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Wearing Chief Engineer J.C. Ulrich’s hat at the reservoir - Rio Grande Watershed Conservation and Education Initiative
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Wearing Chief Engineer J.C. Ulrich’s hat at the reservoir

I’m no engineer and nobody recognized me when I walked into the big tent as J.C. Ulrich at the Rio Grande Reservoir’s 100th Anniversary celebration. But I’d be proud to wear his hat anytime.

Ulrich served as Chief Engineer for the reservoir’s construction between the years 1905 to 1912. He wore a gentleman’s hat when on the construction site. I did the same for this year’s August 23 celebration. I spoke for Ulrich in his own words from letters he wrote 100 years ago. He was a stickler for detail and a worrier. He had cause to worry much.

When the Farmers Union Irrigation Company asked him in 1905 to design a reservoir, he had two major worries. First, the United States had embargoed the construction of any reservoirs on the Upper Rio Grande Reservoir within Colorado, as it sorted out the water needs of Texas, New Mexico and the Republic of Mexico.

Second, because the reservoir site sits high above Creede in wild country, Ulrich worried about a possible flood during construction.

In a 1905 letter he wrote, “No reliable information exists as to the maximum discharge of the Rio Grande River at or near the site of this dam, and I do not pretend to know what it is. It presents the appearance, however, of being a very formidable stream when in flood, and it would be very imprudent to undertake the construction of an earthen dam at the point under consideration without making ample provision for the discharge of a very large volume of water while the construction of the dam is under execution.”

A few years later, the United States lifted the embargo, but the Farmers Union Irrigation Company could not afford to build the reservoir. It nevertheless directed Ulrich in 1908 to

draw up specifications for the on-site surveys necessary to put out a call for contractor bids.

Ulrich’s engineer mind went to work at high altitude as he worried about work horses and wagons.

“It will be desirable that we have a spring wagon and a team upon the work during the progress of the work, for use in getting about from place to place. This wagon should be a good strong one, suitable for mountain work, and, if convenient, it would be well to provide one capable of carrying three seats.”

He worried about the number of tents needed to keep the men sheltered and appropriately separated.

“There should be three tents, of which one will be for cooking and eating, and the other two for the men to sleep in. The party could all sleep in one tent, if necessary, but it will be much better to have two for this purpose, for the reason that there may be considerable rainy weather, during which the engineer should do his figuring and computing. If there is only one living tent, it will be inconvenient for him to do this in a tent which is crowded with the entire party and their bedding. Hence, one of the three tents which I have specified, will serve as the sleeping tent for the rodman and engineer, and for an office tent, and store room for the instruments at the same time.”

Ulrich continued to stew about the men getting cold and wet.

“It will be also necessary to provide two Sybley stoves, with the necessary pipe and tins for passing the latter through the roof of the tents. It is always cold at that elevation, at night, and besides, it will frequently happen that the men will get wet during the day, and it will be necessary that facilities are provided for them to dry their clothes in the evening.”

He carefully counted the axes needed for the survey work.

“There should be provided the ordinary chopping axes, three hand axes, and a grind stone. One of the hand axes should be a heavy one, for driving stakes, and the other two of medium weight for chopping brush and making stakes. There should be a couple of extra axe handles and a like number of extra handles for the hand axes.”

The most important furnishing would be a field engineer’s drawing board. “It will be a very great convenience, if you will have a small drawing board made for use in camp. This should be made of seasoned lumber, well planed and smoothed, and should be about three by four feet in size, and about one and one quarter inches think. This will be used for an office table, and for doing any drafting that may become necessary.”

Satisfied stomachs would be the rule of each and every work day.

“I think it advisable to mention that it will be important that as good a cook as you can get, be employed to cook for the survey which you are about to inaugurate. It frequently happens that too little importance is attached to this detail. One of the most frequent sources of dissatisfaction among a party of men arises through the selection of a poor cook . . . I thought it well to mention this to you. Goudy’s men struck, recently, at Santa Maria, because of a poor cook, and he had to send to Creede, and get another one.”

In 1909, the newly formed San Luis Valley Irrigation District took over the reservoir project and issued bonds to finance construction. Ulrich insisted on complete authority over the contractors. He warned the Irrigation District about “bum contractors” and extracted the board’s support for his decision-making power.

“I am very glad indeed to receive your assurance of support and approbation and hope that I may continue to merit it. It cannot be expected that I will be popular with the contractors. I could only be popular with them by ignoring the interests of the district and permitting them to slight the work. In order that the district may receive the full benefit of my services, it will be necessary that you all give the contractors to understand that I am in control of these executions, and that they will derive no benefit from their attempts to discredit me, or to ignore my instructions.”

I learned this from being J.C. Ulrich for a day. You can’t really walk in another man’s boots, but borrowing his hat can teach you about the good head he carried on his shoulders!

To learn more about Water 2012 in the Rio Grande Basin, please visit This month, the Rio Grande Watershed Conservation Education Initiative will be hosting Water Fest, an educational event for fourth graders from around the SLV. For more information, please see the website above or contact Judy Lopez at 580-5300.

Anti-discrimination Policy: The Rio Grande Watershed Conservation Education Program prohibits discrimination in all its programs and activities on the basis of race, color, national origin, age, disability, and where applicable, sex, marital status, familial status, parental status, religion, sexual orientation, genetic information, political beliefs, reprisal, or because all or a part of an individual's income is derived from any public assistance program.

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