HISTORY OF THE BIG DITCH

HISTORY OF THE BIG DITCH

by E, Neal Holden
Ft. Union was the largest U.S. Army fort in the west and served as the primary supply depot for other western forts just before and after the Civil War and to protect travelers from Indian raids on the terminal part of the Santa Fe Trail. It was built about 6 miles west of the convergence of the Cimarron or “Dry Cut-off’ branch of the Santa Fe Trail with the mountain branch of the Santa Fe Trail. The Cimarron branch left the main Santa Fe Trail near Dodge City, Kansas and cut across southwest Kansas, the western tip of the Oklahoma Panhandle into northeastern New Mexico into Santa Fe. Following the Civil War, there remained a rather large contingent of Army forces to help keep the Rocky Mountain and Plains Indians under control as well as protect the travelers on the Santa Fe Trail.
One needs to realize that Spain claimed all the vast lands of the southwest region of American south of the Arkansas River west through today’s southern Colorado, Utah, Nevada and the southern two-thirds of California until 1822 when Mexico declared its Independence from Spain and then all of this territory was part of the Mexican republic until the end of the Mexican/American War in 1848. Spain had sought to colonize the northern part of New Mexico by Spanish colonists in the 1600s. This first group of colonists were driven out for a short period by the Pueblo Indian Revolt but Spain reconquered the area in 1692 and sent colonists as far north as Taos and Chama upon their return. A few colonists tried to settle in southern Colorado but were driven out by repeated Indian raids and it was not until 1850 after the U. S. had built Ft. Garland in southern Colorado that any permanent settlers settled any further north than Taos, Arroyo Hondo and Chama. What few colonists were brave enough to settle this area settled along the Rio Grande River and tributary streams; therefore, the country was very sparsely settled with very few primitive “roads” and a very limited communication system of messages being delivered by foot or horseback until after the Civil War.
Each western army fort had a sutler store (a general merchandise store) located either inside or just outside the fort compound. The sutler store site and remains at Ft. Union can still be seen today at the preserved ruins of Ft. Union National Monument west of Las Vegas. Capt. William H. Moore was in charge of the sutler store at Ft. Union when in 1866 an Indian appeared with a small packet of “pretty green rocks” to show Capt. Moore. Capt. Moore was a trained army engineer and possessed enough knowledge of minerals to realize that the green rocks were a very high grade of copper ore and he was aware of how valuable copper was following the Civil War. Capt. Moore persuaded the Indians to take him and a small party of soldiers to the area where the copper ore was found. They were led by the Indian northwesterly up into the upper end of the Moreno Valley above timberline of Baldy Peak which is 12,600 feet high. The copper deposit was located on the west slope of the peak, and until about 30 years ago the deep .m-een deposits of ore could be easily seen 20-25 miles away.
Following the return of Capt. Moore’s party to Ft. Union, Moore and William Kroenig fled a mining claim on the property even though the land was located on Lucien Maxwell’s massive Maxwell Land Grant. Capt. Moore and Kroenig then hired three men, Laurence (Larry) Branson, Peter Kinsinger, and a man named Kelly to do the necessary assessment work on the claim. Baldy Mountain is the peak which reaches above timberline whose southern base is just north of present day Eagle Nest. The southern flank of Baldy is drained by Willow Creek and the canyon which Willow Creek flows down is called Willow Gulch. Branson, Kelly and Kinsinger reached the mouth of Willow Gulch and camped for the evening on Willow Creek about 200 yards up from the point where Willow Creek exits the gulch. Wile Branson and Kinsinger prepared supper, Kelly decided to take out a placering pan he had brought along and began panning some of the sand and gravel in the streambed. The streambed at this point is only about four feet wide and in the fall of the year there is only a small shallow steam of water flowing in the streambed. Much to Kelly’s surprise the first pan revealed some good showing of gold flakes. All three men then vigorously panned the sand and gravel beds up and down the stream for several more days and discovered gold in nearly every pan of dirt. It was late in the season (late October or early November) and they were not equipped for either a long stay or a serious placer undertaking; therefore, they marked a nearby large ponderosa pine tree with the words “Discovery Tree” to mark their claim. (This land has been a part of the Mutz Ranch for over 50 years and in a conversation with Robert Mutz in 2000, he stated he had seen the remaining stump of “Discovery Tree” in the early 1950s when he drove cattle up Willow Gulch for his uncle Adolph Mutz. He said the snag was located very near where several old jeep trails lead up to the south face of Baldy from Willow Creek.) Branson, Kelly and Kinsinger returned to Ft. Union and made a pact they would tell no one of the gold, but one can easily imagine what happened to the pact during the long winter months at the fort when “Taos Lightning” flowed freely in the evenings. By mid-April 1867, with heavy snows still blanketing Baldly, men were trekking up Willow Gulch to spread out over Baldy.
