The 128-year-old McElmo Creek Flume – a relic of pioneer ingenuity that operated until 1991 – was nearly swept away by flood waters in 2006.
But today, the historic irrigation structure stands strong, saved by gambling money and the determination and generosity of the local community.
A ribbon-cutting was held Nov. 30 to commemorate its revival.
“The McElmo flume is saved, it is off the endangered places list,” said Linda Towle, who spearheaded the restoration effort.
The structure’s foundation has been rebuilt and the wooden trough that carried irrigation water for more than 100 years was restored. A paved pullout with parking provides public access to the historic interpretive site from U.S. Highway 160, east of Cortez.
“It is a wonderful attraction for our county and a wonderful representation of our history,” said Montezuma County Commissioner Keenan Ertel.
Local contractors did the work, including D&L Construction, which did the paving; Western Triad, which worked on the flume’s foundation; and Ramco Development, which restored the wooden trough.
“It illustrates who we are as a community and shows what we can do when we come together for something we believe in,” said James Dietrich, natural resource planner for the county.
The $475,000 restoration project was funded by more than $300,000 in grants from the Colorado Historical Fund. The grant money is derived from gambling revenues earmarked under the state Constitution for historic preservation projects, said Mike Owen with the state historic office in Durango.
The Federal Highway Administration awarded the project $252,000 for the paved pullout, parking and interpretive flume overlook as part of the Colorado Scenic and Historic Byways Program.
The point-of-interest highway pullout is the first in 10 years on the Trails of the Ancients Scenic Byway, coordinator Susan Thomas said.
“It is a nice stop for people and tells a fascinating story,” she said. “What’s remarkable is that so many people here remember when it operated.”
The McElmo flume No. 6 is the only survivor of 104 wooden flumes built by early water companies to irrigate the Montezuma Valley.
The flume was one of 33 on the Highline Canal that delivered water to southern Montezuma Valley farms and the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe.
Wooden flumes were the technology of the day to cross canyons and arroyos, said Les Nunn, longtime manager of Montezuma Valley Irrigation District. The suspended troughs carried water over drainages and were supported by pillars that keep the water flowing downslope.
“They always built a flume because the water companies did not have the equipment to move dirt to fill in arroyos,” Nunn said. “They were built with lumber from the McPhee sawmill.”
Workers added and removed spill boards to the McElmo Flume depending on flows. There was a gate in the middle to spill into McElmo Creek, which could cause flooding downstream. The flumes would become water-tight as the wood swelled.