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As natural as Mt. Rushmore

Essay by Ed Quillen

Arkansas River – September 2007 – Colorado Central Magazine

SOME OF THE OBJECTIONS to Christo and Jeanne- Claude’s proposed “Over the River” project are based on practical considerations, such as “Can this area accommodate the expected horde of visitors?” and “How much will traffic on U.S. 50 be delayed during the assembly and disassembly of the project?”

Other objections are based on æsthetics, along the lines of “‘Over the River’ is basically a series of clotheslines, and who wants to look at that?” And then there’s a deeper æsthetic aspect: “The Arkansas River canyon between Salida and Cañon City is a natural beauty, so why mess with it?”

This raises two interesting questions. One is about the definition of beauty. Rugged mountain canyons were not always deemed beautiful. Go back a couple of centuries, and you find people complaining of the stark desolation of such places. Our cultural concepts of “beauty” change, but addressing that would take way too much space.

The other interesting question is easier to answer: Just how “natural” is the Arkansas River? Our very access to the river and its canyon is hardly natural. The railroad tracks and U.S. 50 resulted from hard work by humans, not from nature. In its natural state, much of the canyon was impassable; all the early pack trails and wagon roads found a way around many portions of the canyon.

I got to thinking about this when I was asked to speak at the first Colorado Artposium, which was held in late May in Salida.

The organizers asked me, in my capacity as a local history buff, to talk about “How the River Shaped Salida.” I responded that, when you consider all the fill dirt and stone rip-rap that flanks the river through town, it would be more accurate to talk about “How Salida Shaped the River.” To my pleasant surprise, they agreed to the change.

The Arkansas River covers a lot more territory than just Salida, of course, so the more accurate title might be “How humans have shaped the Arkansas River.”

One way we’ve shaped the river is by defining it.

Any relevant reference book will tell you that the Arkansas is 1,469 miles long, the sixth-longest in the United States, and that it rises in the Central Colorado mountains near Leadville and flows through Colorado, Kansas, and Oklahoma before joining the Mississippi in its namesake state of Arkansas.

The name comes from an Indian tribe near its mouth. The French were trading and exploring the area, and they had trouble pronouncing the tribe’s name. Father Marquette in 1673 called them the Arkansea. Not long thereafter, LaSalle made it Acansa. The mapmaker Dieur Bernard La Harpe came up with the modern Arkansas.

As you can tell, the river was named from the East. In this part of the world, la Frontera del Norte, the Spanish called the river the Rio Nepestle or Nepesta, which may come from the Osage words “Ne Shusta,” meaning Red Water.

Today we consider the Arkansas one long river system, but there are good reasons to divide it. During the last really wet year, 1983 (wet years are so rare as to be quite memorable), it was front-page news in the Dodge City newspaper that there was water in the river.

BUT YOU CAN’T JUST BLAME greedy Colorado irrigators. In the fall of 1859, before there were irrigators along the Arkansas in Colorado, prospector Daniel Ellis Conner recounted that while traversing eastern Colorado, he saw buffalo “crowding around a water hole in the Arkansas River. The river was dry for many miles,” and he “had learned that it was not unusual for it to go dry.”

His is just one of many such accounts. The river bed often lacked flowing water in eastern Colorado and western Kansas. So it might be more accurate to speak of two rivers. One rises in the Rocky Mountains and dissipates on the plains. The other picks up around Dodge City, and by the time it gets to Tulsa, Oklahoma, it has enough water to carry barge traffic. Sometimes the two rivers connect, but frequently they don’t.

This reality might be reflected in what people currently call the river. Up here, it’s the “Arkansaw.” Across the state line, it’s pronounced “Ar-Kansas.” Despite the continuous tracing of one river on a map, perhaps subconsciously we still recognize it as two rivers.

Humans have wandered through this area for just about as long as humans have been in North America. We don’t know much about most of them. A few Anasazi shards have been found in the area, and we know the Utes have been hereabouts since about 1300, or maybe before that.

We don’t know what the Utes called the Arkansas River, beyond some generic term for “flowing water over there.” They were not a literate people, so we have no records from them.

THE FIRST WRITTEN ACCOUNT of this area came in 1779 from Juan Bautista de Anza, the governor and commanding general of the Spanish Province of New Mexico. Anza is little known to American history in general, and when he does get mentioned, it’s for founding the presidio of San Francisco in 1776.

When Anza took office in Santa Fé in early 1779, Taos and other northern Pueblos, as well as the Ute allies of the Spanish, had suffered from many Comanche raids for horses and women. He conceived a novel military campaign that involved marching far north to circle around the Comanche and fight them as they came out of the mountains southwest of Pueblo.