With the influx of a large number of miners to do hydraulic and placer mining, it became apparent there simply was not enough water to work all their claims from mid-July into fall so people began to look for alternate water sources. In 1866 Lucien Maxwell, who owned all the land in the Moreno Valley, hired Capt. N.S. Davis — an engineer stationed at Ft. Union — to search for an alternate water source. Davis went over into the Red River Valley. There were no roads into the valley and no residents living in the Red River valley at that time. Davis came up with the idea of taking water from the Upper Red River watershed and transferring it by ditch into the Moreno Valley. The plan seemed feasible and a company was organized on January 6, 1868, and called the Moreno Water and Mining Company.
There were seven stockholders: Lucien Maxwell, Capt. N. S. Davis, William Kroening, John Dold, Capt. W.H. Moore, Col. V.S. Shelby and M. Bloomfield, with Col. Shelby supplying the largest investment. Altogether they raised nearly $115,000. On May 12, 1868, construction began. The average work force for the ditch was 400 men. There were four or five rock bread ovens constructed on a small knoll located on the north side of what later became known as the “Old Pass Road”. This knoll is about one mile west of the mouth of Jackknife Canyon at the eastern base of present “Bob Cat Pass” road. These ovens are clustered together and the rocks of the ovens possess a deep reddish-brown hue which came from the firing of the ovens. The ovens were used to make bread for men working on the ditch. From this point, the bread was distributed to the areas where the men were working. At that time in the Moreno Valley, unskilled laborers were plentiful for $2 per day, mechanics for $4 per day, and a two-horse team could be rented for $10 a day. It is assumed this was approximately the wage scale paid for construction of the Big Ditch.
The Big Ditch, known also as the Elizabethtown Ditch, Moreno Valley Ditch or Lynch Ditch, was built in 1868 and 1869 in the Red River/Elizabethtown area of Northern New Mexico. The Ditch was designed to transfer water from all of the Upper Red River watershed to the gold fields in the Moreno Valley. It was built high on the mountainsides basically by hand in a little over a year’s time. It was over 41 miles long. Today a lot of it remains in its original state, but much of it has been filled in with rock slides, converted into a jeep trail or trees have grown up in it; however, in many places the ditch remains in its original condition. It consisted of three miles of flumes. All of the flumes have fallen, but there remain scattered along its course quite a number of the wooden 4″x10″ and 10″x10″ trestle supports. Anyone who walks the high country on the east and west sides of the Upper Red River Canyon will come across the ditch sooner or later.
Capt. William H. Moore was quick to realize the opportunities in providing provisions for the increasing number of wealth-seekers would be much easier than digging for gold and probably much more profitable. He opened the isolated valley’s first store in June 1867. Capt. Moore, George Buck and a few of the original locators commissioned T. G. Rowe to lay out the plat for the new town which these founding fathers decided to name Elizabethtown, in honor of Capt., William Moore’s four-year-old daughter Elizabeth. E-town became the first incorporated town in New Mexico, and by the following year it claimed to be the third largest town in the state — behind Santa Fe and Taos. Lucien Maxwell owned all this land which was a part of the vast Maxwell Land Grant provided by the Mexican government.
