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Gunnison Tunnel: Daring Expeditions and Crazy Ideas, pt 1

We begin our 4-part series of the Gunnison Tunnel series.

To view additional resources and information, click HERE.

The Conception and survey of the Gunnison Tunnel

  • Intro personal
    • Our story begins in the summer of 1901. It’s early August. Two men standing at the bottom of a two thousand foot deep, dark granite canyon. They are soaked, freezing, bruised, and carrying heavy, fragile, surveying equipment. They can barely hear each other because an angry, infamous river is roaring through granite boulders and over a waterfall just downstream of where they’re standing. They can’t see anything below the crest of the falls - Just the mist billowing into the air from below.
    • They’re audacious plan is to SWIM over these falls and continue down the river, but they know… their chances of surviving a swim OVER this waterfall, THROUGH these rapids, are very slim. No one in recorded history had ever floated, or boated through this section of canyon. There were no pictures, no guidebook, no satellite images… Just unknown rapids, and a deafening roar.
    • So, with their gear strapped to (no kidding) rubber inflatable mattresses -- --  They -- say goodbye to each other. “It’s been nice knowing you William” “Goodspeed Abraham” – and they wade into the water and begin floating toward the crest of the falls with just their heads above the water – and a very clear  understanding that they may be enjoying their final moments of life here on earth.
    • How, the heck, did we get here? What, on God’s green earth possessed these guys to risk life and limb and SWIM into an abyss of roaring unknown?
    • Well… It was the water – the very water in which they were floating and to which they were willing to sacrifice their lives, that motivated them that day. 
    • But before we can really understand what would inspire their bravery (I don’t know I guess some might call it stupidity) – we need to go back about 10 years to where this story really begins. 
  • Introduction
    • In the heart of Western Colorado there is an enormous valley that for hundreds of years was the winter camp for the nomadic Ute Indians of the area that spent their summers in the surrounding mountains. Today this verdant, green, valley spans three counties and is home to more than fifty thousand people.  The valley was carved by the Uncompahgre River – a Ute word meaning hot water spring.  The valley’s northern and lower end, in Montrose and Delta Counties, widens out and is home to some of Colorado’s most productive agricultural lands. These lands support a bustling economy and a Western culture and agricultural way of life that is the envy of many in the West. If you live here, you know all this, but what you may not know is that… 
      • [slow aeriel views of the valley today, from Sneffels, to Grand Mesa]
    • It wasn’t always this way. When Montrose was first established to support the mining operations in Ouray and Telluride. The Uncompahgre valley, save for a few farms immediately adjacent the river, was a desert. Still today the valley receives less precipitation on average than the Sonoran desert in Arizona.

      • [Reproduce the Montrose historical society picture of the first Montrose settlement, and merge it from the present day photo to the historical photo.]
    • So… how did this desert valley become an agricultural oasis - now attracting people from all over the world for it’s outdoor centered lifestyle, and beautiful views? 
    • Well, I have a story for you. 
    • This is a story of perseverance & grit, daring, some hubris, but also incredible foresight, masterful engineering, and a lot of good ‘ol fashion hard work.
    • If you travel through this valley on your way to Telluride, if you live in the surrounding mountains and shop in Montrose… maybe you enjoy Olathe Sweet, Sweet Corn in the peak of Summer?, maybe you’re thinking about moving here, but especially if you live here – Listen up. Every drop of water you drink, your way of life, depends on the story you’re about to hear. You may never look at the Uncompahgre Valley the same way again.
    • Hi, my name is Brody Wilson, and I live in the Uncompahgre Valley. I’m a mechanical engineer here in Colorado, and work in corporate sustainability, but having grown up right next to the primary canal that carries Gunnison Tunnel Water, my life was shaped and much of it enabled, by the water that flows through this tunnel. Over the next four episodes I’m going to tell you the story of the Gunnison Tunnel, and associated canals, collectively known as “The Uncompahgre Project”.  In this episode we cover the early conception and survey work (who even had the idea for this thing), in the second and third episodes we cover the tunnel’s actual construction, and in the fourth episode we cover the system’s operation and impact today. 
    • I’m telling this story because most of us take our water for granted, and for those of us that live in the arid Western US, there’s a story like this behind every city, town,  and agricultural valley in the west. And while water is sure to remain a crucial issue for decades to come in the Colorado River Basin, I think we’ll all make better decisions if we understand just how much has gone into enabling our water use, our way of life,  today. Let’s dive in, shall we?

