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Irrigation irritation: Water rights worth fighting for

Frontier Diary
Willa Kane
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
Photo Courtesy Frontier Historical SocietyThe Morrow Ranch, in this circa 1890 photograph, was irrigated by water from the Roaring Fork River via the Morrow Ditch. The Morrow Ditch later became part of the Atkinson Canal.
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“This would be good country,” a tourist says to me, “if only you had some water.”

” Edward Abbey, “Desert Solitaire”



Water is essential to the civilization and prosperity of the American West. While conflicts arose over the riches borne by the area’s mines, just as many conflicts were fought over the control and acquisition of water. Such was the case of the water flowing through the Atkinson Canal.

The history of the Atkinson Canal began in 1884, when Maurice and Alfred Morrow settled on property to the west of Glenwood Springs near today’s Glenwood Meadows. Set on establishing a productive farm, the Morrows constructed an irrigation ditch, taking water from the Roaring Fork River to irrigate their crops and fruit trees.



In January 1903, the Morrow Ditch and property was sold to local brick mason Fred Atkinson. Atkinson, along with his business partner Francis Burcham and attorney C.W. Darrow, then formed the Atkinson Canal Co.

The Atkinson Canal Co. sought not only to control and maintain the newly acquired Morrow Ditch but would expand that ditch to provide irrigation water, and, possibly in the future, water for the generation of electricity and for manufacturing purposes. Beginning near the mouth of Three Mile Creek, their new canal progressed along the southwestern side of the Roaring Fork River, until it connected with the existing Morrow Ditch. This new network, fed by water from the Roaring Fork River, became known in its entirety as the Atkinson Canal.

Owners of property crossed by the canal could purchase stock in the company in return for a proportional use of water for irrigation purposes. However, a previous arrangement involving the Morrow Ditch provided a complication.

Attorney John L. Noonan and his wife, Margaret, neighbors of the Morrows, had an unwritten agreement that allowed the Noonans to irrigate using a portion of the water flowing through the Morrow Ditch. Fred Atkinson refused to honor this agreement. In June 1903, Atkinson removed Noonan’s diversion box. Attorney Noonan, in retaliation, replaced the box. Upon hearing this, Atkinson sent a man over to again remove the box, but “found the judge in charge backed up by his wife and the proper material to stand any onslaught.” With his hired man’s failure, Atkinson personally visited the Noonan property and removed the box.

The following day, Attorney Noonan and Fred Atkinson met on a Glenwood Springs street, and “a declaration of war took place.” Noonan made threats to Atkinson’s life. The feud was then moved to a court of law. In March 1904, it was ruled the Noonans were entitled to 0.2 cubic feet of water from the canal.

After Fred Atkinson’s death in 1907, his property, including the Atkinson Canal, was purchased by Glenwood Springs merchant Julius Wulfsohn. There would be no conflict between Wulfsohn and the Noonans over water flowing through the Atkinson Canal.

Willa Kane is former archivist of and a current volunteer with the Frontier Historical Society and Museum. “Frontier Diary” is provided to the Post Independent by the museum, 1001 Colorado Ave., Glenwood Springs. Winter hours are 1-4 p.m. Monday and Thursday through Saturday. For more information, call 945-4448. “Frontier Diary” appears the first Tuesday of every month.


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