Denver, CO was the second most populated city in the West of 1890s. It grew from 5,000 to more than 100,000 in step with the surge of railroad development from 1870 to 1890. At the time, Denver residents simply drew their water from the South Platte River, but the flow was neither steady enough nor large enough to meet the growing demand. The rate of population growth and the shear population numbers meant that Denver needed a dependable water supply, which meant that a reservoir was needed. It was time for Colorado to build its first dam.
Businessmen and pioneers Walter Scott Cheesman and David Moffat were involved in consolidating small water companies into Denver Union Water Company in the 1890s and running the company in its early years. Cheesman in particular was adamant about keeping Denver’s water supply “a Denver enterprise” without the investment and control of outsiders. This vision or mentality of Denver’s water carries on today, as the Cheesman Dam allowed for a large supply to be delivered quickly through an independently financed infrastructure. Thus, if the supply exists and there aren’t any outside ties to restrain the use, the question of water use shifts from can Denver get enough water to how will Denver continue to receive enough water.
But the construction story itself is interesting. Chief Engineer C.P. Allen originally found the site for the dam on Goose Creek and started construction in 1898 using a new “gravity arch” design to redirect the reservoir’s stress away from the dam itself and onto the surrounding natural rock. But with the Spring of 1900 came a quick and strong flood that washed away the entire project’s progress. Later that same year, Cheesman and his crew selected another site along the South Platte River and began building a better dam. The gravity arch design was kept and the spillway was raised to 221 feet, which made it the world’s tallest dam upon completion. Italian masons were brought on board to quarry and cut the local granite. The finely cut stones, each four to five tons, literally became the face of the Cheesman Dam as they were the facing stones of the dam. Construction finished 1905 and C.P. Allen was reportedly so pleased with the masonry’s aesthetic and functional success that he gave a $50 suit to the head mason.
But the completion of the dam was not entirely smooth. The Denver Union Company had created a subsidiary company to fund and orchestrate the project, and legend has it that as the money began to run low towards the end of the project, Cheesman himself personally contributed substantially money to ensure the completion.
Once the dam became operational, it marked the first “online storage” of water for Denver. It is remarkable that it’s original capacity of 89,000 acre-feet maintained over the last century. The Douglas County History organization created a video of this history and provides additionally insight into the recreational and aesthetic benefits of the dam. Indeed, in 1973 the American Society of Civil Engineers designated Cheesman Dam a National Historic Landmark for how well it blended into is surroundings and its integrity. It is seen as a “jewel” among the Southwestern dams and perhaps this makes it count as an exceptional piece of land art.