      • Music Stops.

        • Music Attribution

          • Royalty Free Music: Bensound.com
          • License code: BDQTFADNHIP477GE
  • Episode 1 – Part 1 -  Uncompahgre Valley – Pre-Tunnel & The idea for a tunnel. 

    • While Montrose was founded in 1882 - it was just one year earlier in 1881 that the Tabawach Utes had been removed from these lands that they had been living on for the prior thousand , years or so. They were relegated to their comparatively TINY reservations in the 4 corners area, and in North East Utah. The Ute’s received just $37,500  or just over a million dollars in today’s dollars for the forfeiture of this incredibly beautiful place many of us now call home. An injustice for which the Ute’s are still, 143 years later, seeking reconciliation. 
    • And there’s actually kind of a painful twist to this already sad story, in an 1880 treaty, the Utes had actually been promised the land around the confluence of the Gunnison and Colorado Rivers, the area around today’s city of Grand Junction. And having lost the strong leadership of Chief Ouray less than two years earlier, were kind dupped. This guy Otto Mears, was on the commission to decide where the Ute reservation would be and he concluded that the expected location at present Grand Junction was not suitable because it didn’t have sufficient agricultural land for them.  We know that not to be the case. Today there’s more than 40,000  acres of cultivated land around Grand Junction.  The area had been surveyed to accommodate the new reservation there, but Mears knew that he would benefit more financially from white settlers than the Ute. The slite was justified by some weasel word legalese in the 1880 treaty that said, the Ute’s would be given the area around the confluence, “or adjacent” land. The reservation is 150 miles from the confluence. When the chair of the commission George Manypenny (great name), objected, “Hey, that doesn’t seem legal given that we promised them this area around the confluence. Otto Mears said, “No no! The Treaty says “or adjacent” territory, and Utah is a territory, and thus it’s self-evident that this is adjacent, thus, we’re obeying the letter of the law”.   Ultimately a military show of force, compelled the Ute’s to leave the valley for Utah in a forced march,  but only after clear threats of violence. They left haistly for Utah, without a shot fired.

      • Ute Bear Dance music is replaced by steam whistle. 
      • R. Carlos Nakai – Library of Congress recording https://www.loc.gov/item/2021688564/?
    • Nonetheless – The Homestead Act of 1862 was incentivizing people to come to the west and make a go of it – with the promise of free, fertile land. Any many did. 
    • Folks with pioneering spirit arrived in the Uncompahgre valley and those down valley, in Montrose, Olathe, and Delta were interested in making a living provisioning the miners in the San Juan Mountains to the South in Silverton, Ouray, and Telluride.  -- -- And this meant growing food.
    • And growing food, in this valley, means irrigating. And in 1890 it was growing clear to some that the pace of growth of agriculture, was quickly outstripping the supply of water from the Uncompahgre River alone. 
    • Lauzon

      • This problem was heavy on the mind of one Frances “Frank” Lauzon, a local farmer and miner who started pushing an outrageous idea in 1890. Initially folks in town thought he was crazy, and didn’t hesitate to tell him so.

        • Instert audio of Elane’s account of the Crazyness of his idea. 
      • His idea, was to build a tunnel from the Gunnison River, a large abundant river about 15 miles east Montrose, through Vernal Mesa, and into the Uncompahgre Valley.  You might think – “well 15 miles? That doesn’t sound all that far? The Erie Canal was already built and that was 363 miles, certainly they could dig a tunnel here. That’s not such a crazy idea.” The reason this idea was unfathomable at the time is that the Gunnison River is at the bottom of The Grand Canyon of the Gunnison – what we today call the Black Canyon of the Gunnison - a two thousand foot deep, steep and narrow, canyon carved out of some of the oldest, and hardest rock in North America. This, at the time infamous, canyon, was considered by at least three separate earlier survey parties, to be “inaccessible” and “impenetrable”. While the later of these parties were looking for a path for a railroad through the canyon, it’s not that they couldn’t see a way to build a railroad through the canyon, no, it was that they themselves were unable to get through the canyon just to survey it. A railroad was clearly out of the question. 
      • In 1890 when Frank Lauzon shared his idea, it was crazy to most because literally no human had ever been through the canyon.
      • No one knew critical details like - the elevation of the river in the bottom of the canyon so it could be determined if gravity alone could move the water to the Uncompahgre valley.  No one knew what the rock was like down there for tunneling, and when I say down there – you can’t really know what I mean until you stand at the edge of the Black Canyon yourself, and look for the Gunnison River.

