Duggan: Poudre River restoration takes out a piece of history

The tranquility of the Poudre River west of Shields Street has been disturbed in recent weeks by the roar and clank of heavy equipment.

One of a series of projects aimed at restoring the river and its northern bank to a more natural state is well underway. Part of that work entails taking away pieces of the river’s history.

Crews last week used excavators to remove an 8-foot-high cement wall that has spanned the river since 1966. The dam backed up the river about 100 yards

They also took out the tall headgate that formerly fed water from the river into a pipe that runs about a quarter mile to the east along what used to the Josh Ames Ditch, which hasn’t operated for decades.

I doubt anyone will miss the diversion. It wasn’t much to look at, and the drop it formed in the river was a major barrier for tubers and boaters floating downstream, not to mention fish.

In its stead will be more natural pools and riffles. Aquatic species will have an easier time moving along the river corridor.

In conjunction with the diversion removal, sections of the north bank are being lowered to allow the river to connect with its natural floodplain. That will be a boost for the habitat of riparian plants and animals.

In time, the area will look a lot more natural, and the Josh Ames diversion and ditch will be forgotten.

But who was Josh Ames?

Joshua Beardsley Ames was a Fort Collins pioneer, according to a fascinating document prepared by Tatanka Historical Associates as part of the diversion removal project. Indeed, he was here before there was a town or a fort.

Ames was born in 1839 in Clintonville, N.Y. He and his brother, Orvand, headed west to the Colorado Territory in 1862.

Along the way they met the John Coy family, who hoped to get to California. But the traveling was slow and difficult, so the Coys and Ames wound up homesteading along the Poudre River on open land that is now covered by downtown and north Fort Collins.

Ames built a ditch to irrigate his fields in 1867 with the help of a neighbor, Peter Anderson, a Norwegian immigrant for whom the Anderson neighborhood is named.

In 1878, Ames moved with his wife to Iowa. Eventually, they moved to Kenosha, Wis., where he operated a clothing store. Ames moved to San Juan Batista, Calif., between 1905 and 1910 and started a chicken farm. Ames died in 1911.

The historical study documents in detail what happened to the ditch and its precious water rights during the decades after Ames left town. Water from the ditch was used to grow crops and to supply the Great Western Sugar Co. factory until development took away the fields.

It’s a long, complicated tale that ends in the early 1970s with a portion of the water rights going to the city to augment its water supply.

The Josh Ames Ditch story is a history of western settlement and development and tapping into the Poudre River’s water to make it all happen. The diversion was an artifact of that story.

It’s gone, but the river, its history and future to tranquilly flow along.

Kevin Duggan is a senior reporter. Follow him at Coloradoan Kevin Duggan on Facebook or @coloradoan_dugg on Twitter.

Fort Collins Coloradoan
Kevin Duggan