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The Uncompahgre Water Project

The Gunnison Tunnel

The Gunnison Tunnel



History of the area

The town of Montrose, formerly known as Pomona, was founded in 1882, on land formerly occupied by the Ute Nation.  When the Ute people were forcibly removed to the Utah Reservation, the land they left behind was eagerly snapped up by would-be farmers and entrepreneurs. Unfortunately, their visions of farms overflowing with crops and the subsequent overflowing income lacked one key element: water.

Early settlers quickly learned that the arid climate and desert soil of the Uncompahgre Valley did not lend themselves to farming, and without some sort of solution, their dearly purchased land would be next to useless. Those who had been lucky enough to acquire land bordering the Uncompahgre River suffered less difficulty, and a number of ditches were implemented to try and spread the use of the river water. However, it soon became clear that the Uncompahgre River simply wasn’t big enough to support more than a few farmer’s needs, and this wasn’t a feasible long term solution to the problem.


Inspiration for Tunnel


In 1890, F. C. Lauzon proposed the idea of connecting the Gunnison River to the Uncompahgre Valley, which he claimed came to him in a dream.  Although initially, he proposed the water be routed over the ridge which separated the valley and the river, he eventually changed his stance to support a tunnel. Lauzon championed this idea with vigor but failed to secure the necessary funding for the project, which was a monumental undertaking for the time.  However, enough interest was piqued to necessitate a feasibility study and survey of the area in 1894, to test whether or not such a thing would be possible. 






The process leading up to the construction


The path from an idea to reality was long and arduous, a veritable swamp of bureaucracy and setbacks both natural and manmade.  In 1900, a party of men set out in wooden boats to traverse and survey the Black Canyon to locate an inlet point for the tunnel. The party was a dismal failure. After 3 weeks in the canyon, the party had run out of food, lost one of their boats, and they were more than ready to call it quits. The next year in 1901, irrigation engineer Abraham Fellows and William Torrence of the original party gave it another shot. Using inflatable canvas rafts instead of boats, Fellows and Torrence set out into the canyon, and emerged ten days later, battered but successful. They had found a spot for the tunnel.

In 1901, $25,000 dollars were committed to the building of a three-mile tunnel connected to a twelve-mile canal called “State Canal No. 3.”  In November of 1901, construction began on a temporary settlement for the workers and builders, including a bunkhouse, dining hall, and blacksmith shop.  In December, the workers broke ground on the tunnel.  However, this burst of progress was short lived. By autumn of 1902, the project ran out of money, and the tunnel was abandoned with less than 900 feet completed.

In 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt passed the Federal Reclamation Act (now called the Newlands Reclamation Act) which set aside funds for the construction of irrigation projects to irrigate semi-arid land. The Reclamation Act required an association of the landowners who would benefit from the project to be responsible for the system after completion, and thus the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association was born, and the project got the green light. The Gunnison Tunnel Project was fifth in a list of 27 projects to be completed and scheduled for immediate development. 

In 1904, civil engineers, Walter Fleming and Richard Whinerah, were directed to run lines to determine how much of the Uncompahgre Valley could be supported by water from the Gunnison River.  A new site was selected, so the State Canal No.3 would never be completed. By late summer 1904, the design for the tunnel was completed, and a model was prepared and shown at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. 


Construction Itself


The tunnel was designed to be 5.8 miles long, or 30,600 feet, and would cut through the mountain at a depth of 2,100 feet. 1,300 cubic feet of water would pass through the tunnel at 10.5 feet per second. Over 5 million feet of shale and granite would have to be moved for its construction, a weight that adds up to almost 260 thousand tons of rock. It was a monumental undertaking, to say the least.

The Taylor-Moore Construction Company of Texas was initially given the contract for construction. However, the company was bankrupt within four months and the project was moved to the jurisdiction of the Reclamation Service.   

Working conditions were hazardous and difficult, and the average length of a worker’s stay at the site was only two weeks, despite the very good pay for the time period. There were approximately 500 workers at any time, and for every worker who left there was another eager to take his place. Water, natural gases, and sweltering temperatures made construction not only unpleasant, but often hazardous. Cave-ins and explosive misfires also took their toll, and many miners developed horrible coughs due to poor ventilation and dampness. Over a period of 7 years of construction, 24 people died and 71 miners were injured in construction-related accidents.  One of the most deadly accidents occurred on Memorial Day, 1905 when a fault zone caved in and trapped 30 men for 72 hours. Six of the men died from their injuries.

 Author, Herman Fehlman, recounts an incident when “Excavators tapped a cavern [filled with] carbonic-acid gas which interrupted work. They intercepted an underground stream of such pressure, it jetted water through the drill holes 40 feet into the tunnel…accompanied by a heavy flow of choke damp or carbon dioxide. The water, gas, and high temperatures halted work in the area for almost six months.”

Despite the difficulties and dangers inherent in the construction process, work continued, and the two crews working from the East and West ends of the tunnel met in the middle on July 6th, 1909.

Reception and After effects

On September the 23rd of 1909, President William Howard Taft was the guest speaker and guest of honor at the celebration of the Gunnison Tunnel opening. Businesses in towns for miles around were shut down for the day as thousands of people converged on the town of Montrose. There was music, racing events, and no less than 14 speeches or “remarks,” two of which were made by the President of the United States, William Howard Taft, unquestionably the biggest name to visit Montrose at the time. He arrived on a special presidential train and was escorted by a posse of sheriffs, one from each county in Colorado. The President was very admiring of the scenery and location, and referred to the Uncompahgre Valley as “the incomparable valley with the unpronounceable name.” He also later remarked that his visit was the first time he had had a taste of “real Western spirit” after he led a parade over a mile long, with several hundred cowboys in it.  He received a five-minute ovation when he rose to deliver his speeches, one of which was over an hour long. The day was finished with a “Grand pyrotechnical display,” but the crowning moment came when the President pressed a button made of solid gold to open the headgates which released the water into the South Canal.

Today’s Impact

The tunnel may have been completed in 1909, but its effects are still very evident today, more than 100 years later, and it has received plenty of recognition and praise over the past century. In a study conducted in 1971, it was revealed that thanks to the Gunnison Tunnel and the Uncompahgre Valley Project and their subsequent irrigation reform, the value of the crops yielded was 21 times that of the total cost of the Uncompahgre Valley Project.  In 1972, the American Society of Civil Engineers designated the tunnel as a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark. It was the 26th structure to receive this honor. Then, on July 22nd, 1979, the Gunnison Tunnel was entered into the National Register of Historic Places. To this day, it draws visitors from all over and remains a testament to man’s ingenuity. 

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