        • Insert Audio here of people at the black Canyon describing what it’s like to see the Gunnison River from the top. 
      • If you take away the benefit of hindsight – Frank Lauzon’s idea --- was in fact – totally crazy. It’s not like he was proposing a project like others had done in the past.  No – this was something that had never been attempted, in an area that the pros of civil engineering at the time – the railroad men (ya know the folks building the transcontinental railroad…?) They had decided this canyon was Impenetrable, not to trains, but to humans.
      • And what makes this story more interesting is that Lauzon’s outrageous idea didn’t come to him as he was riding over Vernal Mesa on his horse, Exploring the South Rim of the Black Canyon and looking west to the Uncompahgre Valley – kind of putting the pieces together.  No. Francis Lauzon says this idea came to him… in a dream. No kidding – like a nighttime, sleeping kind of dream. We’ll never know if this was divine inspiration, or maybe just Lauzone’s approach to making people think his idea was divinely inspired. 
      • What we do know for sure, is that Frank Lauzone was, not just a local Montrose Farmer, but also a Miner. He knew a thing or two about tunnels, and what it took to build them – his particular blend of person experiences seems to have set him up quite nicely to be just the person to have this idea.
    • So Frank Lauzone has his “dream” somewhere in 1890 - people call him crazy, and no one really takes him seriously.
    • And remember, this valley is a desert – a REAL drier than the Sonoran -  desert.  Without Irrigation, almost nothing but sagebrush will grow here. But alas -  the valley’s allure of opportunity and prosperity continued to attract homesteaders , and the need for irrigation water quickly outpaced the supply of water that the Uncompahgre River could provide.  It was clear to some, Including Frank Lauzon, that the Uncompahgre River would ultimately not provide enough water to satisify the needs, and long term potential, of the valley. So he kept pushing his idea including, by some accounts standing at the intersection of what is now Main and Townsend (the biggest intersection in Montrose) shouting “We need a tunnel! We need a canal!”, but still there hadn’t been appropriate surveys to even know if this ideas possible. 

      • Now, there had been a survey of the lower canyon by the Denver & Rio Grand railroad about 11 years earlier, and to give you an idea of what this terrain is like…  These guys thought it’d take them twenty days to complete the survey, but instead they spent over 65 days in the canyon, crossing ice bridges, and just generally freezing their buns off.  Every day they spent hours hiking 2000’ down steep slippery trails to survey, and then at the end of the day, scrambling, themselves back up near the rim where their camps were. No wonder it took so much longer than they thought.
      •  However their survey for the potential railroad, didn’t contain the information necessary to locate a tunnel portal. 
    • And while many still thought Louzone’s idea was ridiculous –by 1894, Lauzon had gained enough popular support that the citizens of the Uncompahgre Valley funded a small survey to determine the feasibility getting water from the Gunnison River at the bottom of the bottom of the canyon to the Uncompahgre Valley.,
  • AIt was originally thought that constructing an irrigation ditch and a pumping system over Vernal Mesa and into the Valley would be viable  (no dams or tunnels). This initial survey, conducted by W.H. Fleming and Richard Whinerah in August and September of 1894, quickly established that this was impossible especially within the citizens’ financial constraints. The elevation gain from the river to Vernal Mesa is 2,100 feet and a pumping based approach was quickly ruled out. The pumping, piping and electrical infrastructure would be massive,  not to mention the dangerous pressures involved in lifting water more than 2,000 feet. Fleming and Whinerah determined that the only viable solution to getting water into the valley was… to dig a tunnel through Vernal Mesa – but that too was clearly more expensive than the citizens of the valley could afford.

