Reckling: A lesson on Salvation |

Reckling: A lesson on Salvation

Margaret Reckling

Salvation. The word alone is powerful and emotional. It summons thoughts of desperation and deliverance from catastrophe. It’s a name entirely befitting the ditch that redirects the necessary water to irrigate and assure cultivation on at least a dozen ranches on the outskirts of Aspen. In turn, this ensured a food supply for early settlers and the more permanent town population that was re-established after the silver boom.

The Salvation Ditch was conceived and built by the first homesteaders to carve out a life in these unforgiving mountains, and the construction of the 23-mile waterway is an impressive engineering feat. To early ranchers, the ditch was the lifeline of water diverted from the raging Roaring Fork River, and it delivered the necessary water to consistently farm and ranch their land.

The Salvation Ditch is fed from the superfluous flows of the Roaring Fork River as it tumbles down from 12,000-foot-high Independence Pass. It’s a product of the monumental snowpack from the high mountains — a route so precipitous that it makes it one of the steepest rivers in Colorado. The forceful fall of water into this valley was so impressive that, prior to the white man’s arrival, the Ute people described it as “Thunder River” in their language.

The 23-mile ditch was excavated and engineered by men filled with the determined grit of frontiersmen; they were dedicated to making a life here for their families. In 1903, the fantastic effort to complete the ditch was led by Jeremie Vagneur, a Woody Creek homesteader. Under Vagneur’s supervision, the project employed a variety of methods to create the canal, including powerful draft-horse teams, dynamite, picks and shovels.

The take-out for the ditch was, and still is, located at the east end of Aspen, just below what was once the Barailler Ranch (now North Star Nature Preserve), continues along Smuggler Mountain and across the base of Red Mountain, leaves Aspen to travel across McLain Flats to Woody Creek and ends its course at Aspen Valley Ranch.

Prior to the ditch being built, early ranchers and farmers were challenged with feeding their own families and livestock. The goal to further maximize their production to supply food to the large in-town population (believed to have been between 10,000 to 16,000 people) was greatly limited by accessibility to water.

Although most historians stress the rise of ranching and farming post-silver boom, in actuality ranch and farm activity was an underlying presence that later rose to its fullest prosperity with the arrival of the railroads, completion of the Salvation Ditch and improved delivery methods. Just imagine the thousands of burros, mules and draft horses during the mining years that required daily feeding of hay and grain. These were hardworking animals vital to the mining operations, and they endured the physical toll of long days spent hauling excavated debris out of the mines.

The amazing downvalley course the Salvation travels is a history lesson in itself. The original ranch owners’ names read off like an Aspen history roll call: Bourg, Clavel, Cerise, Vagneur, Natal, Gray, McLean (later McLain Flats), Gavin, McCormack, Trentaz, Smith — the family names reflect the strong presence of northern Italian immigrants (with their French-influenced names) and a sprinkling of Irish and Scottish landowners.

For over a century, the Salvation Ditch has been delivering water to the properties that own interests in the ditch and “If not for the Salvation Ditch Co., eastern slope diversion projects would steal the upper Roaring Fork River dry each summer,” reminds Tony Vagneur in Sojourner magazine’s midwinter issue of 2011.

To this day, the ditch is monitored daily by a ditch walker. Michael Kiernan, who is employed by the Salvation Ditch Co., sees to repairs, clears debris during runoff and checks that suitable water levels are maintained throughout the irrigation months (June through October). Kiernan has been making his early-morning trek along the ditch since 1993, and in his 21 years of walking the waterway, he has had myriad wildlife encounters on his peaceful, solitary journey.

“I start my walk above Aspen at 6 a.m., and it takes about five hours to complete the journey to Woody Creek,” Kiernan said in a recent conversation.

Without the vision and foresight of the early pioneers in ranching, who knows what would have become of the Aspen area? Today’s resurgence of interest in “growing local” and “farm to table” and renewed awareness of food quality — however trendy it may be — will ensure that the rich farming and ranching traditions of the Roaring Fork Valley continue on.

Margaret Reckling lives in Woody Creek and welcomes your comments at

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