150 years ago today, on June 12, 1907, Colfax County rancher and businessman Charles Springer submitted an application to the New Mexico Territorial Engineer to build a dam at the head of the Cimarron River, thereby creating what would become known as Eagle Nest Lake.
The application called for impounding 113,700 acre feet of what it called “surplus flood waters” from the Cimarron and its tributaries: Cieneguilla, Moreno, and other creeks in the Cimarron watershed. The water would be “used for power plants as it goes down Cimarron canyon and for irrigation, for supplying cities and towns and water users generally, . . . for irrigating, mining power and other purposes.”
Charles Springer, who had arrived in the Territory in 1878, was brother to Frank Springer, one-time attorney for the Maxwell Land Grant Company. The Springer application to dam the headwaters of the Cimarron was approved in August 1907. Due to a variety of issues, including lack of capital and the need to buy the lands to be flooded from the people who owned them, construction of the impound dam did not get underway until Spring 1917.
In April 1909, the Cimarron Valley Land Company filed a lawsuit to condemn land that was destined to lie under what is now known as Eagle Nest Lake in northern New Mexico’s Rocky Mountains. The land in question seems to have belonged entirely to widow Mary Gallagher and her eight children, the youngest of whom was 16.
Mary’s husband John had purchased the property with proceeds from his 1870’s gold mining days in the Elizabethtown area at the northern end of the valley. He was a committed farmer: he’d constructed canals from both Willow and Cieneguilla Creek to irrigate his crops.
When the Cimarron Valley Land Company in Springer requested a State permit to construct a dam at Eagle’s Nest that would back up water onto her and other landowners’ property, Mary Gallagher took action. In January 1908, she filed a formal protest against the proposal. However, the State Engineer approved the permit in early July and the Company began negotiating with the three property owners affected.
But Mary Gallagher held out. Eventually, the Cimarron Valley Land Company realized that only a condemnation suit was likely to dislodge her. So they went to court in April 1909. And that’s when the real delays began. Initially, there was no Judge in the County to take up the matter. Even when that issue was resolved, the proceedings moved at glacial speed. There were appeals, demands for a jury trial, a commission established to determine the value of the property, and so forth. In fact, the process took so long that it didn’t formally end until after Mary’s death in 1916. Work on the dam and its related reservoir began the following spring, after her children had been paid off.
Oddly enough, in April 1915 the Company had requested an extension of the State permit, citing “unprecedented financial conditions” which made the Company “unable to procure the necessary funds.” The application for extension didn’t mention the land condemnation suit. Perhaps the Cimarron Valley Land Company was a little embarrassed by the fact that a little old widow lady (Mary was about 62 at the time) was blocking their progress so effectively. It must have seemed simpler to blame the delay on the international crisis of World War I.
Sources: Sept. 1, 1909 Charles Springer letter to NM Territorial Engineer Vernon S. Sullivan; Sept. 16, 1909 Charles A. Spiess affidavit; Jan 27, 1908 letter from Mary Gallagher to NM Territorial Engineer Vernon S. Sullivan; Jan. 31, 1908 protest from Gallagher family to NM Territorial Engineer Vernon S. Sullivan; March 30, 1915 application for extension of time for construction, NM Territorial Engineer Permit # 71.
On the brink of what would become known as World War I, in March 1917, construction on the Eagle Nest dam and reservoir at the head of the Cimarron Canyon had finally gotten underway. The project had been held up for nine years while the Cimarron Valley Land Company, under the leadership of Charles Springer, fought to acquire the land that would be flooded by the impounded waters. Long-time Moreno Valley property owner Mary Gallagher had fought valiantly against the project, but when she died in 1916, her eight children seem to have quickly capitulated to the company’s demands. The deeds for the condemned lands were handed over on January 17, 1917, and work commenced. Even with the shortages in material, equipment, supplies, and laborers as a result of the war in Europe, construction proceeded rapidly and the dam was 90 percent complete by mid-December that year.
Sources: Charles Springer affidavit dated Jan. 29, 1921; Gallagher protest letter dated January 31, 1908.