Cartography, or mapmaking, has been an important part of human history, even since ancient civilizations. Whether you use them to explain and navigate the world, or to make decisions about where to go, maps are critical tools that have endless capabilities.

Maps are also snapshots of history – illustrating how mapmakers understood their world and which resources they cared about most. Historical maps from the City of Greeley Museums’ collections are windows into how Weld County developed over time. One story they tell is how a particular natural resource – water – had an immediate and lasting impact on economic activity and development for decades to come.

Settling on the plains in the late 1800s had its share of challenges- not the least of which was finding a reliable and continuous source of water for residents and agriculture. The climate of Colorado eastern plains is semi-arid with low humidity and moderate precipitation, usually ranging from 15 to 25 inches annually. Union Colony was established in 1870 and the need for water delivery quickly became apparent. Colonists built an irrigation system designed by Nathan Meeker and General Robert A. Cameron. The system successfully diverted water from the Cache la Poudre River – irrigating 60,000 acres of land within a year.

An 1871 “Map of the Colony Lands as Laid Out by Union Colony of Colorado 1871″ highlights the Cache la Poudre River and entrance into the South Platte River. Other water features are Canal No. 2 and 3 as well as Mill Pond and three unnamed lakes. An 1887 map notes the change of street names to numbers, but it is the waterways that stand out, as they have been colored in with blue ink – the only color on the map. The collection includes several maps of irrigated farms and acres emphasizing lakes, rivers, and locations of irrigation systems. One map shows Greeley in the “Center of 906,500 irrigated acres within a radius of 25 miles.” Another 1908 map of Greeley includes a bold red motto at the top that reads, “The Place Where They Water the Land.” The foresight of Union colonists cannot be overstated. Union Colony became the most famous and successful of four colony efforts in Weld County and historical maps show us why.

More communities began to spring up north and east of Greeley, made possible by connecting railroad lines. These vital transportation connections and the promise of irrigated farmlands drove aspirations for community schools, recreation, hotels, and retail businesses. Just as water drove the success of Union Colony, the lack of this resource led to the decline of towns such as Camfield, Cornish, Fosston, Keota and Purcell. The inability to acquire water rights and provide irrigation, the devastation of the 1930’s Dust Bowl, and the eventual closure of the railroad lines resulted in abandonment.

Current day vegetation maps of northern Weld County show the comparison of irrigated and non-irrigated lands and the location of the vacated towns. Who knows what the future may have held, had communities had means to provide water for agriculture?

Don’t miss “Oasis on the Plains: Mapping Through Weld County’s Water Rights,” curated by the City of Greeley’s GIS team, open now through November 10th.

Map of the Colony Lands as Laid Out by Union Colony of Colorado, 1871. 1972.01.0319, City of Greeley Museums, Permanent Collection.

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