    • Note here that Fleming and Whinerah – while they provided excellent information about the feasibility of the tunnel, they did not pass through the canyon and survey the lower canyon. Still no one had yet done that yet.
  • So here is where we see the tenacity of the citizens of the valley. Fleming and Whinerah came back and said “yea, the pumping idea – no way. You gotta build a tunnel. To which Lauzon, now nearly 5 years into his tunnel quest says “THANK YOU! – I’ve been trying to tell ya!”.  But Fleming and Whinearah say, “yea a tunnel, but no WAY do you guys have the money to build a tunnel like this.
  • Here the citizens could have packed up and said – “Welp, I guess we’ll have to make due with the water we have.”  But no…. these folks persevered. According to some Fleming and Winearah’s reports made them MORE hopeful.  
  • But by the late 1890s citizens were getting desperate, and the search for water was expanding on all sides of the valley. The lack of water, especially toward the end of the growing season, was clearly hampering crop production and the Uncompahgre River was running dry by the end of the summer 1899.  
  • Cimmaron Ditch

    • It was then, that those in town who thought a Tunnel was impossible pursued their own idea, and The valley’s first sizable water project was conceived – an ambitious plan to divert water from the upper Cimarron Creek at a location 36 miles East of Montrose and 3 thousand feet higher than the valley’s farmlands. And when I say divert, I mean an inter-basin diversion from the Cimarron River watershed to the Uncompahgre River watershed. 

      • TIMEOUT – I realized not everyone listening to this will know what a Watershed is – Well, you’ve probably heard about the Continental Divide, that’s the line splitting our country from East and West where all the water on the east side ends up in the Atlantic Ocean, and on the west side all ends up in the Pacific Ocean.

        • [SHOW Contenental Divide Image]
      • Well, those are two different watersheds, but they can be broken down into smaller and smaller water sheds and these are areas of land where all the precipitation in that area flows into a specific river. In the mountains of Colorado, watersheds are separated on the map by very squiggly lines that typically run along mountain ridges. 
      • So in this case the Cimarron Ditch project doesn’t just divert water from the river and onto adjacent fields. No, this ditch crosses one of those squiggly ridgelines taking water that would have otherwise continued down the Cimarron River and instead making it flow into the Uncompahgre River. 
      • AND one more technical point 
      • I need to make sure we all know how ditches work… No offense to the farmers listening here, but day-to-day life for most folks  doesn’t involve ditches very often. So, for those of us for whom this might not be intuitive… …  ditches rely solely on gravity to move water. Water (despite the efforts of many humans for mellinea), will NOT flow up-hill.  So if you want to use a ditch to get water from point A to point B – Point A HAS to be higher than point B. and if there is a hill between Point A and B, well your ditch either has to go around that hill, slowly decending the whole way, or through it. 
      • Ok Back to our story.
    • The ultimate point of the diversion for the Cimarron ditch from the Cimarron River, is in a spectacular area in the upper, Cimarron Valley, beloved by many today for its beauty and grandeur.
    • And the lowest point on the ridge between the Cimarron Valley and the Uncompahgre Valley is called Cerro Summit. This is where the railroad passed into the Uncompahgre Valley, and where US highway 50 passes today, and is where the Cimarron ditch finally crests into the Uncompahgre Valley. This means that the surveyors of the ditch started at Cerro Summit and worked their way very gradually along the West hillside of the Cimarron Valley at a slope of just 14 and a half ft per mile until the path of the ditch intersected the Cimarron River, where a diversion dam and headgate could be built to actually take the water out of the River. The ditch is about as close to FLAT as you can get while still getting the water to move downhill. As you drive up valley along this ditch there are portions that you could swe ar are running up-hill. I promise. They’re not. 

      • And if you want to see the circuitous path the Cimarron Ditch had to take to maintain such an even gradient – check out the map I made for this episode. There’s a link in the show notes20.
    • So, starting in 1899, The Cimarron Ditch, was surveyed, and construction began the next spring in 1900. Now… I’m not sure if you’ve ever dug a ditch before, let alone a 6 foot wide canal? (most of us haven’t). We’re not talking about the hard work of sitting on a tractor, or bulldozer for hours… 

      • [bulldozer sounds.. then stop abruptly…
    • No. This was REALLy hard work. Back breaking work using horses and mules, and shovels, at altitude no less. Think of the last time you planted a tree and dug a hole with a shovel – now picture doing that a couple million times.

