Most serious ranchers had more than one ditch and most built one or more reservoirs. Hilry Harris, Munroe C. Wythe, Samuel H. Burghard, and John A. Coulter entered the first water claim in the county on September 20, 1874. This came out of Sheep Creek above the head of Gore Canyon.
There usually was some natural irrigation; but the challenge of getting the water from the creek required laborious construction of diversion dams, headgates, and ditches, the earliest ditches being dug by hand and often taking up to four years to complete. Later, ditches were dug using teams and scrapers. The grade was figured out initially by simple gravity flow, letting a trickle of water move down the ditch. Soon ranchers refined the process, using a 16’ long board placed with a 1/8" slope, determined by a carpenter’s level. A.F. and Roy Polhamus surveyed a great many of the water ditches, especially those impressive ones in West Grand County, some of which even had tunnels involved. Most small ditches supplied just one ranch, but if a ditch had to cross another ranch, that rancher usually got a share. And some of these ditches were long!
For instance, Dr. Henry Hoagland, on the Blue River, anticipated getting water close at hand from Spruce Creek. Instead, he discovered an old timer had previous rights that forced him to go back into the mountains and build a 13-mile long ditch. Hoagland had figured on spending about $7000; in the end, the actual cost was $26,000! His crew dug the ditch around side hills and across valleys using flumes and siphons. Then his real troubles began. Terrible leaks and washouts occurred everywhere. Finally he hauled in adobe and put this in the bottom of the ditch, rented sheep, and drove them day after day up and down the ditch to pack it. After a couple of years of using this tamping process, the ditch held. Other ditches were even longer. The Church Ditch at Willow Creek and the Wheatley Ditch on the back Troublesome were both 16 miles long.
The Company Ditch (aka the Williams Fork Ditch), eight feet wide on the bottom, was another long one. Built between 1903 and 1907, it cost $44,000 and had a decree for 150 cubic feet / second. The ditch went uphill and down, requiring many flumes and bridges. One flume was actually 1200 feet long! Subsequent breakdowns, leaks, and slides were so frequent and repairs so extremely costly that old-timers have said the reason the Company Ranch went broke about 1920 was the expense of The Ditch. The Lyman Ditch (or the Curtis), started about 1891, was just as complicated as the Company Ditch. Crossing high above the Williams Fork River, the ditch eventually needed cement piers to carry the pipe (1928). This ditch had so many slides, leaks, and washouts, that it had to be inspected once or twice daily! Siphons were required over draws. Flumes, sometimes ¼ mile long, might be 25-30 feet high, and one flume was actually 177 feet high; but these heights were necessary to maintain the elevation.
Flumes, being of wood, rotted and were guaranteed to leak. Sometimes wind blew a portion of the flume down. Finally the county put in big pipes to help the ditches across the Williams Fork. It might be noted that, when water leaked out of ditches, a side benefit was that ranchers along the way could use the "lost" water. Along with the ditches came reservoirs.
Fred DeBerard had four reservoirs on the Muddy: the Albert, the Binco, Milk Creek, and a low one that flooded the Jones place near Kremmling. All were dirt, of course. The Hermosa Ranch on the Little Muddy had water rights through the Sylvan Ditch and Reservoir Company and they built the Sylvan Reservoir dam and the Hermosa Ditch starting in 1911 and completing it by the spring of 1916. The Stein Ditch, started in 1897, was another large ditch, this one later purchased by the Taussig family. These ditches were all built originally to provide water to meadows and fields for ranching purposes. For years, people hauled in water for baths and household use, but that gradually changed. Leon Almirall, near the Horseshoe Ranger Station on the Williams Fork, decided that he wanted water for his home, so he built a 1700’ pipeline to his house, added an inside bathroom, and was shocked when the line froze the first winter – it was only three feet deep. He called in workers who dug down and insulated the line with manure and straw. It froze again. Finally, Almirall gave up and buried the line six feet deep. Now he had his water!
On Ranch Creek in the east end of the county, E.D. Shew cut a ditch upstream from his house, placing it along the edge of the creek, but directing the water back into the main channel near his house. At that point, he put a little water wheel that pushed the water up the hill to his cabins -- and furnished electricity besides. Eventually he replaced the water wheel with a gas engine. There was a similar water wheel, used for the same purpose, up in Hideaway Park.
Water was used to transport lumber as well. A flume ran down the mountain into Monarch Lake, in the days when the Monarch Company was timbering there. There was a flume along St. Louis Creek, carrying lumber from the camps upstream. Perhaps the most ambitious flume ran from Western Box Sawmill. This area is now under Meadow Creek Reservoir. In 1906, the Deisher Lumber Company paid Nathan Hurd for a right of way through his land and built a flume with a 2% grade down Hurd Creek. Logs were placed in the flume and a horse harnessed to the last log. The horse then pushed the logs down the flume with the help of the water. Three years later, the mill was moved to "Sawmill Meadow" on Meadow Creek.
In 1911 construction on the seven-mile-long Vaver Flume began, with 117 cubic inches of water allotment. This flume ran down Meadow Creek and over to Tabernash, carrying partially processed logs for further manufacture. A flume rider checked along the way, making sure there were no jams, and phone line allowed the rider to report troubles. Hikers can see remnants of both the St. Louis Creek flume and that one coming down Meadow Creek today.