Denver: Byers’ Folly
Reading Professor Barbara Tuchman’s The March of Folly has led this observer to conclude that locating the City of Denver and the satellite cities that radiate north and south of Denver along Colorado’s Front Range was a huge folly.
This conclusion is occasioned by what is, so far, the 4th worst drought in Colorado history and, perhaps, the history of the entire Rocky Mountain West. Clearly, locating all those cities on the edge of what Lieutenant Zebulon M. Pike called The Great American Desert was folly.
From day one, the village idiot could have foreseen that the only way those cities could survive, much less grow, would depend upon the trans-mountain diversion of water from the snowy west side of the Continental Divide to the high desert on the east side of the Continental Divide.
So now, the water that Mother Nature intended for the Western Slope has been diverted. But the diversions were done at enormous expense to the big cities along the Front Range and at the cost of robbing the ranchers, farmers, resort areas and wildlife west of the Continental Divide of the water they need to survive.
Be it Colorado or Oklahoma or Afghanistan, water is life. Life cannot exist on Planet Earth without potable water. Therefore, with 20/20 hindsight, the great cities of Colorado should have sprung up along the drainages of the Colorado, Yampa, Arkansas and Gunnison Rivers. Based primarily on water resources and secondarily on the locations of current roads, rail lines and airports, Colorado’s golden-domed Capitol would have been more wisely located in Glenwood Springs or Grand Junction or Gunnison or Montrose or Steamboat Springs or Granby or Kremmling or Hot Sulphur Springs.
Any mention of Hot Sulphur Springs brings to mind, William N. Byers, the founder of The Rocky Mountain News – the visionary flimflam man and boomer who conceived and nurtured the idea of Denver being the great metropolis of the West. In the 1850s, from his base in Omaha, Byers started publishing stories about gold along Denver’s Cherry Creek. He even wrote a Colorado guidebook before he made his first trip to Colorado. The ultimate con man, he even talked his wife into sticking with him after he was caught with another woman – an affair that kept Byers from becoming governor.
One of Byers’ visions was to try to recreate the posh resort of Saratoga Springs, New York, at Hot Sulphur Springs, Colorado. Byers conceived of a Colorado version of the Saratoga trunk rail line that connected the rich in New York City with the racetrack and the mineral baths of Saratoga Springs. But New Yorkers did not have to surmount the Continental Divide to get to Saratoga Springs.
In fact, when it was time to unite the east and west coasts of the United States by rail, Cheyenne, not Denver, lay along the most logical route. Indeed, the difficulty of building a reliable rail line between Denver and western Colorado was to prevent Hot Sulphur Springs from achieving the popularity its gorgeous scenery deserved.
The Oklahoma boomer counterpart to William Byers was Kansas newspaper publisher, David L. Payne. Payne penned such pretty prose about Oklahoma Territory that thousands of settlers illegally invaded Oklahoma “sooner” than the law allowed. Thus, the term: “boomer-sooner.”
Today, the water demands of the Front Range cities have almost completely drained Antero Reservoir, killing thousands of game fish. Lake Dillon and Lake Granby are only 25 percent of their normal size and will soon be like Dead Sea dustbowls. Tourism west of the Continental Divide is being devastated. According to the U.S Forest Service Sulphur Ranger District Office in Granby, 40 percent of the permits authorized for boat docks and boat moorings went unused this year.
But don’t expect Denver to relocate to Hot Sulphur Springs. Today, Oklahoma sparkles with dustbowl-inspired lakes, reservoirs and ponds. Colorado needs to follow Oklahoma’s fine example and impound more water.
William Hamilton, a nationally syndicated columnist and featured commentator for USA Today, was born in the middle of the Great Depression and experienced the Oklahoma dustbowl, first-hand.
©2002. William Hamilton.