      • [horse, shovel & digging sounds]
    • I have a neighbor who himself and four generations of his family have all worked on the Cimarron Ditch dating as far back as the 1920s. They are what we call “Earth Movers”. He’s actually working on a book about Cimarron the Ditch and I asked him what it was like for the people that did this work. He told me, “I don’t think you could find anyone today willing or able to do work like that.” 
    • But alas these folks persevered, and In September of 1900 500 shares of water were sold to farmers in the area for a total of $25,000. The town of Montrose bought some as well. There were even some investors from as far North as Delta about 35 miles to the north – who somehow thought some of this water would reach that far north.  Each shareholder was responsible for digging a portion of the ditch. The wealthy farmers were able to hire contractors to dig their portion for them, but most didn’t have that kind of money, so… in the summers they took their families and horses up into the Cimarron Valley, and started digging. It’s suspected that most spent their whole summers in the mountains toiling at their portion of the ditch and, living off the land, and only came back down to the valley in the Fall.
    • Ultimately the Cimarron Ditch, covers 24 circuitous miles from the headgate to the point where the water enters the Uncompahgre River watershed at Cerro Summit, The canal is still in operation today about 120 years after its construction.
    • Then from Cerro Summit, the water flows into TWO different man-made ditches, The Vernal Mesa Ditch, and the Hairpin ditch, but also down a natural creek, called Cedar Creek, directly toward Montrose.

      • Check out the map in the show notes if you’d like to see these. . 

…Now take note, because this Cimarron Ditch water now flowing in Cedar Creek will become gravely important in our story a bit later.

  • Episode 1 - Part 2 -  Lauzon’s idea gets legs & Pelton Expedition. 

    •  So, back down in town in the valley – 

      • [town sounds]
    • There’s still a camp of people that clearly saw that the 50 Cubic feet per second of water from the Cimarron Ditchwas not nearly enough for the potential of the valley and were still squarely focused on diverting a much larger volume of water from the Gunnison River, somewhere in the Black Canyon.
    • And through the summer of 1900 a prominent citizen of the valley named John Pelton was rallying support, and funding for and expedition to explore the Canyon. He actually lived up on Spring Creek Mesa (just west of Montrose) and had developed a recreational park known as “Pelton Lake” where folks from town came to picnic, and row around in wooden boats, and fish for trout”. 
    • But he was rallying support with the aim of determining the feasibility of constructing a hill-side ditch to “bring the river water nearer the tops of the cliffs”  to a place called Red Rock where the water would then enter a tunnel. In fact the local papers went to bat for him urging all citizens to donate to this cause as it was believed the whole valley would benefit. I picture Pelton walking up to his wealthier picnicking customers to schmooze them and solicit their support for his daring expedition. 
    • And Pelton – he was successful, by the Fall, of 1900 he’d gotten together a serious, well funded, well equipped, and well staffed expedition. And so on September 4th, 1900 Pelton set off on his expedition.
    • Interestingly  - he launched the day before all 500 shares of the Cimarron Ditch were sold – these things were all happening very much at the same time.
    • [Also, a quick note for the locals. Oak Grove school was dedicated on the same day of the Pelton Expedition launched. It’s all on the Front page of that Saturday paper. ]
    • So that Saturday paper says, “The hardy men who make this journey are ready for anything which may come up, Mr. Pelton, who is leader, having had much experience in such rough work. The water is quite low in the river, and it is not anticipated that there will be much trouble, though in so rough a canyon where the water rushes and roars over great boulders and between walls 2,000 feet high, one never knows what may lie encountered. Four or five days will likely suffice for the survey, and after reaching Red Rock, if the journey is too rough the traps will be packed to the summit and the boats turned loose to be caught at the state bridge.” 
    • This…. Is where some hubris  enters our story. John Pelton was maybe a little overconfident,  bu he wasn’t stupid.  But… he wasn’t stupid. They planned to have a party on the South Rim of the canyon watching their progress, and they hope to get to this location called Red Rock where there’s actually a little bit of a break in South Rim if the Black Canyon. When you look at it from Montrose you can see why it seemed logical to these guys. They built up these two oak row boats from Pelton Lake (yea his fishing pond…), stiffening them with steel “to resist the rough journey.”
    • Have you ever floated down a river for the first time and heard the roar of a section of whitewater that you’ve never been through? Remember that feeling in the pit of your stomach that says, “Wait a minute, what are we doing her… . I’m not sure this is a good idea!” Well Imagine if you didn’t know anything about that section of river, no guidebook, you can’t scout the rapid, in fact what you DO know is that the last people that tried gave up and Said it was “impenetrable”.

