Liquid Gold: The story of the Gunnison Tunnel

  • "Gunnison tunnel opening; the arch at Montrose" by Walter J. Lubken, Uncompahgre Irrigation Project, Colorado, September 23, 1909  National Archives and Records Administration, Records of the Bureau of Reclamation
    "Gunnison tunnel opening; the arch at Montrose" by Walter J. Lubken, Uncompahgre Irrigation Project, Colorado, September 23, 1909 National Archives and Records Administration, Records of the Bureau of Reclamation

What’s most remarkable about the Gunnison Tunnel? To me, the non-engineer, it is that construction started simultaneously from the east and the west and the tunnels met! But do you remember the old cartoon in Mad Magazine? The first frame shows men driving in the Golden Spike celebrating the new continental railroad. The second frame, an aerial view, reveals those tracks didn’t line up. Oops! Of course, that’s another story.

Let’s go back 140 years. The promise of “free” land brought settlers into the Uncompaghre Valley in the last decades of the 19th century.  This land was available through federal homestead acts beginning in 1862 encouraging people to come west.  In our area, many emigrants selected sites in the valley around Colona, Olathe and Montrose. They began building homes and cabins, clearing land, planting crops, and bringing in cattle. The new railroad coming to Montrose in 1881 also brought even more people and supplies to the region. Railroads also transported crops and livestock back to markets in the east and even to the mines in the nearby San Juan Mountains.

The Uncompaghre River flowing north out of the San Juans made life in this semi-arid land possible. The pioneers dug canals to bring the river water to their lands and even established ditch companies. These water rights were like gold to the landowners and remain in existence today.  Even with this early water management, some years there wasn’t enough water to last through the growing season.

According to local legend, in the final days of the century, a farmer/prospector/miner named Frank Lauzon dreamed about bringing water through a tunnel from the Gunnison River into the valley. Farmers and ranchers became excited about this new water source for their lands.

Turning the dream into reality was tough. In 1900, local rancher John Pelton and four friends explored the river going through the Black Canyon looking for possible tunnel entrances. Their wooden boats crashed into the canyon walls, sending their supplies downstream. A year later, Abraham Lincoln Fellows from the U.S. Geological Survey and William Torrence from Montrose Power and Light tried again using air mattresses. They took photos and identified several possible sites for a dam and the water tunnel and returned full of enthusiasm and plans.

Once funding was secured, the construction began in 1905. Like many roads, bridges, and tunnels, the project began from both ends. The eastern portal proved most challenging with the 2,000 foot drops into the Black Canyon, lack of roads at both ends, and some of the world’s hardest rocks. The four-year project was complicated by poisonous gases, seeping water, underground springs, and excessive temperatures. Without artificial lights, the work was done by candlelight. New technologies were brought in during the construction including compressor-powered jack hammers and dynamite.

New towns sprung up at the east and west portals for workers, suppliers, and their families. Five hundred workers were employed, and many only lasted a few weeks in these conditions. During construction six workers died in a cave-in during the construction, an explosion killed 12 men and a falling boulder caused another death.

On July 6, 1909, the workers “holed through” and met in the middle. The bore was 11 feet wide and 12 feet high. At 5.8 miles it was the longest irrigation tunnel in the world at that time. President William Howard Taft, who was vacationing in the West, dedicated the tunnel “in the incomparable valley with the unpronounceable name.” Montrose held a parade and built a two-story arch over Main Street for the festivities.  This arch can be seen in Olathe today.

The Gunnison Tunnel is now a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark. The project’s headquarters at 601 N. Park Ave. in Montrose and the tunnel are both listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  The 100th anniversary of the tunnel was celebrated in 2009.

Waters from the Gunnison and Uncompaghre Rivers flow through the valley today through an intricate series of ditches, canals, laterals, dams, and reservoirs. Over 76,000 acres are irrigated with water coming through the Gunnison Tunnel. Barley, hops, corn, potatoes, alfalfa, wheat, oats, beans, onions, apples, pears and cherries are grown in these fields.

When you chomp down on your next ear of Olathe Sweet Sweet Corn, remember where that water came from and how it traveled to the Uncompaghre Valley.

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