Denver celebrates 150th anniversary of City Ditch

A look back at the history of Denver’s first water system, which continues to flow today.

August 14, 2017 | By: Jay Adams

Long before Denver was established, residents of the area drank water directly from the South Platte River and Cherry Creek. But the surface wells and buckets of water used as a delivery system were not an adequate means of providing the one thing these early travelers needed for survival: water.

Irrigation ditches were the next step forward for the growing population spurred by the city’s Gold Rush of 1859.

Crews work on City Ditch in this 1935 photo.
Crews work on City Ditch in this 1935 photo.

“City Ditch first started flowing in 1867,” said Sarah McCarthy, Washington Park community member. “It’s a huge part of the Denver community.”

City Ditch was the vision of the Capitol Hydraulic Company, which saw an opportunity to bring more water to Denver from the South Platte River system, explained Holly Geist, Denver Water’s records management analyst.

“The Kansas Territorial Legislature allowed the company to build a ditch and use water for agricultural, mining, mechanical and city purposes,” Geist said.

The company’s first attempt to build the ditch failed in the early 1860s in part because the slope wasn’t high enough for water to flow to Denver.

According to Geist, surveyor and engineer Richard Little — the man for whom Littleton is named — was brought in to build a new flow path for the ditch that was farther up the river, closer to Waterton Canyon.

Businessman John W. Smith was brought in to complete building the ditch and water began flowing into the city in 1867.

“There really was nothing in the area but scrub where Washington Park is today,” McCarthy said. “The ditch brought water for farms and homes and helped transform City and Washington parks into the urban gardens they are today.”

The city of Denver took control of the ditch in 1875, and by 1898 nearly all of the ditch within city limits had been placed in pipes. Denver Water acquired the ditch in 1918.

Christening The Monument With Water Balloons
Community members “christen the monument with water balloons” during a celebration at Washington Park in Denver on Aug. 12, for the 150th anniversary of City Ditch.

City Ditch continues to flow today, but in two sections. The southern section is managed by the city of Englewood and the northern section by Denver Water.

Denver Water’s portion of the open ditch can still be found flowing through Denver’s Washington Park. City Ditch’s primary function now is to irrigate and fill the lakes in Washington and City parks.

In an effort to conserve more river water supplies, Denver Water began using water from its Recycling Plant in 2004 for the northern section of the ditch. Stormwater also flows through it.

Washington Park and the open section of City Ditch were listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976 and designated a Denver Landmark in 1977.

McCarthy hopes people will visit a monument at Washington Park that honors John W. Smith and the people who helped build City Ditch. The monument is located south of the playground near Smith Lake.

“If John W. Smith were here today, he’d be very proud that City Ditch is still supplying water that’s vital to our community,” McCarthy said. “We hope the anniversary raises awareness about the ditch and its history and increases our community’s pride in the city.”

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