An Engineering Marvel: Colorado's Hanging Flume

The hanging flume is is a five mile section of wooden flume that was built on the sheer cliffs of the San Miguel and Dolores Rivers in the canyon country of western Colorado. Built over a three-year period from 1888 to 1891, the flume was 150 feet or more above the canyon floor and was built at great cost, but the mining venture it supplied water to was ultimately a failure.

“Its construction dazzled mining pros with its sheer ingenuity”

The combination of the dry climate in this part of Colorado, and the extremely difficult placement of many of the flume sections which has deterred vandals and scavengers, has resulted in many segments surviving, although greatly deteriorated, for almost 130 years.

Modern view of Colorado's hanging flume
Modern view of Colorado’s hanging flume

An overlook and interpretive site on highway 141 provides a view of the flume and several interpretive signs that convey the history of the flume and recent efforts to preserve the history of this amazing structure. The following quotes are from the interpretive signs at the overlook.

Colorado's hanging flume in 1891
Colorado’s hanging flume in 1891. Note that water is flowing through the flume

“In need of water to work the Dolores Canyon gold claims, the Montrose Placer Mining Company built a thirteen-mile canal and flume to deliver water from the San Miguel River. The last five miles of the flume clung to the wall of the canyon itself, running along the cliff face below you.”

Colorado's hanging flume in 1890
The hanging flume in 1890. This image originally appeared in the Engineering and Mining Journal

“Constructed between 1888 and 1891, the four-foot-deep, five-fooot-four-inch-wide hanging flume carried 23,640,000 gallons of water in a twenty-four hour period. Its construction dazzled mining pros with its sheer ingenuity.”

“The placer claim, unfortuantely, dazzled no one; after three years of indifferent yields the company folded, abandoning the flume to the ravages of weather and time.”

“Now listed in the National Register of Historic Places, this engineering marvel symbolizes the twists of fate so often encountered in the puruit of Rocky Mountain gold.”

Colorado's hangning flume
Early view of the hanging flume

The Flume was built by lowering lumber from the top of the cliff with winches and cables. Men worked from “bosun’s chairs” that were hung from ropes. Lumber had to be cut and milled many miles away and hauled over crude roads and then trails to each staging point along the canyon rim.

Modern view of Colorado's hanging flume
Modern view of Colorado’s hanging flume

An 1890 edition of Engineering and Mining Journal made an ironic statement regarding the construction of the flume:

“This work will show how easy it is, when backed up by enterprising capital, to bring water from and to points which were always thought to be inaccesible.”

The work required to complete this difficult project was anything but easy. Today the hangning flume is regarded as an amazing feat of ingenuity and determination by the men who built it so long ago with nothing but crude tools and in a very remote region that was both difficult to access and extremely rugged.

Modern view of Colorado's hanging flume
Modern view of Colorado’s hanging flume

The flume only operated for several years as the fine gold proved to be too difficult to separate from the river gravels. Decades later, much of the wood was scavenged to build homes during the uranium mining boom.

Much of the flume was located in such challenging canyon terrain that even determined scavengers could not tear it all down. Today the flume is regarded as a historic wonder and in 2006 was placed on the World Monuments Fund`s “100 Most Endangered Sites” list.

In 2012, in a project funded by the Colorado State Historical Fund, forty-eight feet of the flume was reconstructed with the goal of gaining better understanding of how the flume was built in the 1890s.

There is still much interest in preserving Colorado’s amazing hanging flume and hopefully enough will be preserved so that future generations can witness firsthand this wonder of ingenuity from a bygone era.