Valley of Broken Dreams

By Lawrence R. Bynon. Published in the January 1954 New Mexico Magazine

It was in the spring of 1906 that a Virginia convert to Mormonism stood on the western bank of the Rio Grande gorge near Taos and looked out across the broad and fertile plateau now known as Carson Flats. There had been a good snowfall during the past winter, and early spring rains had transformed the tableland into a verdant sea of green grass and leafy sage.

At first glance, it looked to William K. Shupe like the Promised Land, which he had been seeking. A few days later after exploring the rolling hills to the north and finding an ideal location for a dam, he was sure that he had found the place for a new settlement, which would give homes to those who had arrived in Utah too late to find available land.

In 1907 a hardy little band moved in, filed on homesteads and set about the task of building homes, clearing fields and wringing a living from the land. It was a pleasant location. Across the plateau with the gorge of the Rio Grande winding in between, could be seen the settlements of Ranchos de Taos, Taos and Arroyo Seco. To the west only a few miles away was Taos Junction and the railway facilities of the Denver & Rio Grande Western.

Water was the problem. Every gallon had to be hauled by horse and wagon either from the water car which was always sitting on a siding at Taos Junction, or from the springs along the Rio Grande. But to these hardy settlers that was a minor consideration, and always they thought of the water, which would be available to them when they could build a dam in the hills to the north.

By 1917 nearly two hundred families, most of them Mormons, had homesteaded on the expansive plateau, and work on the long-dreamed of dam had finally commenced. During ensuing years a mother ditch was dug and laterals, which would carry water to all parts of the plain, were tied in. Work on the dam itself went slowly, however, as it was a community effort and could only be worked on when the serious and almost full-time business of making a living allowed.

It was not until 1932, after a long succession of years in which sufficient moisture fell to give the farmers fine crops, and years of drought in which the crops withered in the fields, that the dam was finally completed. And in the spring of 1932 the dam filled with water. The reservoir was a beautiful sight to water-hungry farmers. Over half a mile wide, the lake curled out of sight behind a jutting butte of malpais, three miles up the canyon. It was the fulfillment of a dream to which many homesteaders had devoted half their lives. At every opportunity the farmers and their wives and families drove up to the dam just to gaze at the water which was to be insurance against their old and implacable enemy—drought.

They brought their friends to see it and then they hurried back to work on the ditches, which were to carry the life-giving fluid to their fields. It was too early to irrigate when the dam filled to the top and water began spilling out of the overflow, and the farmers begrudged even that waste.

Then suddenly, without warning, and with a brutality that left the homesteaders stunned with unbelief, tragedy struck. One morning water no longer came over the spillway, although water was still running into the upper end of the lake. Each morning that passed found the surface of the lake down another foot or so on the measuring pole near the dam’s outlet. Within a week huge whirlpools could be seen dotting the surface of the lake. Two weeks later the lake was dry. Only scattered pools remained where less than a month before had been a beautiful expanse of water.

It was no mystery once it had happened. The cause was plain to see. As the soft soil in the bottom of the reservoir soaked through and melted, water poured into the cracks and crevices of the malpais rock upon which it rested. Huge sink holes opened up and water rushed down into the bowels of the earth faster than it flowed into the dam. The grand dreams evaporated overnight.

During succeeding years various schemes were tried to plug up the gaping holes through which the water pours. In the thirties the WPA made it a project and spent thousands of dollars trying to plug the cracks. But it was a hopeless task and was abandoned in the belief that only cementing the entire valley floor would serve to stop the escape of the water. It was like trying to stop a sieve from leaking.

The beautiful dream was shattered, and one by one the homesteaders gave up the ghost. The final blow came when the railroad to the west announced discontinuance of its line, thus depriving the settlers of one of their two possible sources of drinking water. Taos Junction became a ghost town, making the village of Taos their closest source of supplies.

Of the 200 or more families who once made their home on Carson Flats, only a half dozen remain today. They still haul their drinking water from the springs along the Rio Grande and carry their supplies from Taos. Each spring these few families are reminded of the punishment meted out to Tantalus in Greek mythology. For offending the gods he was condemned to live in water up to his neck with luscious fruits and godly foods suspended always just beyond his reach and to be tortured always by both thirst and hunger. Just out of reach of these homesteaders is the water, which they so badly need. Each spring their lake behind the dam fills to the top and often it even goes over the spillway. And each year, before it is time to irrigate, the water is gone. Where the water goes no one knows for sure, but the Indians near Chamita say they have springs which suddenly began flowing in 1932 and have flowed every year since, and the rock walls of the Rio Grande are dotted with springs on the western bank which undoubtedly owe their existence to the Carson dam.

 

CARSON RESERVOIR DAM COMPLETED. From the June 1937 New Mexico Magazine.

THE DAM for the Carson Reservoir, located near Taos Junction, was recently completed and has filled with water. This new reservoir, while not embracing an extremely large area, will undoubtedly make one of the nicest fishing waters in, that part of the State. It is thought by the Game Department that the reservoir will he better suited for the production of warm water species than for trout. Hence, stocking will be made of bass, crappie and Bream. As a matter of fact several hundred crappie have already been planted in the lake and additional numbers of this and other warm water species will be planted just as soon as the fish are available at the Dexter hatchery. Since there are no other waters suited to warm water species in that section of the State, the Carson Lake should be very attractive for those who enjoy bass and crappie fishing more than they do trout.