessel carrying the rollers was sunk by a British ship and ended up at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. The delay was short because construction engineers soon found a company in the United States that could fabricate the rollers, and the project continued.

In June, 1915, the first water from the diversion dam flowed into the Highline Canal. Final construction was completed by late 1915, and enough water was flowing through the canal to irrigate crops from the roller dam to Fruita. With the extensions completed in 1917 and 1918 the Highline Canal was finished, 16 years after the first government survey for the project had been made. Total cost was $4.5 million.

Highline Canal supplies water to the Price and Stubb ditches in the Palisade area and to the Orchard Mesa irrigation system. In the 1920s, the Reclamation Bureau placed a siphon under the Colorado River to take water from the Highline to the Orchard Mesa irrigation system to supply water to the Orchard Mesa area as well.

Kathy Jordan is retired from The Daily Sentinel and involved in many preservation efforts, including the railroad depot and the North Seventh Street Historic Residential District.

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