A true pipe dream: Fruita and Colorado National Monument

By Denise Hight – Operations Manager,

Fruitans love Colorado National Monument. Only a few short miles from Fruita, its breathtaking scenery awaits us when we drive our cars or ride bicycles along Rim Rock Drive. Local residents and tourists alike camp, hike, and picnic in its canyons. Many of us show off the Monument to our visiting friends and relatives, and we welcome its tourists into our town. Visitors come to experience the Monument from all over the world; how fortunate we all are to live in an area with such recreational opportunities and beauty in our own backyard.

The red rock canyons a few miles south of Fruita became part of the National Park System in 1911 largely through the efforts of one man, John Otto. What is not very well known is that John Otto only discovered this area because he came here to work as a “powder monkey” (an explosives expert) on a defining project for the city of Fruita.

For the first 22 years after Fruita was founded in 1884, its residents spent very little time in the forbidding canyons a few miles south of the town. The Grand River (now known as the Colorado) created a watery obstacle between Fruita and the canyons. There was no bridge over the river at Fruita, so the only way to cross over was to ferry a boat — or to swim. And except for cattle and sheep ranchers, who moved their herds in the summer up a treacherous trail, known as the Fruita Dugway, to Piñon Mesa to graze, Fruita residents saw very little reason to visit the arid canyons. But in 1906, all that started to change. The town of Fruita started work on the Fruita Pipeline, an ambitious scheme that brought pure mountain spring water from Piñon Mesa into Fruita.

The Fruita Pipeline was a necessity if Fruita were to endure. For the first 22 years of its existence, Fruita obtained all of its water from the river. The problem was that Fruita lay downstream from the growing community of Grand Junction, and Grand Junction dumped all its waste water into the river, where it floated straight down to Fruita. Fruita desperately needed a source of clean, uncontaminated water for its residents. The citizens of Fruita found it, but it was over twenty miles away, on top of Piñon Mesa. To get the water into Fruita, the water would have to travel from the mesa, through the red rock canyons, and over the river.

The Fruita Pipeline involved a series of wooden pipes that would carry water from reservoirs on top of the mesa and down through the canyons. To get the water into Fruita, a bridge was built over the river, incorporating the pipeline. The pipeline and the bridge were started in 1906 and completed a year later. Among the many men hired by the City of Fruita to work on the pipeline was an eccentric wanderer named John Otto.

When John Otto arrived in the area, he fell in love with the canyons west of Fruita. In 1907, he wrote “I came here last year and found these canyons, and they feel like the heart of the world to me. I’m going to stay and build trails and promote this place, because it should be a national park.”

The rest, as they say, is history. Otto spearheaded fundraising campaigns, collected signatures for petitions, penned newspaper editorials, and wrote endless letters to local and federal politicians in support of national recognition for his adopted home. He was seen as an eccentric, and his ideas were initially met with skepticism, but his enthusiasm for his beloved canyons was contagious. Many people joined him in his efforts and deluged Washington politicians with letters of support. Finally on May 24, 1911, President Taft signed the proclamation that established Colorado National Monument.

But the construction of the pipeline and the establishment of Colorado National Monument was only the start of the story. In the 105 years since the Fruita Bridge opened up the land to the south of the river to the citizens of Fruita, Fruita’s connection with the Monument has grown even stronger. Construction of Highway 340, starting in 1939, made access to the Monument and the Redlands much easier from Fruita. Fruita’s now burgeoning tourism industry got its start due to the town’s close proximity to the Monument. Tourism to the Monument was given a boost when the Rim Rock Drive through the Monument, started in November 1931 and built in part through local labor and skill, was completed in April 1950. Area tourism further increased when the Colorado National Monument Visitor Center was constructed in 1963 on the Fruita side of the Monument and in the 1970s when the Fruita exit on Interstate 70 was built.

Tourism in Fruita continues to expand rapidly, and it all started because of a pipeline, a bridge, and the unusual vision of an eccentric powder monkey turned trail builder — John Otto.