Anza crossed Poncha Pass and camped at the present site of Poncha Springs on August 27, 1779. The next day, his journal recounts that “A little before seven we started out toward the northeast and in little more than a league we crossed the Río Nepestle which flows from the northwest and has its source in the aforementioned mountain range.”

Anza does not mention any difficulty crossing the Arkansas, probably about a mile upstream from Salida’s F Street bridge, because it probably wasn’t a problem. This was in late August back before there were reservoirs. The river was doubtlessly quite low and no problem at all for men on horseback.

Anza knew where he was and where he was going. You can’t say that about the author of the next written account, Capt. Zebulon Montgomery Pike. His 1806-07 expedition was occasioned by the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. The boundary of Louisiana Territory was rather vague. The U.S. had acquired it “as France possessed it,” and the French had not bothered to send out surveyors. The French claim was based on La Salle’s old claim to all the land drained by the Mississippi, and that includes the drainage of the Arkansas.

One of Pike’s biographers calls him “The Lost Pathfinder,” and that’s a pretty good description. We just celebrated the bicentennial of his Colorado expedition, which provided a good excuse to re-read his journals, and it’s painful to see how lost he was up here.

Out on the prairies, his route up the Arkansas would evolve into part of the Santa Fé Trail, and that may be his most significant contribution to American history. He got to the mouth of the Royal Gorge at Cañon City in late November of 1806. He thought the Arkansas might start there, in the canyon, so he sent two privates into the gorge to find out.

They came back late that afternoon and told him that yes, the river started in there as a mere trickle. As a former private in the United States Army, I know exactly what happened. The privates got around a bend, out of sight of Pike, found a warm rock in the sun, and lit their pipes. They loafed all day and made their misreport to Pike, figuring that now they could go south over the easier prairies till they hit the Red, and float home down it.

PIKE WAS NOT so easily deterred, though. He swung around the Royal Gorge and eventually arrived up here via Trout Creek Pass, spending Christmas at Big Bend a few miles north of Salida. Now for Pike’s journal for Dec. 26: “Marched at two o’clock and made 7 1/2 miles to the entrance of the mountains.” That’s just downstream from Salida, where the mountains close in around the river. “On this piece of prairie the river spreads considerably, and forms several small islands; a large stream [the South Arkansas, which Anza called the San Augustin and which locals today call the Little River] comes from the south.”

What Pike described then was a very different river than the one we know today. His Arkansas at Salida was shallow and braided, not the narrow swift channel we know today. This is the best evidence of how humans have physically shaped the Arkansas over the past two centuries.

Pike went on to further adventures as he worked downstream on what he thought was the Red. On Jan. 1, 1807, he shot a bighorn in what is known today as Bighorn Sheep Canyon, and a few days later, he discovered his old camp at the mouth of the Royal Gorge.

In the big historical sweep of things, Pike’s expedition was one of several American provocations and incursions into territory claimed by Spain. At some point, the two empires might go to war unless the diplomats could sort out the boundary between the United States and New Spain.

John Quincy Adams, secretary of state under President James Monroe, met with Luis Onís, Spain’s foreign minister, and the result was the Transcontinental Treaty of 1819. In it, the U.S. acquired Florida, and “forever renounced” any claim to Texas — a treaty provision which, if we had honored it, might have made our politics a lot more sensible, but I digress.

The Arkansas River, west of Dodge City, Kansas, was part of that boundary. If that international boundary had remained, the F Street bridge would have a customs station, and illegal immigrants would be swimming the Arkansas, rather than the Rio Grande.

Humans tried to shape the shallow, meandering, inconsistent Arkansas into an international boundary.

Things soon changed, however. Mexico became independent of Spain in 1821, keeping these borders. But then Texas declared its independence from Mexico in 1836. Texas kept the same borders on the east, and along the Rio Grande, but the confines of the northern border were a little confusing. A line was designated which stretched north from the headwaters of the Rio Grande, and another line paralleled it on the east, stretching north from the start of the Arkansas, and both lines went all the way up to the 42nd parallel — which made for a very long, narrow panhandle extending all the way into what is now Wyoming.

THE AMERICAN ANNEXATION of Texas in 1846 inspired the Mexican War, and after the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, both banks of the Arkansas were American. In the Compromise of 1850, Texas ceded its northern claims to the United States. By then we had another American account of the Arkansas in this general area (to my knowledge, it was the first to put any æsthetic value on this valley).

