Historic water wheel restored
Special to the Enterprise
EAGLE COUNTY — History is a subject which does not appeal to the masses in many cases. However, 84-year-old McCoy resident John Comer is living history and has contributed to Eagle County’s history and to the history of Colorado not once but three times. Comer has restored the historic Brooks-Dixson water wheel on his Water Wheel Ranch three times in his lifespan due to the high and unregulated waters of the Colorado River.
The Brooks-Dixson water wheel was initially constructed in 1923 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 designed, created and made to work with no prior experience nor plans other than the rancher’s imagination and ingenuity. The engineering feat was a significant one. Their work showcased confidence and a frontier can-do attitude.
Purpose of the Water Wheel
The purpose of the wheel was to raise water from the Colorado River bed to the top of the wheel in constructed wooden containers as the wheel rotated on its axle, the diameter of the wheel being approximately 48 feet. As the wheel reached its zenith, the water was released and flowed into a catching wooden flume. By gravity and piping system, the water then flowed into the irrigation ditches below, the pastures being approximately 40 feet higher than the river bed. This ingenious device was perhaps the largest one in the state of Colorado and certainly in Eagle County. This wheel irrigated the pastures for decades, and eventually, electrical water pumps made the water wheel obsolete, and it fell into neglect and disuse, as did the property.
Comer, a Denver native who practiced law and raised a family in Denver, purchased the run-down Water Wheel Ranch in 1969. He and his family would spend their weekends tending to the property. Comer had a long-range plan and a vision, a historical one, of restoring the wheel and making it once again functional. The water wheel was in need of major repair due to neglect over the decades, and in 1976, the Colorado Centennial, with Richard Lamb as governor, Comer obtained a grant from the Colorado Preservation Society to do his first restoration of the water wheel. The Wagon Wheel Ranch and its famed water wheel would undergo a phoenix revival driven by Comer’s vision. He, along with local ranching friends Howard Kirby and Larry Kier, rebuilt the wheel to operational specifications.
In 1992, Comer retired from his law practice and moved to the McCoy ranch as a full-time resident. That year, the wheel was again destroyed due to high spring-time run off and 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 reconstruction and with a preservation grant, he restored the wheel.
Comer knows about calamity regarding his beloved water wheel and definitely has a regard for history. The water wheel of McCoy is a “community thing,” a structure known for its uniqueness and as a local landmark. In the spring of 2014, the high waters of the Colorado River destroyed his water wheel again, for the third time under Comer’s ownership. While Comer was reading a morning newspaper in his home, he heard a major crashing noise, and immediately knew his beloved 92-year-old 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 Route 131 from Wolcott to Steamboat. A Google search on the Internet confirms the general public’s interest. Comer, at 84 years of age with three heart attacks behind him, was determined to rebuild the wheel for the third time. He also admitted that Father Time is at his doorsteps.
‘Never had so much Fun’
As of July, workers started the restoration, and as of this month, the water wheel at the Wagon Wheel Ranch in McCoy has been restored to full functionality. Local contractors Glen Horn and Billy Miller rebuilt the wheel. Volunteers helped. An individual named Peter from the Craig Rehabilitation and Trauma Center in Denver who was rafting with his clients down the river took an interest in the water wheel and spent extra vacation days volunteering his help. Due to the complexity of the wheel’s design, the mechanics in its function, craftsmanship and exactness were needed. Comer’s blueprints were invaluable as the wheel required “balance in its rotations on its axle,” an engineering feat in 1923 and again in 2015. “I have never had so much fun in my life as I have had doing this restoration,” Comer said, a remarkable statement for an individual of his age.
With low waters at this time of the year, the wheel has been secured and preventive measures have been taken to protect it from winter ice. Come springtime, Comer’s water wheel will be a functioning historical landmark.
Raymond A. Bleesz lives in Edwards.