Colorado is known for its outstanding natural beauty and wildlife, but it is also nearly impossible to wander anywhere without stumbling across historic relics. Castlewood Canyon State Park is among our favorite destinations which afford glimpses through the window of time, and insights into the lives of those who left their tracks on this landscape. Located about 40 miles north of Colorado Springs, it occupies 2300 acres of rugged rocky ravines and prairie habitat, and straddles the meandering early course of Cherry Creek which eventually joins the South Platte River in Denver, at present day Confluence Park.
During a visit a few months back, one of the many hiking trails led us to the ruins of the Lucas Homestead whose appearance took us somewhat by surprise. We expected a toppled log cabin, or an old foundation, but faced instead the residual walls of a concrete, church-like structure.
Its occupants, Margaret and Patrick Lucas, probably perpetuated the architectural style of their native Ireland in their adopted country. They homesteaded 160 acres in what is now the northern fringe of the park, from 1894 until 1941, when Margaret moved away to Denver, six years after her husband’s death. A path connects their former residence to remnants of buildings indispensable for their self-sufficient lifestyle, such as the spring house covering their well, used to refrigerate perishable food, and dairy products from their cows. I was most touched by a surviving apple orchard whose gnarly trees continue to bear fruit more than a century after the Lucas’ planted them. In my mind’s eye I saw Margaret collect, wash, and slice ripe green globes, like the ones on the branches in front of my eyes, before baking apple pie for her husband and their ten children, the mouth-watering aroma wafting through the open door, beckoning hungry mouths to the kitchen, most likely the favorite room in their dwelling.
We were relieved to learn that their family survived a major catastrophe that befell the area in 1933. In 1890, Cherry Creek had been dammed, in order to entice settlers with the assurance of a reliable water supply for irrigation. According to all accounts, the construction leaked from its inception, and despite multiple repairs was never completely watertight. After decades of concerns about the dam’s safety, and repeated appeasements by engineers, the naysayers were, unfortunately, proven right. When it rained for three consecutive days in early August 1933, the walls gave way, and 1.7 billion gallons of water and debris poured out of the breach at 1:20 at night. By seven in the morning, it reached downtown Denver, over 30 miles away, where it wreaked havoc: inundating buildings, washing out roads and bridges, and burying the floors of Union Station under two feet of mud.
Thanks to rapid responses by the dam keeper and the telephone operator, a warning about the impending flood alerted communities downstream, so that “only” two people perished. The Lucas house, less than a mile below the dam, was elevated enough to remain unscathed, even though some of their land and livestock might have suffered, because numerous wild and domestic animals lost their lives. To this day, the ruins of the dam and the scoured walls lining the creek bed serve as sobering reminders of that calamitous incident.
We are spoiled with a wide variety of outdoor attractions along Colorado’s Front Range, but Castlewood Canyon State Park holds a special place in our hearts, always rewarding us with a fascinating visit.
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