Evidence of the past: 18-mile ditch, south valley ranch get historic designations | SteamboatToday.com

Evidence of the past: 18-mile ditch, south valley ranch get historic designations

Commissioners approve adding the Farwell Ditch, Fair Acres Ranch to Routt County Register of Historic Places

On Friday, April 1, 2022, landowner Joel Babyak talks about the renovation project that is underway with a barn on his ranch off Routt County Road 14, just outside of Steamboat Springs.
John F. Russell/Steamboat Pilot & Today.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct a misstatement. Farwell Ditch cost a total of $160,000 to construct.

Nolan Farwell was on a family vacation in Routt County a few years ago, hiking near Farwell Mountain. Turns out, the mountain was named after one of his ancestors.

Chicago businessman John V. Farwell came to Routt County in 1876 to supervise gold mining operations near Hahns Peak. That year, he started work on what would become an 18-mile ditch, complete with two tunnels blasted through solid rock, to deliver water from the headwaters of the Elk River to the mine.

County commissioners approved adding the Farwell Ditch to the Routt County Register of Historic Places last week, along with the Fair Acres Ranch.

An issue of the Steamboat Pilot published in 1900 refers to Farwell as “the pioneer road builder, ditch builder, city builder, sawmill man and merchant of what is now Routt County.”

“Stumbling across the ditch on a family vacation years ago, I don’t know if it was fate or what,” Nolan Farwell said. “It’s been really incredible to learn about it, explore it and meet a lot of fantastic people out there who have been helpful to share their knowledge and time with us.”

Farwell said officials at the U.S. Forest Service believe it could be a good candidate for a national designation as well, potentially even adding an interpretive trail that shares the history of the ditch.

Arianthé Stettner, emeritus director of Historic Routt County, presented the Farwell Ditch to commissioners for the designation. She said the ditch is a fascinating piece of local history.

Construction on the ditch started before Colorado was even a state and took about two years to complete.

Stettner said 100 to 200 people worked on the ditch — believed to be the first paying jobs in the county — and none of them died during its construction. The ditch was carved using picks, shovels and dynamite, and there were sections that utilized wooden flumes and hand-forged iron pipe to carry water.

Stetter said it cost Farwell about $160,000 in total at the time, and ultimately, the ditch didn’t turn out to be a great investment.

While it is a ditch, there are no water rights conveyed to it, but Stettner said it operated until at least 1910.

“There are a couple of photos of the ditch with water in operation circa 1910, but we don’t know how long that operation continued,” Stettner said.

The other addition to the register, the Fair Acres Ranch, sits off Routt County Road 14 toward Stagecoach.

The ranch, which has had several different names over the years, was first homesteaded in 1894 and is “an increasingly rare example of an early Routt County homestead,” the nomination for historic designation reads.

The designation includes the main house built in 1911, a barn built in 1912 and two other buildings, referred to as the Dog House and the Tool Shed, built in the 1930s.

In the 1950s, the ranch was operated by a family from Iceland who sold all of their possessions in Reykjavik and moved to Routt County. A 1956 article in the Pilot said the family could have picked a better spot to start their life in a strange new country.

The ranch fields are still used for hay production today, but the ranch doesn’t currently have any livestock or grow any grain.

Josh Babyak, who owns the ranch with his wife Carrie, said they love owning the historic ranch and have worked hard to restore the barn, which he said was falling apart when they bought it.

“It’s been about a seven-month process,” Babyak said. “I’m happy to say that the barn is looking awesome and stable and secure.”

He said they are committed to continuing to restore the ranch and are even bringing back roses and chickens in line with its historic character.

“It shows the depth in variety in Routt County,” Stettner said, referring to the register’s two additions. “I’m so pleased we have this program to share the stories and to honor the buildings, and the evidence of the past, and how Routt County came to be.”

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