John Charles Frémont, the Great Pathmarker, came through in 1845. He bypassed the Royal Gorge, much as Pike had done, but instead of going downstream from Trout Creek Pass, he went upstream and eventually crossed Tennessee Pass. (Nearby Frémont Pass is one pass he never crossed, but that’s one of the ironic pleasures of local history.)

Frémont was here in early September, when this area is at its best. “This was pleasant traveling,” he wrote. “The weather now was delightful and the country beautiful. Fresh and green, aspen groves and pine woods and clear rushing water, cool streams sparkling over rocky beds.” he concluded that “Here in these mountains was one of the pleasantest grounds in the journey.”

It didn’t stay delightful and beautiful, however. In 1858, gold was found at the mouth of Cherry Creek just east of the foothills. In 1859, prospectors were swarming deep into the mountains, looking for more gold.

Two of their major discoveries were along the Arkansas. One was Oro City, near present Leadville, near the top of the river. Another was Cache Creek, a tributary west of Granite.

Today, we think of placer mining as a guy with a gold pan, and how much damage can he do to a river? Back then, the pan was just for prospecting. If they found gold, they dug out the river, and its banks. They hosed down mountainsides and put bucket dredges to work in man-made lakes. They amalgamated their ore with mercury, which they boiled off into the air, and they cut down forests for fuel and timber.

THE RESULT was a changed river. Humans physically remade the Arkansas into an industrial sewer, which carried away the wastes from mining. And flash floods ripped away denuded hillsides, which likewise mucked up the river during every thunderstorm. The “Granite Flume,” which carried tons of silt every day, was notorious even then.

More than sediments, there were dissolved minerals in the water. Mines go through mineralized rock. Water drains into the mines and dissolves the minerals. The water has to be drained from the mine for it to operate, and the Arkansas River was a convenient place to put the water. Leadville had hundreds of mines, as well as two major drainage tunnels. The result was that clear into the 1970s, the river would run orange once in a while. Fish were essentially extinct between Leadville and the mouth of Lake Creek. Below Twin Lakes, enough water flowed in to dilute the mineralization. As they say, the solution to pollution is dilution.

Another solution was the construction and operation of two treatment plants at the openings of the mine drainage tunnels in the 1980s. I’d like to point out that I didn’t entirely mind the occasional bouts of orange river back then. I figured it would keep rich people from moving into this valley.

During the mining period, which lasted for about 120 years, humans reshaped the river into a transportation system for discharge. Afterwards, they reshaped it once again — into a stream clean enough for a fishery.

As to what’s “natural” here, I’ve read a lot of early accounts of people along the top of the Arkansas. I’ve never read of anyone, even before the mining days, catching fish in the main stem above Lake Creek. That area is so mineralized that it may never have had significant numbers of fish until treatment plants were built. It’s not something anyone could prove, one way or another, but it’s an interesting speculation, and it demonstrates how humans can and do shape rivers. We degrade the water with waste, but we also improve the quality of the water by purposefully reducing soil erosion, overgrowth, stagnation, swamp land, etc.

Mining is seldom done for local needs, so it requires transportation. In the 19th century, that meant railroads. Thus the birth of Salida, which was created by the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad.

TO MAKE ROOM for the trackage, shops, roundhouses, sandhouse, coal chutes, water tanks, depot, Monte Christo Hotel, and all the other appurtenances of a major railroad town, the Rio Grande dumped thousands of cubic yards of fill dirt along the river. Pike’s broad, shallow river became a narrow channelized stream by 1900. And the transformation extended into the hills behind the river. Thunderstorms would produce flash floods that roared down those small but steep canyons, washing out expensive railroad facilities; so the railroad built diversion dikes to channel the floods to spots where it had trestles over the drainage ditches. The results remain to this day.

That’s the major physical way that Salida shaped the river. The Arkansas was something of an annoyance that got in the way of the railroad, which employed more than 500 men in a town of less than 5,000 people then. Thus, the river had to be controlled, lest it take away from valuable industrial and commercial space.

Salida residents also feared the river, and for good reason. On May 31, 1904, a dozen women and children stood on a flimsy bridge that connected the town to the railroad yards, and suffered what came to be known as the Memorial Day Disaster.

As the newspaper put it, they were “casting flowers on the bosom of the stream in memory of the heroic dead, when the structure gave way, plunging its cargo into the river. Hundreds of people along the banks witnessed the tragedy, some jumping into the raging water to rescue the struggling swimmers. About six of the victims were recovered from the river but the others were taken downstream by the current.”

