When most people think of Colorado history, they picture the Wild West–outlaws, ghost stories, prostitutes, and other strange tales that go along with gold fever. (I talked a bit about gold mining on Friday, along with instructions for panning your own gold, in case you missed it.) It was a wild, rugged land, approachable only by the brave and determined. This was true in the mountains, surely, but also down on the plains. When settlers came to Colorado, they didn’t think much about preserving the lands or ecosystem–on the other hand; it was a matter of preserving oneself. The plains butting up against the mountains offered as much of a challenge as the rocky mountains above. Rather than procuring gold, settlers had to procure food. To get food, they needed water–and there wasn’t much of it.
Early farmers took advantage of the ditches which had been dug for placer mining, extending them to overflow into their own fields. Canals and ditches quickly became big business around the Denver area. In a few days, I’ll show how much of an engineering marvel (or fiasco, depending on perspective) this was. First, I’d like to share a bit of the life around these canals 100 years ago.
I guess canals just weren’t worthy of being photographed. It was fashionable to take pictures of buildings or famous people, but few considered taking a picture of the ditch. One exception to this rule was Charles S. Lillybridge. In 1904, Lillybridge built a studio in a small shack alongside the Archer Canal, nearby the headgates from the South Platte River. Soon after, a bridge was built across the canal at Alameda Avenue. To Lillybridge, the canal and the bridge were the perfect setting. Before his death in 1935, Lillybridge snapped well over a thousand pictures, which were later donated to the Denver Library’s historical collection by John Werness. (The pictures are sometimes referred to as the “Werness Collection” rather than the “Lillybridge Collection.) Since these pictures show the development of the canals, as well as life a century past, I’ve selected some of my favorites to share here. If you enjoy these, and would like to see more, I’d recommend visiting PhotosWest.org and searching for “Lillybridge”.
Note: the following images have all been cropped to fit, but have not been reduced from the sizes posted in the online collection. To save time, these are not linked, but can be easily found by searching the collection.
Here is Charles S. Lillybridge with his son, Allen, who helped run the photography business, posing near his shack:
This picture shows construction on the Archer canal–it took quite an effort to dig these:
A boy and a dog pulling a cart stand near the bridge, which is under construction:
Here’s Lillybridge’s shack once again, with a boy on the roof, teasing a dog:
I suspect it might have been Lillybridge’s dog, as he shows up in a number of different pictures:
Ladies pausing along the canal always seemed pleased to pose, as these young women did, here on a drainage gate:
Or here, in a canoe:
Some folks weren’t always so pleased:
But every picture seems to hide a story:
Image notes: All images via the Western History Photos collection at the Denver Public Library.