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BEACON Senior News

Tunnel collapse threatens Grand Valley fruit: History of the 1950s Government Highline Canal Tunnel #3 collapse

May 31, 2018 05:23AM ● By Priscilla Walker

The 55-mile Government Highline Canal provides irrigation water to approximately 39,000 acres of irrigated land stretching from Palisade east to Orchard Mesa and west to Loma. It passes through three tunnels and three siphons in the first six miles of its route from the Grand River Diversion Dam, the orange-roofed “roller dam” in DeBeque Canyon. Since 1923, the canal has supplied irrigation water for two canals on Orchard Mesa in addition to the Stub Ditch and Price Ditch.

Tunnel No. 3 was initially completed on June 15, 1915, just before the dam’s official dedication, but it had problems from the beginning. It was located in unstable ground near the site of former coal mines across the river from Rapid Creek.

On March 8, 1950, a 450-foot section of the 1.75-mile long tunnel collapsed. The flow of canal water was blocked just before the irrigation season for “acres of rich agriculture land on which the world’s finest peaches are grown,” The Palisade Tribune reported.

Workers drilled from the four exposed ends of the tunnel and eventually had to re-bore the tunnel through more solid rock. Initial expectations feared repairs would not be completed until July, which would have been especially disastrous for local fruit growers.

The entire mountainside moved, with rocks and dirt continuously rolling down onto the Denver & Rio Grande Western (D&RGW) railroad tracks. Train traffic, including freight and passenger trains, was stopped as the train tracks shifted several inches and had to be replaced.

Newly elected congressman Wayne N. Aspinall, who grew up in Palisade, influenced the Bureau of Reclamation to perform the repair work. Some of the workers and their families were housed at Palisade’s former Civilian Conservation Corps Camp.

By April 21, drilling efforts and carefully placed dynamite had created a new bore that was successfully being “holed through” ahead of schedule.

The collapsed tunnel was rebuilt and gunite was used to stabilize the walls. Water began flowing again on May 4 in time to save the fruit orchards.

In the 1980s, the D&RGW made additional repairs to the mountain, which continued to move and endanger the railroad tracks through DeBeque Canyon.