Salidans also noticed the pollution of the river. On August 3, 1900, the local newspaper published this:

“The pollution of Colorado streams by placer mines and mills is the source of a grave annoyance to all people interested in the preservation of the state’s attractions as a resource for sportsmen. There are many of the finest streams in the state that have for years been useless for fishing and in this respect few counties have suffered more than Chaffee. Our local sportsmen have for years been in the habit of resorting more to the waters of the Gunnison than to local streams.

“This magnificent fishing resort is threatened seriously by pollution from ore mills and a strong fight is being waged by the citizens of that vicinity to save it. The majority of the people of the state will be in sympathy with this movement to enforce the law which requires that the operators of mines and mills shall protect the streams.”

You might observe that the argument here was not that there is something inherently virtuous in a clean river that supports fish, but that the town is losing money because fishermen are going over the hill to the Gunnison basin. In other words, this is a commercial argument. The river was seen as something that could be a source of more tourist income — if only it could be shaped into something different.

ANOTHER USE for the upper Arkansas River appeared. As soon as there were miners in Colorado to buy produce, there were farmers. They diverted water from the rivers to grow their crops. Pretty soon, there wasn’t enough water to go round — one infamous event in local history, the Lake County War of 1874-75, which led to a judge being murdered in his own courtroom, began as a dispute over an irrigation ditch.

Around Cañon City and then east of Pueblo, agriculture is a big part of the economy. And as the 20th century developed, they were running out of water.

One project, completed in the 1920s, was the Twin-Lakes Tunnel, which brings in about 35,000 acre-feet a year. In 1962, President John F. Kennedy went to Pueblo to sign the Fryingpan-Arkansas legislation, which also involves capturing water on the Western Slope, conveying it under the Continental Divide, and running it down the Arkansas to Pueblo Reservoir, where it can be released in late summer when the crops most need it. It provides about 70,000 acre-feet. Of the total annual flow of the Arkansas River in Colorado, about 85% of the consumptive use goes to agriculture.

We also have municipal demands on the river, primarily Colorado Springs and Aurora, which isn’t even in the Arkansas basin, but pumps water over the Mosquito Range from a facility north of Buena Vista.

The upshot of all this is that the flow of the Arkansas, at any given time, is controlled almost to the gallon. You may hear local outfitters advertise that they float on the “free-flowing Arkansas River.” In a sense, that’s true, as there are no dams across the main stream above Pueblo Reservoir, but almost every major tributary — the Little River, Chalk Creek, Cottonwood Creek, Lake Creek, Clear Creek, etc. — has one or more dams.

In 1947, locals who had been stationed in Europe came back with a new toy, the Folboat, a sort of folding kayak. They took it to the river here. They set up a race from Salida to Cañon City. That was the first FIBArk, now America’s oldest whitewater festival.

In the 1970s, people figured out how to raft the river. The upper Arkansas is now the most popular whitewater river in the world. It’s also a renowned brown-trout fishery — and it should be noted that the brown is not a natural native fish.

Those recreational uses led to the formation of the Arkansas River Headwaters State Park twenty years ago. There were also conflicts; floaters wanted high water, anglers liked low water, and the dispute became known as “Row v. Wade.” A compromise was negotiated, with relatively high flows until Aug. 15, and lower flows thereafter so the fish could spawn.

More recently, the county filed for a Recreational Instream Channel Diversion water right to be sure there was enough water in the river for recreation; it was opposed by the Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District, which argued that guaranteed instream flows would interfere with water transfers for irrigators and municipalities.

Along the way, the channel through Salida has been altered with rocks to create “playholes” in the river.

ADD IT ALL UP, and it’s apparent that the Arkansas from earliest days of white settlement has been shaped by humans to serve commerce. Our ancestors defined it as one river, and followed it across the Great Plains because silver was cheap and calico was expensive in New Mexico, and the reverse was true in St. Louis.

We polluted it to make money from mining, and we cleaned it up to make money from tourists. We changed its course for the benefit of a private railroad corporation, and we have adjusted its course for tourism and our own pleasure. We have defined it as an international boundary and as a prototypical American river. We have diverted water out of it, and diverted water into it. We shape it in our heads and on the ground.

So to say that Salida shaped the river, rather than the river shaping Salida — no, I wasn’t kidding. For far more than a century, the Arkansas has been what we wanted to make of it. The river as we know it is about as natural as Mt. Rushmore.

There may be good reasons to oppose Christo’s project. But to claim that his fabric panels would disturb a hitherto “natural” environment is not one of them.

This is adapted from a presentation at the first Colorado Artposium in Salida on May 27, 2007.