92-year-old Colorado River water wheel damaged by high waters
MCCOY — John Comer, of McCoy, knows about calamity regarding his beloved water wheel at his Wagon Wheel Ranch. Last month, the high waters of the Colorado River partially destroyed his water wheel for the third time in its 92 years of history.
The Brooks-Dixson water wheel was initially constructed in 1922 by the two entrepreneurial ranchers, Earl Brooks and Wyman Dixson, as they needed water to irrigate their pasture — water, hay and cattle are the focal cornerstone elements for a successful livelihood in ranching. The water wheel was put together with no plans other than using their imagination. The engineering feat, the material and lumber the two ranchers mustered for themselves was a significant feat using approximately 3,570 board feet of lumber. It showed determination and a frontier can-do attitude. The purpose of the wheel was to raise water from the river bottom to the top of the wheel in constructed wooden buckets, as the wheel rotated on its axle to the height of approximately 46 feet and for the water to then flow into a catching wooden flume and into the irrigation ditches of the pasture land. This ingenious device was perhaps the largest one in the state of Colorado and certainly in Eagle County.
This water wheel eventually fell into disuse and succumbed to the elements and deteriorated during the ’40s as electrical water pumps were in use. In 1969, Comer purchased the ranch with a long-range plan and vision of restoring the wheel and making it once again functional. The Wagon Wheel Ranch and its famed water wheel would undergo a phoenix revival.
Comer, a lieutenant in the Air Force during the 1950s, was an aerial photo reconnaissance analysis in Japan at the age of 23. He was discharged after serving his time. He then worked for two years with the Pepsi-Cola company in Puerto Rico and eventually set up his law practice in Denver and raised a family. The rebuild did not immediately take place as there were more pressing problems to take care of at the ranch. It was only on the holidays and weekends when he could travel from Denver to his ranch could he work on the wheel as his priority was his law profession and his family.
In 1976, the centennial year for the state of Colorado, Comer with local ranching friends Howard Kirby and Larry Kier rebuilt the wheel to operational specs. Gov. Dick Lamm and his administration also provided a $5,000 grant toward the restoration of the wheel, as “historical preservation” was becoming a recognizable good thing to endorse in the state of Colorado.
In 1992, Comer retired from his law practice and moved to his full-time residence at his ranch in McCoy. That year the wheel was again destroyed by high waters of the Colorado River. He set about to rebuild it, again using his neighbors, friends and skilled craftsmen who donated their time for the reconstruct. A major lumber yard in Denver, Specialty Wood Products, provided the necessary lumber, some of which was specific and special, such as treated fir 24-foot-long 2-by-4s which was needed in the wheel’s construction at philanthropic prices. Again, after applying for a grant from the state, he received some monies for the wheel’s restoration.
This past week, while Comer was reading a morning newspaper in his home, he heard a major crashing noise and immediately knew his beloved water wheel was taken out by the mighty high waters of the Colorado River. There was nothing he could do but accept the fact that the famous water wheel was lost again. Amtrak passengers see the wheel as the train passes by, as do most motorists who travel U.S. Highway 131 from Wolcott to Steamboat. The structure now stands but it has been severely damaged. Comer this past Sunday attended local church services in McCoy, and he informed the local congregation that the water wheel was structurally destroyed. His community has surrounded him with support as the “water wheel” of McCoy is a “community thing.” Comer, at 82 years of age with three heart attacks behind him, is determined to rebuilt the wheel. However, he also knows his time may be limited.
Comer could use help. Those who support historical preservation in Eagle County need to step forward. Philanthropic residents of Vail, Beaver Creek, Arrowhead and Cordillera hopefully will muster the funds necessary to restore one of Eagle County’s signature historic relics. Comer has the physical plans. He has the desire; however, his health is of concern. He knows there are skilled tradesmen who would be accomplished with the task. The wheel needs to be specifically “in balance as it rotations on its axle,” hence the need of very skilled craftsman. For those who would like to support Comer’s vision of restoring the Brooks-Dixson water wheel, contact The Colorado Water Wheel Restoration Foundation, care of John Comer, 19717 Highway 131, Bond, CO 80423.
Raymond A. Bleesz lives in Edwards.