Smith Ditch, or City Ditch, is a twenty-five mile long irrigation ditch that runs from the Platte River to the west, through downtown Denver and Washington Park.
Much of the history of the Front Range has water, or more typically the lack thereof, as a basic component. The first settlers were quick to build their communities alongside reliable water sources and as the population continued to grow water resources became increasingly valuable and effective water management became increasingly important. Wealthy land owners, men like John Wesley Iliff, were quick to buy existing water rights and insure that they had access to this relatively scarce resource in order to pursue their own building and business plans.
Smith Ditch was dug to irrigate crops and fields that would feed the booming population of Denver, Colorado during the heyday of the Pikes Peak Gold Rush. John W. Smith, namesake of both Smith Ditch and Smith Lake in Washington Park, was a wealthy man who settled in Denver in 1860, immediately after the city received its charter. In 1864 the city of Denver contracted with Smith to dig an irrigation ditch that would run from Littleton through South Denver. The original plan called for the ditch to be large enough to accommodate small flat-bottomed barges to ship goods around the city, but that never came to pass. The creation of this ditch would inadvertently influence the shape of modern Denver when Smith decided to route the ditch through an old buffalo wallow that was immediately south of the city. Using this area as a storage reservoir led to the creation of Smith Lake, one of the centerpieces of Washington Park and an anchor around which the community of South Denver was built. At the time of its construction Smith Ditch was described as an engineering marvel for using gravity alone to guide water through 25 miles of canal and irrigation ditch. It's path through the city defined the growth and development of neighborhoods as they drew on the water to develop trees and greenery in what was once a dusty and arid cityscape. The ditch also served as the source for spur ditches that routed the water in other directions, encouraging the development of even more neighborhoods as the population of Denver continued to develop.
Smith Ditch was purchased outright by the city of Denver in 1875 for $80,000, and Smith Lake was purchased by the city in 1910. Smith Ditch has been registered as a historic landmark and is protected under the city's historical preservation board.
Getting There By Bike...
Smith Ditch runs through the center of Washington Park. This is the only stretch of the ditch that is still above ground, the remaining length of Smith Ditch having been routed below ground in order to encourage development and safety. The ditch is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and continues to provide irrigation water to the park and several nearby neighborhoods, supporting the lush growth in Washington Park and many century-old trees that fill its immediate vicinity. Smith Ditch runs very close to Eugene Field's former house, near the southeast corner of Smith Lake.