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The South Platte

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Here is a land where life is written in water,
The West is where the water was and is,
Father and Son of old, mother and daughter,
Following rivers up immensities
Of range and desert, thirsting the sundown ever,
Crossing a hill to climb a hill still drier,
Naming tonight a city by some river
A different name from last night's camping fire.…

—Thomas Hornsby Ferril, inscription for the murals by Allen T. True in the rotunda of the Colorado State Capitol

Waterways are not only natural but also man-made networks in dry western states such as Colorado. Sparse natural rivers and creeks are rearranged with ditches and dams, tunnels and reservoirs that make it possible to build communities. The water system becomes the ultimate infrastructure. The South Platte River valley exemplifies development written in water.

Pilgrims settling the state's largest utopian colony, Greeley, began by digging communal irrigation canals and side ditches to carry water down every street. Fifty miles farther up the South Platte, the Denver Water Department's tentacles reach over and under the Rockies to divert water intended for the Colorado River drainage into the South Platte system. Ditches and tunnels for water diversion pierce the Continental Divide to capture Colorado River water from the Western Slope and redirect it to the South Platte valley, which has most of the population but only a quarter of the stream flow. Water in Colorado, the saying goes, flows uphill toward money.

The South Platte watershed, with its tributaries, such as the Cache la Poudre and Big Thompson rivers and St. Vrain, Boulder, and Cherry creeks, supports almost three-fourths of Colorado's population. The South Platte's 450-mile course carries it through the Denver area, which houses over half the state's residents. Below Denver the river and its tributaries are lined by the major cities of northeastern Colorado, including Greeley, Boulder, Fort Collins, Longmont, and Sterling.

Ironically, the flourishing valley that has become Colorado's agricultural, industrial, commercial, and population center was first named “The Great American Desert.” Major Stephen H. Long put that label on his map after the first official U.S. exploration of the upper South Platte in 1820. The river had been named even earlier with the French word for “flat” or “shallow” by two Frenchmen, Pierre and Paul Mallet. In 1739 they became the first known Europeans to cross the Great Plains from the Missouri River to Santa Fe.

After the 1858 gold strikes near the confluence of the South Platte and Cherry Creek, settlers streamed up the river into Colorado. Many began their odyssey at Omaha, near the confluence of the Platte and the Missouri. They followed the Platte to North Platte, Nebraska, where it divides into the North Platte and the South Platte. Both forks originate in Colorado: The North Platte rises in North Park (Jackson County) and the South Platte in South Park (Park County). Immigrant wagon trails, stage lines, railroads, and highways were built into Colorado alongside the South Platte. Railroads introduced an urban, industrialized corridor to the once pastoral riverbanks, which began to bristle with smelters and sugar beet factories, oil refineries, and meat packing plants.

Just above Denver the river flows through Platte Canyon from forested foothills also altered by human settlement. Loggers and miners felled woodlands to timber mines, build settlements, and stoke smelters. Forest fires set by human beings and by steam locomotives often led to the replacement of old growth evergreen forests with aspen, the first trees to take hold on scarred land. Human activity amid montane dark green conifers is often revealed by the lighter green groves of aspen.

The natural landscape has been transformed not only by such obvious destruction but also by the valley's farming and ranching, which have transformed much of what was once virgin prairie. Cattle, which each eat about 35 pounds of grass and drink about 11 gallons of water a day, denuded the prairie and emptied water holes. Native grasses of the eastern high plains, as well as the western canyon lands, vanished, to be replaced by sagebrush, loco weed, tumbleweed, and bare dirt.

Even as settlers diminished the native vegetation, they often yearned for trees. Except for the cottonwoods growing along lowland waterways, prairie vegetation rarely climbed higher than a choke cherry or a scrub oak. Settlers, especially women, planted trees and experimented with seeds and starts, be it a lilac slip or a seed potato. What would grow in the windswept, sunbaked, blizzard-blasted high plains of Colorado? Part of the answer lies in some 40,000 farms and 200 agricultural towns that have been abandoned since 1920. The Great American Desert keeps coming back to haunt those who promoted the high plains as a Garden of Eden. Some contend that the South Platte valley should have been left to the prairie grasses, the buffalo, and the Indians.

Nonnative vegetation prevailed in cities and towns and on farmsteads by 1900. To water the transplants, windmills and water towers were constructed and came to dominate agrarian skylines. By the 1920s Colorado led the nation—even California—in irrigated farm acreage. Frank Zyback, a tenant farmer cultivating wheat near Strasburg in eastern Arapahoe County, revolutionized both agriculture and the landscape with his 1952 invention. Zyback rigged up a self-propelled sprinkler on wheels, with lightweight aluminum pipe and rotating sprinkler heads. He patented his center-pivot irrigation device, which can distribute fertilizer and pesticides as well as water. Thanks to these giant sprinklers, irrigated fields now dot the South Platte valley and, to a lesser extent, the Rio Grande and Arkansas valleys, inscribing giant circles in quarter-section plots. In the frontier tradition, this device wastes both land and water, but gets the job done.

Today's air travelers, like the argonauts of 1859, find the South Platte River the main path to Denver. Travelers flying into Colorado along the South Platte see rectangles of spring and summer green, or fall and winter brown. These homestead grids sometimes frame giant circles created by the half-mile-long pipes of sprinkler systems. Along railroad tracks and highways, the big squares and circles sometimes give way to town grids. Between Platte Canyon and Greeley, riverbank development is almost solid, with huge dumps and automobile junkyards that indicate affluence. As the river nears Denver, farms and ranches are displaced by curvilinear subdivisions surrounding older grid neighborhoods. Only the steep, rocky canyon seventeen miles southwest of the city keeps the suburbs from following the South Platte into the mountains. At the center of the conglutination of asphalt and concrete, of clay and brick, is Denver's downtown huddle of fifty-story highrises.

The South Platte valley between Denver and Greeley contains most of Colorado's buildings. These range from high-rise glass and concrete office towers to humble frame, tarpaper, and sod Farm-houses. Only a few of the pioneer houses survive, and Indian villages are long gone. Older buildings representing the architectural mainstream are clad in brick and sometimes in imported lumber, as the predominant Anglo-American settlers preferred traditional materials and styles imported from Europe and the eastern United States.

Writing Credits

Thomas J. Noel

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