Early diversion ditch channels Grand Lake’s past | SkyHiNews.com

Early diversion ditch channels Grand Lake’s past

The historic Cairns Ditch is visible along Grand Avenue, between the sidewalk and parked cars, in this historical photo from around 1930.
Grand Lake Historical Society |

GRAND LAKE — In the early 1900s, James Cairns obtained the water rights for a ditch he constructed through town, which helped a fledging tourist town thrive during thirsty summer months.

Past a century later, the Grand Lake town board of trustees is looking to add the Cairns ditch to the National Register of Historic Places. The trustees gave the Grand Lake Historical Society approval to begin the lengthy historical designation application process during a workshop on Monday, April 14.

“We want to use it as a way for the public to understand the importance of water in the West,” said Elin Capps of the Grand Lake Historical Society. “Visitors and sometimes local citizens often don’t understand how much water has played into politics and history of our entire area.”

Cairns, an important local entrepreneur when Grand Lake transitioned from a mining to tourist town, obtained rights to divert water from the North Fork of the Colorado River, which he ran through town for irrigation. According to Capps, people rented water from the ditch during the summer for gardens, bathing and drinking water during the summer. Eventually, Cairns eventually deeded the entire ditch to the town. The waterway is no longer used, and most of it has been filled in, covered up and reused. Only sporadic imprints of the ditch remain throughout town. Specifically, the town is look at listing about 20 feet of the surviving ditch located within a right-of-way of the town along the lot now holding the Eslick Cottage Court, a historic token in its own right. The old motor lodge made it onto the Colorado State Register of Historic Places in 2011.

“We want to use it as a way for the public to understand the importance of water in the West. Visitors and sometimes local citizens often don’t understand how much water has played into politics and history of our entire area.”
Elin Capps
Grand Lake Historical Society

Capps and town officials had initially considered pursuing a historic designation for the Eslick Cottage Court and Cairns Ditch combined, but Capps ultimately determined it was better to seek separate listings. The Eslick Cottage Court is located on private property, for one, while the ditch is located in a public right-of-way. Capps said getting a national listing for the Eslick Cottage Court will also be more difficult, since it was relocated from its original site to make room for the new Grand Lake Repertory Theatre building.

Historic preservation a town priority

Town trustees have yet to adopt any formal resolutions to pursue a historic listing for the Cairns Ditch, but according to town planner Joe Biller, historic preservation is a priority.

“From the board’s discussion (Monday), there was consensus that historical designation is important for the ditch,” he said. “Keeping Grand Lake a place of historic preservation is important, and that’s listed in our comprehensive plan.”

While Capps said she expects to have an application for the National Register of Historic Places by the summer, she noted town officials have a lot to consider when it comes to pursuing the national designation. They’ll have to decide if they want to forfeit any development on the right-of-way, including for parking. They’ll have to consider how to maintain its preservation. The historical society will prepare the application, however, because they have the research and documents supporting its historical significance.

“The board approved us to develop the application, but they’ll have final say, and they’ll make the determination” Capps said. “We would then do all the interpretation for them, so it’s a real collaboration.”

Capps said she expects to have an application prepared by late summer, although she hopes to have it ready sooner.

“We have a few thousand things to do in the meantime at the historical society,” she said. “But we recognized that the longer one waits, the less time there is for this to happen correctly.”

The National Register of Historic Places program is run by the National Park Service. It coordinates efforts to identify, evaluate and protect historic and archeological resources throughout the nation. To be considered in the listing process, a property must be over 50 years old and its integrity must largely remain intact. In Grand County, 25 properties have made it onto the register. Thirteen of those properties are located in Grand Lake, including the Grand River Ditch, Kauffman House and Shadow Mountain Trail. Getting approval for a property’s listing on the register is often a long process involving nomination, evaluation, a public comment process and national review.

“It’s not a simple process to get a national historic designation,” Biller said. “These are the baby steps involved, in submitting the application.”

Leia Larsen can be reached at 970-887-3334 ext. 19603.

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