Because of the predominantly loose rock, gravel and sand formations in the Moreno Va l l e y, a large amount of mining was done either by the placer or hydraulic methods. Placer mining simply meant to wash the sand, gravels and loose rock with water — much like panning gold but on a much larger scale. Placering is done by dumping shovels of sand and gravels into long sluices made of plain, rough lumber in the form of an inclined trough open at both ends. Wooden slats or “riffles” were laid horizontally at one and a half to two foot intervals along the trough which caught the heavier gold as the ore was washed down the sluice by water. If mercury was available, it was placed on the upper side of the wooden slats where it would amalgamate with the gold that was too fine to settle behind the slats by its own weight. If they used mercury, they would heat the amalgam formed in whatever ingenious method they could think of to recover the mercury by distillation in a crude “stir and use it over and over. Undoubtedly many of these early miners died prematurely from mercury poisoning.
Hydraulic mining here in the upper Moreno Valley was perfected primarily by Matthew Lynch. This process involved using high pressure water shot through a no7zle similar to a fire hose. The historical pictures of these operations were taken in the same area where the present gravel pits are located on the east side of the present highway across from the ruins of Elizabethtown. Both the placer and hydraulic processes required large amounts of water and as you travel from the top of Bob Cat Pass toward Eagle Nest, you can look down onto Moreno Creek and see what a small volume of water it contains — particularly from July through November.
The ditch began high in the West Fork of Red River at about the elevation of 10,000 feet, about 150 feet west of West Fork stream where it runs by Joe Boston’s present cabin. They placed the first headgate here to divert water into the ditch which worked its way on a level course where it stayed above the stream on the south-southwest side of the canyon until it intersected Middle Fork stream about 200 to 300 yards below Middle Fork Falls. Here another headgate was installed. The ditch then wormed itself around the West Fork of Red River into the East Fork and crossed the East Fork of Red River about l’A miles up from the present trailhead near Sawmill Creek in the present Wheeler Peak Wilderness up East Fork canyon. Another headgate was installed at East Fork stream, and a large wooden flume on a very high trestle carried the water across the valley to Sawmill Creek. At this point they built several buildings for the ditch construction headquarters and the sawmill, which provided lumber for construction of all wooden flumes and trestles on the project.. Remnants of the trestle and construction headquarters can still be found on Sawmill Creek where the flume emptied back into the ditch.
The ditch worked its way still high between 9,000 and 10,000 feet along the east wall of East Fork Canyon — and came out on the eastern upper slopes of the upper Red River canyon wall and coursed around Black Copper Canyon just above the Black Copper Stamping Mill and then across near the top of the ridge on the east side of the canyon to Fourth of July Canyon. The longest and highest flume of the project was across the upper Black Copper Canyon. When you reach the top of Fourth of July Canyon road, you are standing on the old ditch. It then wound northeasterly behind this ridge and came back in at Foster Park. The level part of the jeep road in Foster Park is the ditch. It then coursed around the rockslide ridge north of Foster Park on wooden flumes intermittently until it reached the top of the Old Red River Pass Road. At the top of the Old Red River Pass, the ditch runs about ten feet east of the fence and crosses the Old Pass road as the Old Pass road begins its descent into the Moreno Valley. At this point the ditch headed northeast and started down toward the Moreno Valley along the crest of the old pass region toward today’s Bob Cat Pass. By this time, the ditch had dropped about 200 feet from its begirming elevation in upper West Fork Canyon. For the next 1/4 mile on the jeep trail that heads northeast toward today”s Bob Cat Pass, you can see good remains of the ditch on the east side of the fence along the top of the Pass until it emptied into a large iron pipe which was the only pipe used for water conveyance in the project. The two-foot diameter iron pipe ran for a distance of about 2000 feet. The pipe was mounted on a wooden flume which spanned the 2,000 foot distance across the valley atop the crest of the mountain. The wood flume reached a 15-foot height at about the point where the second pass, Road Hill Pass, came into Red River Valley from the Moreno Valley came up from Hematite Canyon where gates of the McShann Ranch are located on the hill’s crest.
