Serene Karplus, Nederland. Eight men died constructing Barker Dam. A random lightning bolt in a sudden summer storm ignited dynamite charges set to blast a channel for the sides of the dam walls. The four-man crews of two steam shovels perished underneath the rubble from the explosion.
In 1903, the sustainability of hydroelectric power attracted engineers of the Central Colorado Power Company (later Public Service Company of Colorado) to seek ways to harness water energy to provide electricity to our thriving mining camps and cities downstream. The original location chosen was further upstream in Eldora, but when that didn’t work out, officials chose the ranch owned by Hannah Barker. When she refused to sell, a process similar to today’s eminent domain seized the land and construction began in 1908.
The dam cost $2.7 million to build and was completed with the help of 700 workers in 1910. Materials were hauled by train on a spur of the Switzerland Railroad. It was built with more than 133,000 cubic feet of reinforced cyclopean concrete made on site, 120 feet thick at the base, 16 feet at the top, over 600 feet long and 175 feet high. Its 10 hydraulic gates on the front can drop 10 feet using the original technology built over one hundred years ago. Unlike many more modern dams, everything can also be operated manually, not solely reliant on electronics and computers to manipulate. When full, the reservoir holds 500 million gallons, or 12,000 acre feet.
The Boulder Canyon Hydroelectric Plant was built eleven miles downstream at Orodell with materials brought up the canyon by train and hauled by 16-horse-team of specially built wagons. State of the art applications made this plant the model for many others built after it in that era. Water is gravity fed via a 36” reinforced concrete pipeline built on site in 2 foot sections to the Kossler reservoir and 9,647 feet of steel pipeline to the plant.
The 1,828-foot drop from Kossler created the highest water pressure of any dam in the United States at that time. The 800 pounds per square inch water pressure in the pipeline caused the riveted joints in the channel to leak. Using the new method of acetylene welding, welders discovered that striking the joints with a ball-peen hammer while they were warm produced the needed weld strength. A distinct advantage to the pressure lies in the ability of the pipeline to cross under Boulder Canyon and carry water back uphill to Betasso. When the plant began operation on August 4, 1910, the two I.P. Morris Company turbines and General Electric AC generators produced 10,000 kilowatts of power. Later, upgrades doubled that output.
The dam’s purpose was also to create water storage and the pipeline also directs water to the City of Boulder Betasso Water Treatment Plant. Barker Reservoir has been a key component of Boulder’s water system since 1954, delivering up to 40 percent of the city’s annual water supply. In 2001, the City of Boulder purchased the Boulder Canyon Hydroelectric Project from Xcel Energy, formerly Public Service Company of Colorado. The purchase included Barker and Kossler reservoirs as well as the connecting pipelines, rights-of-way and the Boulder Canyon Hydroelectric Plant.
With water laws in place since the early 1800’s that provide senior rights to Kansas, managers must determine every day how much water may be removed and how much must be released to flow into the stream. On call 24/7/365, our local “Dam Keeper” (or Water Source Operations Manager for the City of Boulder) Eric Johnson is responsible for controlling the gates, as well as continuous maintenance, monitoring, and testing at the dam and the snow melt watershed source above it. He lives and breathes the history and infrastructure of our dam every day.
Speaking at a Nederland Area Seniors lunch earlier this month, Johnson reassured us that the annual inspections of the dam show it to be very solid and sturdy. Some plans to re-face it in the next twenty years are purely cosmetic. When asked about the hiking trail along the north shore, Eric indicated that these were built by local volunteers and are not city-funded or maintained, but that he would help provide materials if locals manage a trails refurbishment project.