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The human side of the Rio Grande Reservoir

During the construction of the Farmer’s Union Reservoir (now called the Rio Grande Reservoir) about 30 miles west of Creede on the Rio Grande, laborers from other parts of the country were contracted to come and work. As numerous dams were being constructed throughout the western U.S., contractors brought in their established crews, as local labor was difficult to obtain, and was not experienced with dam construction. Work on these dam contracts was a lucrative opportunity for men to make a new start for themselves and their families.

A variety of immigrant ethnic groups arrived in the little mountain town of Creede on the train, and from there were taken to the reservoir construction site with team and wagon, by Tex Nanse. There were Bohemians, Hungarians, Italians, Greeks, Swedes and African-Americans.

The first task in the reservoir construction was to build a diversion tunnel to reroute the river water away from the dam site. This contract was issued to Lumsden and Co., of Pueblo in December 1909. Mr. Oleson, the on-site manager, brought in a complement of Swedes that worked year-round for ~ 18 months to meet the schedule for construction of the dam. The contractor for the reservoir was another company, Ellsworth and Klaner, who brought in a variety of other ethnic groups that worked on the dam, and provided the extensive support system that those workers required. Wood for corrals, cooking, heating the tents, and construction supports seemed to be performed by the Italians at the camp.

Yet another group was the Greeks, whose role is not clear, but likely were the guards and hunters who provided meat for the camp, as they maintained various firearms.

A colorful group of Eastern European immigrants is described in The Fourth on The Rio Grande, an article about the Independence Day celebrations held at the dam site from the Creede Candle, July 8, 1911: “The afternoon was the time of a big dance for the Bohunks (sic). They all gathered in a circle on a nice flat meadow and with one poor lone fiddler sawing away all afternoon the hot sun, only stopping once in a great while to swat at the mosquitoes, which were almost unbearable, these folks started off on a dance…being a hop, skip and a jump motion while going around all hands joined together, every once in a while they would all jump into the air and come down crouching. This dance lasted from early afternoon until almost dark. No women participated because none were there.”

In the latter stages of the dam construction, groups of African-Americans were brought in, presumably for hand-labor in the finishing of the dam and spillway. Newspaper accounts document that several groups came through Creede on their way to the reservoir site in 1912. Men of note involved with the Rio Grande project: Cy Knowles, the big, genial on-site construction manager for the Ellsworth-Klaner Co.; J. C. Ulrich, the on-site civil engineer, a veteran of several western storage projects; and Mr. Cave, the on-site veterinary surgeon, who looked after the health and well-being of the hundreds of mules and horses required for the project, and treated minor injuries to the men. Serious illnesses/accidents were transported by wagon to Creede to a medical doctor.

The senior staff on the project resided at the Company boarding house, where Mrs. Sophie Videll was cook. The boarding house was constructed for the sole purpose of housing the managers at the dam site, and continued operation as the Rio Grande Pyramid Hotel for some years after the reservoir was completed, and was later demolished in the 1960s.

Conditions at the construction site where the men lived were harsh, and the work was grueling. Large canvas tents, likely chilly and damp much of the time, housed the workers. As time is money, and summers at 10,000 feet elevation were short, work started early in the spring and was conducted as long into the fall as possible, making the working environment wet and cold much of the time, with crews working day and night. These living and working conditions resulted in numerous cases of pneumonia, at least one being fatal. For that man, his lonely grave in the Creede Cemetery is all that remains of his dreams of riches and a better life.

The almost four-year effort to build the reservoir required the labor and skills of many men, with various hopes and aspirations of adventure and making big money to take home to their families. Many came and most of them left to work on other dams or return to their homes. Take a minute and think of all those workers who gave years of their lives, endured harsh living and working conditions, and risked many dangers to create the dam -- especially those that never planned on staying here.

For more information on the San Luis Valley Irrigation District, please visit www.slvid.org. For more information on Water 2012 in the Rio Grande Basin, please visit www.rgwcei.org. This month, the Water 2012 library display is up at the Carnegie Library in Monte Vista. For questions/comments, please contact Leah Opitz at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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