The pipe came in 2’x8′ long sections and it was shipped by wagon train from Independence. Missouri over the Santa Fe Trail on the Cimarron Cut-off Branch of the trail which cut diagonally southwest from near Dodge City through southwest Kansas, western tip of the Oklahoma Panhandle into northeastern New Mexico north of Clayton, down to the Point of Rocks and across the Rock Crossing on the Canadian River east of Springer and up through Cimarron and Cimarron Canyon to its present location. It took up to twenty teams of mules to haul the heavier loads of one wagon up Cimarron Canyon.
At this point, there was discovered an error in the engineering survey which found the end of the pipe to be seventeen feet lower than the next crest of the hill so they installed a seventeen-foot right angled elbow at the end of the pipe. Fortunately there was enough water pressure from gravity flow to push this water to the top of the seventeen-foot extension to empty into another wooden flume which conveyed the water northeastward where it crossed present Bobcat Pass about 200 feet below the top of the pass on the Moreno Valley side. The seventeen- foot elbow section of the pipe can now be seen at the Red River museum. From this point the Big Ditch coursed along the upper west side of the Moreno Valley to its northern dead end. From here the ditch coursed its way along the eastern side of the Moreno Valley Canyon Walls to its terminal point above the Red Bandana Mine at Humbug Gulch at Elizabethtown. In the upper northern end of the Moreno Valley Canyon, you can look down from the Big Ditch upon the old stagecoach trail road which came up through the Costilla River Canyon and Valle Vidal area where it cut across to La Belle and then branched out with one trail going from La Belle to Midnight and down Bittercreek to Red River, and the other branch leading from La Belle down the floor of the north end of the Moreno Valley to Elizabethtown.
The initial water flow through the Big Ditch was not enough to meet the miners’ needs, and in order to increase the water flow they damned up three of the high mountain natural lakes in the Upper Red River Canyon. This brought the total cost of construction to over $200,000. What they called Reservoir #1 is what we call Horseshoe Lake today in those days it was known as Snowbound Lake. Here they raised the dam 12 feet. Reservoir 42 was what we call Lost Lake — in those days it was called Heart Lake. They raised the dam 16 feet here. Reservoir #3 was what we call Middle Fork Lake — in those days it was known as Pearl Lake. This darn was raised 12 feet. A fourth reservoir was planned at Sawmill Creek, but it was never constructed. The construction on the ditch began on May 12, 1868, but no known records are available on the actual construction details. We do know that Capt. N.S. Davis was superintendent in charge of the construction and headquarters for construction was located at the Ditch Cabin site on Sawmill Creek up East Fork Canyon. Several buildings were constructed here and the sawmill erected next to Sawmill Creek where a water wheel was used to power the sawmill operations. This is how Sawmill Creek gets its name.
One needs to realize that in those days there were no residents in the Red River Valley; therefore, personnel and supplies, except timber, had to be transported from the Moreno Valley. They constructed a road up what is now called Hematite Canyon in the upper northwest corner of the Moreno Valley. The road came out at the top of Fourth of July Pass. The original cut of the road at the top of Fourth of July was not as deep as it is now. (The deeper cut, as we see it today, was made when the C.S. Ranch in Springer attempted to get water rights renewed to divert the Red River water to the Moreno Valley for irrigational purposes in 1939.) The construction workers of the ditch then continued the road down its present course in the Fourth of July Canyon where it exited at the bottom of the canyon on the east side of the Red River. Old-timers say the road then coursed up the Upper Red River Canyon on the east side of the river until it crossed the stream a short distance south of the present fence separating Monte Vista Estates and Querinda where the road cut across the Red River and coursed along the west side of the river to where East and West Fork Creeks converge to form the Red River. 1
The ditch was built by hand with picks, shovels and dynamite. Mules and horses were primarily used to pull fresnos (scoops) to move the rocks and dirt on the few places where terrain permitted their use. However, in the early 1930s Johnnie Mutz and his father, Emil, found a discarded ox yoke in the Big Ditch about 300-400 feet north of the crest of Fourth of July Pass. 2 These construction men were experts for this type construction and by the end of November, 1868, they had finished eighty per cent of the project. At the end of November they had to stop construction because of the winter weather and snows. In the spring of 1869 they resumed work as soon as the spring thaws permitted. The last section of the ditch to be completed was at the top of what we now call Fourth of July Canyon about July 4, 1869. Two to three days later the headgates were opened and the water started down the ditch and reached the end of the ditch at Humbug Gulch in the Moreno Valley on July 9, 1869.