      • [increasing sounds of large river rapids] 
    • John Pelton and his crew were in WAY over their heads. But… they went for it anyway.  “Let’s go for it boys!” they said and plunged into the canyon. It did not go well. 
    • They’d packed for a month’s long trip and had all the food and supplies they needed. John Pelton had spent months getting these resources together, using not only his own money, but money from many citizens of the valley. The crew were all volunTEERS. 
    • And on only the second day, one of their two boats slammes into a rock, and shatteres to pieces. And there floating down the river along with splintered pieces of wood, are half of their supplies. It was a rough way to start the trip. But they dug deep, found their grit, and continued on…  they learned how to row the river more carefuly, and when NOT to row at all and haul their heavy boat (one boat now) and gear OUT of the water and drag it all over the rocks.
    • At one point the crew on the rim was unable to spot them for 5 days, and they, assuming the worst, sent a man down river to set up a wire cable net to catch any party members’ bodies that might wash out at the bottom of the canyon, but just then they saw the party floating downstream.  On the 21st day of the voyage and only 15 miles into the 53 mile canyon, they came to a narrow section of river that tapered to only 28 feet across. Two guys attempted to steer through, but their boat almost capsized, and they were nearly tossed over a waterfall. They named it the Falls of Sorrow, and at this point - exhausted, bruised, cold, and hungry, after THREE FULL WEEKS - they called it. To continue downriver would have meant certain death. So they took apart their transit and used the tri-pod legs as hiking poles, and climbed the 2,000 feet out of the canyon. 
    • One of the Volunteers William Torrence (the superintendent of the Montrose Electric Light and Power Company) wrote, “THIS time the Black Canyon won. With our present equipment we can go no farther.  [but] The Black Canyon is NOT impenetrable. If I get out of this scrape alive, I shall come back”.
    • They had made it further down river than any of the previous 5 expeditions.
  • And while they hadn’t completed the survey they intended, their daring efforts DID catch the attention of influential governmental officials in Colorado, and in Washington DC. And in the summer of 1901 the director of the US Geological Survey, allocated $4,000 and sent one of his hydrographers Abraham Lincoln Fellows, and an engineer C.H. Fitch, to determine the feasibility of driving a tunnel through Vernal Mesa to supply the Uncompahgre Valley with Water from the Gunnison. And specifically to answer this question that no one yet had,  WAS the Gunnison river enough higher than the Uncompahgre to allow the water to flow into and irrigate the valley if a path were made.
  • 6 parties had risked life and limb to explore this canyon and STILL this fundamental elevation requirement for a tunnel was not known. 

    • Remember if point A is not higher than point B – the water will not flow. 
  • Fellows, advertised for an assistant that “must be a good swimmer (that seems like a good first qualification), strong and athletic, and also unmarried and have no one entirely dependent on him, and finally “strictly temperate and a good campion ready to obey orders at all times”. Well, our friend William Torrence, less than a year out from his last scrape with the Black Canyon. Thought he was quite qualified, and applied for the job, and Fellow’s took him on. 

  • So on Monday August 12th, 1901 (no doubt having done some serious praying the day before in Church) they took the train over Cerro Summit to Cimarron, where they got in the river at the top of the Canyon.  With the hindsight of the prior 6 expeditions, they borrowed the good ideas – They too sent a party to observe from the Canyon rim, but also to hike down and check on them and provision them with supplies at three separation locations. They also learned from their predecessors’ mistakes, and elected to NOT use wooden boats and instead, chose to put their gear on 4 foot by 6 foot inflated rubber….. boats? We  wouldn’t call these rafts, today we’d probably call these inflatable mattresses, but they were divided into several airtight sections?. There are pictures. But Fellows and Torrence, they wouldn’t sit on-top with the gear. No – they SWAM along side their mattresses. And in this way… they actually made great progress. 
  • They proceeded w/o incident all the way to “The Falls of Sorrow”, at which point they attempted to climb around the falls, but w/o the technical rock climbing gear that would only be developed 50 years later… they were forced to retreat.
  • And here is where we re-unite with the brave characters from the beginning of our story. Seeing no way around the treacherous “Falls of Sorrow” Abraham Fellows and William Torrence decided that the only way out… was through.

