Skyscraper Reservoir History
Story and contemporary photos by Doug Dart
Vintage photos courtesy of Catherine Long and History Colorado
Reprinted with permission from the Newsletter of the Eldora Civic Association (Spring 2022)
The hike to 11,221 ft. Skyscraper Reservoir is a moderately strenuous 5-mile-long trek starting from the Hessie trailhead. From trailhead to reservoir there is a 2200 ft elevation gain, much of it occurring during the last few miles of the ascent. The final two miles are through a dense forest with few views, but at Woodland Lake the trees thin and for the final push from Woodland Lake to Skyscraper Reservoir, the scenery is pure alpine. The final destination is in the heart of the Indian Peaks Wilderness Area and indeed, the surrounding landscape does appear to be free of any signs of civilization. However, the astute hiker will recognize that the body of water they have reached is called a reservoir, not a lake, therefore humans must have had some hand in its creation.
A quick look at the eastern shoreline reveals a dam, one constructed many years ago to transform a small alpine lake into a reservoir used to provide water to an expanding farm in Boulder, twenty-five miles to the east. To understand the story of Skyscraper Reservoir, it is necessary to know the history of the Long family and Long’s Gardens, a farm the family started in Boulder over one hundred years ago.
Long’s Gardens, today a well-known landmark and working farm along North Broadway, has been in the Long family since 1916 and, while at one time was in the rural lands north of the city, is now in the middle of the many mature subdivisions of North Boulder. On the farm is the original 1906 farmhouse that has been occupied by three generations of the Long family starting with Jesse Dillman (J.D.) Long. J.D. Long moved west from Iowa as a treatment for tuberculosis and in 1900, settled in Boulder where he found work on a ranch. Five years later, he became the owner of Noah’s Ark Store, a variety store in downtown Boulder which also had a seed department.
The seed business did well and eventually, a place to grow the seeds and bulbs sold in the store was needed, so in 1916, land north of town was purchased, and Long’s Gardens was born. J.D. and his wife Cora had three children and it was their son Everett (Ev), born in 1912, who decided to continue in the family business. The 1930s was a challenging time for a farm that specialized in the cultivation of fruits, vegetables and flowers, crops that required a constant supply of water. During that time, there was widespread drought in the west and plentiful water was hard to come by.
If the farm was to be successful, a reliable source of water would be needed. Ev was aware of this and, although he grew up on a farm, he had interests that extended beyond agriculture. He graduated from the University of Colorado in 1934, took classes in water law and understood the critical importance of water in the arid west.
Ev was also a skilled mountaineer and explorer of mountain landscapes. He was a guide for climbs throughout the Rockies and climbed Longs Peak 93 times. He hiked the high alpine valleys west of Boulder, a favorite place of his to explore; land that was to eventually become the Indian Peaks Wilderness Area. The drainages and many lakes of the high country were places Ev knew well. Perhaps it was a combination of education, experience and passion that inspired him to formulate a highly ambitious plan that he hoped would provide a secure source of water for the family business.
Today, land use policies and water law are a highly complex and contentious business, so it is almost impossible to imagine a time when an individual could locate a mountain lake that was suitable for a dam, build it, and then have access to the stored water, but that is exactly what Ev Long planned to do. Ev and his wife Anne were newlyweds in 1940 when they honeymooned at a cabin in the Fourth of July area west of Eldora. They spent their days hiking the high country, looking for a suitable location to build a dam so that Long’s Gardens would have the water it needed. An alpine lake west of Woodland Lake was chosen as the location for the new dam and in 1940, preparations were made to transform Upper Woodland Lake into Skyscraper Reservoir. In the summer of 1940, plans for the dam were submitted to the Colorado State Engineer and approved in September 1940.
That same fall, equipment was hauled to the lake so that work could begin the next year. The following summer, Upper Woodland Lake was drained and excavation for the dam’s foundation was completed. In 1942, construction of the dam began, however work had to be put on hold for the next three years while Ev served as a civilian flight instructor during WWII. After the long war, attention was again directed toward completing the project. Equipment, dynamite, and concrete would have to be hauled to the worksite on a regular basis and, while horses were used early in the project, a more reliable, less aggravating means of transportation would be needed. A 1947 Dodge Power Wagon was purchased and would become the primary vehicle that was used to transport all needed materials until the project was completed.
A M29 Weasel, a tracked vehicle developed during the war for use on snow and difficult terrain, was also taken to the worksite. In the 1940s, there were several roads west of Eldora, most constructed at a much earlier time for mining and logging purposes. Many of today’s hiking trails are overgrown and eroded remnants of these roads.
The Dodge had little trouble traveling the rough roads to the point where the final climb to Woodland Lake began, however there had never been a road constructed up the steep slopes leading to Woodland and Upper Woodland Lakes, so it was necessary to use the truck’s winch to help transport it up the final three miles to the construction site. The process was then reversed when it was time to lower the truck down the slope and make the drive back to Nederland for supplies. The working season at 11,221 ft is short, so five more summers would be required to complete the mission, but finally in 1951, the level of the water was raised 15 ft. and the reservoir was filled to capacity.
Water from Skyscraper Reservoir reached Long’s Gardens via the Silver Lake Ditch and maintained the farm for many years, however over time it became more difficult for the business to lease extra land to grow the popular but water hungry gladiolus. Over time, Long’s Gardens became more involved with the cultivation of the more drought tolerant iris, and the need for the reservoir gradually diminished. Finally in 1967, Skyscraper Reservoir was sold to the City of Boulder.
Today, Ev’s daughter, Catherine Long, is the third generation of the Long family to continue in the family business. She and her husband Dennis Gates manage an agricultural oasis in the middle of a growing city that often forgets its farming heritage. Long’s Gardens is not only a place that grows and sells iris; it is home to Growing Gardens, a nonprofit that provides produce for donation to low-income community members and offers educational programs centered around the sustainable production of food. Long’s Gardens is also a farm that will never be dissolved into subdivisions; in March 2021 it was placed into a conservation easement that specifies the land must be used for agriculture.
For many years, the fields of Long’s Gardens depended on snowmelt captured in a high mountain reservoir. Those days are gone, but today the farm thrives and continues to treat travelers along North Broadway to fields of multi-colored iris blossoms.