The ditch itself was 41 miles, 11 chains in length. A chain is 60 feet; therefore, the length of the ditch was 41 miles, 660 feet long with over three miles of wooden flumes. They had to build wooden flumes where the ditch crossed a ravine or low area. Many of these flumes were on trestles 20 to 40 feet in height. They also had to use what are called “side flumes” wherever the ditch went around a rock outcropping or rock cliff where it was not feasible to dig or dynamite out a ditch. The longest of these wooden flumes was over 600 feet. The engineering plans for the ditch called for the following design: The top of the ditch was to be seven feet in width and the bottom four feet wide with a total depth of four feet. The width of the dike on either side was three feet and the water level floor in the ditch was to be two feet. The wooden flumes used were designed to be five feet in diameter, 2-1/2 feet high and the water level was to run several inches below the top of the flume.
When the water reached the Moreno Valley, there was great disappointment because the amount of water which was projected to arrive never reached the end of the ditch. The ditch was designed to deliver 71/2 million gallons of water daily, but there were only l’/2 million gallons that arrived at Humbug Gulch, the end of the ditch. This was not an adequate supply of water to motivate any company to buy the water. The Moreno Water and Mining Company, which constructed the ditch, had based its investment in the project with the plan to recover the investors’ monies from selling water to the miners in the Moreno Valley.
The water supply was not adequate because of the amount of water loss in its 41-mile course. The water loss was caused primarily by seepage out of the ditch into the loose gravels and sand formations of the Moreno Valley. The water simply percolated its way down through the coarse sand and gravels which the ditch ran through. The small volume of water reaching its destination was not of practical use for the project; therefore, the Moreno Water and Mining Company abandoned the project after a few years of operation.
No one wanted the responsibility of the ditch and it fell into the possession of Col. Shelby, one of the original stockholders who had provided the greatest investment into the company. He gave it back to Lucien Maxwell who owned the land where the ditch ran in the Moreno Valley. Maxwell had also been one of the original investors in the project.
In 1875 Maxwell sold the ditch to Matthew Lynch, who had been one of the initial investors in the ditch and the man who had pioneered hydraulic mining in the Moreno Valley. Lynch had a large mining claim of 600 acres on the east side of the present highway at Elizabethtown (where all the gravel pits are now active), so he purchased the ditch from Lucien Maxwell for $12,000 on April 15, 1875. Lynch made necessary repairs on the ditch and reopened it in 1875. With four “little giants” (metal hydraulic nozzles mounted on a pivoting base) and 200 miner’s inches of water. Lynch washed more gravel at this site than any one man in the history of New Mexico. (A miner’s inch is generally the flow of .5 cubic foot of water per minute.) Lynch continued his operations until the spring of 1880, when unfortunately a tree fell on him and killed him while he was supervising the opening of the flumes. The ditch and mining properties were passed on to his brothers Patrick, Andrew and Maes who continued to collect $40,000 to $50,000 in gold from the operation each season for another five years. Their project was then abandoned. It is not known whether they ran out of gold or closed down operations for other reasons. The next recorded reported use of the Big Ditch is on May 7, 1898:
  • 3  “H. H. Argue has the 40 mile ditch opened from the head of the Moreno Valley down to the placers working. He put 20 men to work Monday on the remainder of the ditch and will have the Red River water running through the ditch by May 10.”3
  • 4  “H. H. Argue is arranging for extensive improvements and some changes in the big ditch at the Iron Flume, at present the thousand inches [miners’ inches of water] in the ditch at its head dwindles to 300 inches at the placers. It is not altogether improbable but that a new and much shorter ditch will be built in the near future, by way of Hematite Canyon. It will leave the old ditch at 46 of July Park where about 870 feet of tunneling will be necessary.’ (This project was never begun.)