    • Play audio of their good byes. 
  • The pressure on their shoulders was immense. The hopes and dreams of their community were riding on their ability to complete this survey. The Uncompahgre Valley was either going to remain a desert with an unsufficient river, or become a prosperous valley, an agricultural oasis – depending on if they were successful. They knew that the six parties before them had been defeated, The US Federal Government Was counting on them, and Torrence – having thrown in the towel at this exact spot a year earlier – he was back for revenge. 
  • And so, the story goes…. they said their presumptive goodbyes, and it was actually Fellows (the USGS Hydrologist) that went first, leaving Torrence on the rocks to witness his potential demise. Torrence then swam over the Falls as well. 

    • [Water Fall Sounds]
  • Then… 

    • [Water sounds stop sharply, and warm cello music or other pleasing major chords play… ]
  • Both men emerged from the water, battered and bleeding, but alive. They had now traveled farther down the river than anyone in recorded history.
  • And in the days that followed things did not get much easier. There were nights when their “camp” in quotes was not big enough for both of them to lie down and they had to take turns lying down in the space big enough to sleep on. Like hot-bunking on cliff ledge. Also they got really hungry… There were times when their crew on the South Rim couldn’t get to them and they ran out of food. Here’s a little exerpt from Elane Hale Jones book on the Black Canyon, “West of the Divide East of the Desert”
  • At one point in their journey, Fellows and Torrence had gone for sixteen hours without a mouthful of food, dividing their last spoonful of baked beans and praying for good luck. Luck was with them that day as they came upon a pair of bighorn sheep, the first living creatures they had encountered in the canyon. One bighorn darted between two rocks and was cornered by Torrence, who sprang to the opening. The sheep rushed out, right into Torrence’s arms. Man and animal wrestled together until Fellows slipped Torrence a hunting knife which he used to eventually kill the bighorn. This meat proved to be a lifesaver for the two men, who needed every ounce of their strength to reach their final destination. 

    • Holy smokes – these guys were the real deal. 
  • After just 8 days of the expedition, the men exited the canyon and Red Rock. 

    • Remember the Pelton Expedition the prior summer took 21 days to get just to the Falls of Sorrow. These guys went light and fast. 
  • Torrence had lost 13 pounds over the journey, and together they had been forced off the river’s bank, and into the water to swim a total of 76 times. They were the 7th party in 48 years to attempt to survey the Grand Canyon of the Gunnison, and the first to follow the course of the river for its full length. At some point on their journey having collected the necessary survey data, they strapped a message to each of their bodies (I’m not sure how they did this maybe a tag on their toes?, but the message read “The Gunnison Tunnel is feasible. We know it and they shall know it.” These guys were committed. They wanted this knowledge to get out of the canyon, even if had to be attached to their dead bodies. 
  • At the end of their journey, Fellows went to the telegram office in Montrose to send a message ( you know with morse code) back to Washington. After risking his life under circumstances unimaginable to his superiors sitting in their offices at the US Geological Survey in DC, he didn’t recount the difficulty, or the risks taken, nor his ingenious approach with the mattresses, no – he had done the job asked of him – and he sent a one sentence telegram to Washington, DC, stating simply “Gunnison Tunnel project is feasible”.
    • Mores Code Sounds ending into a cavern of echo
  • Special thanks to Sally Johnson from the Montrose Historical Society where they have some of the original survey equipment used by Torrence & Fellows. Bill and Nancy Sigafus who helped with information on the Cimarron Ditch, and Elane Hale Jones who’s books and knowledge of the valley’s history was invaluable, and Jon Horn, Principal Investigator at Alpine Archaeological Consultants, who helped with some overall fact checking some specifics about the Utes, Pelton, and other helpful tidbits. Thanks so much everyone. 
  • And remember, we’re just getting started here .. this is the first of four episodes. Stay tuned for Episode two where we get into the tunnels construction, and one of it’s most deadly  accidents.

To view additional resources and information, click HERE.

Brody Wilson, serves on multiple nonprofit boards, has been a KVNF Listener for 44 years, and is a corporate sustainability professional and mechanical engineer from Montrose.