  • 5  The last reference to the Big Ditch concerning its use is: “The Moreno placers are in full operation, having started up this week. They are working from the water under the Richey Ditch; too much ice and snow in the Big Ditch to make it available.
  • 6  It is believed that the large nozzle in the Red River museum was first used by Lynch at his operations in Elizabethtown and later used in the Placer Fork operations at Red River which were located just below the Buffalo mine up Placer Creek. Johnnie Mutz states that in the mid- 1920s he assisted his father, Emil, in building and repairing water retention ponds above the level of the Big Ditch all along the western slope of Baldy Mountain. These retention ponds were used to supplement flow of water for miners still placering the Moreno Valley.
    In 1939, Mr. Charles Springer, owner of the C.S. Ranch in Cimarron dug the cut of top of Fourth of July Canyon deeper and wider down to the level of the ditch which is the present-day jeep road at the top of Fourth of July Canyon road. They applied to the state water resources board for water rights to the Big Ditch so water from the upper Red River Canyon could be diverted to the Moreno Valley and diverted into Eagle Nest Lake to be used for irrigational purposes downstream.. Fortunately for Red River, the request was denied for renewal because of the length of time that had expired since the water right grant had been used.
Today much of the ditch remains intact, almost in its original condition. On top of the “Old Pass” one can see good sections of the ditch and the coarse gravels it ran through on its course to the Moreno Valley. One can also see, in the same area, sections of the iron pipe. The end of the iron pipe with its right angle flume projecting seventeen feet vertically into the air before it emptied into a wooden flume, were given to the Red River Museum by the Double Eagle Ranch in 1999. The present owner of the former Double Eagle Ranch has renamed the ranch The Flying Horse Ranch which covers the western slopes of the Upper Moreno Valley.
In August 1999 a group of men from Red River and the manager of Double Eagle Ranch, Vernie Boren, loaded the vertical elbow section and a few adjoining sections of the pipe on a trailer and hauled them and a few pieces of the original wooden trestle at the site to the Red River Museum. At the point where the iron flume turned vertically into the air, the pipe rested on the ground. The earliest known picture of the iron flume to exist was taken probably in 1868 or 1869 by Mr. Aultman, a photographer from Trinidad, Colorado before the flume was fully erected.
It is interesting to examine sections of the pipe to see where iron plates were bolted over leaking holes. All forging and bolting of materials had to be done by hand. Note the remnant of the supportive trestle at the museum is joined together by wooden pegs and square iron nails. As you revisit the sites of this historical engineering feat, keep in mind you are stepping back into the post-Civil War years of 1868 and 1869, only forty-seven years after Becicnell’s first wagon came over the Santa Fe Trail to Santa Fe. The only people living in the Red River Canyon were a few young Hispanic boys from Questa who lived in temporary shacks during the summer months tending their familys’ flocks of sheep. The Red River Canyon was never a part of any Spanish or Mexican land grant but was used by the different area Indian tribes as hunting grounds and later as communal grazing lands for Mexican residents in Questa. The western border of the Maxwell Land Grant was the top of the ridge along the upper Red River Canyon which diverted falling moisture into either the Moreno Valley to the east and drains into the Canadian River and eventually into the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico or down into the Red River which empties into the Rio Grande west of Questa. All Mexican and Hispanic land grants eastern borders on the Taos Plateau north of Taos ended at the western base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to a point about half way between Questa and Costilla.

 

  1. Joe Janney and Johnnie Mutz
  2. Johnnie Mutz
  3. Elizabethtown New Mexican Miner, May 7, 1898
  4. Elizabethtown New Mexican Miner, May 1, 1899
  5. Elizabethtown New Mexican Miner, April 13, 1900
  6. Johnnie Mutz, 2005

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