by Ray Fisher
WALSENBURG — La Plaza de los Leones was not just the historical name of Walsenburg, La Plaza also has a strong contemporary physical influence on Walsenburg.
The layout of Walsenburg does not conform to the USA western expansion ‘grid’ system, but to the Spanish settlement acequia system.
All Walsenburg streets adhere to the diagonal (20 degrees west of north) of the original La Plaza long lots. The platting of the contemporary City of Walsenburg Atencio Addition was superimposed upon the original La Plaza boundaries (see maps on display at the Spanish Peaks Library history room). After that, all subsequent Walsenburg development conformed to this established diagonal.
So it is of interest to consider why these original distinctive La Plaza long lots were oriented on the diagonal and how they worked.
Under the Spanish acequia (irrigation ditch) system lots were laid out by the alcalde (area mayor) upon petition of a group of settlers (not necessarily related but in this case most were Atencios) according to what was fair and functional.
“Fair” meant laying out the available land in lots (tiras) that would include some poorer higher ground that could provide firewood, and some better bottomland toward the river for crops. This required a long stretched piece of land. River access also assured water for livestock. Every petitioner got a fair portion of each kind of resource. Functional meant that the lots had to be oriented downhill for irrigation because irrigation was vital in the dry southwest. These considerations determined the peculiar diagonal layout of the long lots and subsequently the peculiar diagonal layout of all of Walsenburg.
How were these adjacent long lots irrigated? The Louis Sporleder sketch for 1888 printed in the Huerfano World Journal last month showed that there was just one ditch or ‘lateral’ (extension or ‘sangria’ – figuratively the ‘bleeding’ of the mother ditch) down the middle of the long lots.
Typical acequia culture meant siphoning water from the main or ‘mother’ ditch (acequia madre) at the top of each long lot to water the length of that lot. But here the main ditch berm was too high, and soon the railroad yards got in the way. The mother ditch was started in 1866 and the Denver & Rio Grande railroad arrived in Walsenburg (Loma Junction station) in 1888.
Rancher Bill Ugolini provided an explanation. His farm at the eastern edge of Walsenburg is currently served by one of two remaining lateral ditches (the Butch Corsentino property has the other) like the one that served the Atencio long lots. A gate at the main ditch (now known as the Walsenburg Ditch number 4 priority 5) along Colorado Avenue is turned open to let water through the ditch berm. The water emerges on the other side of the berm in a spill box.
Before the railroad arrived, this water would have run south in a surface ditch to the farm. After the railroad yards were in place, the water had to be run underground in a culvert to emerge on the south side of the yards. There it flows under 5th street (Highway 10) to the Ugolini farm. Bill remembers that the Atencio subdivision long lots had a similar supply with a gate at the main ditch.
The remains of this gate can still be seen at S. Tyler and Colorado Avenues. According to Bill, the lateral ditch that emerged from under the railroad yards continued south all the way to 8th Street and into a holding pond which is still there on the south side of 8th street east of 325 8th Street.
Bill remembers the holding pond filling and emptying during the growing season because he often visited his friend ‘Fertilizer’ who lived in the house next to the pond. The holding pond walls are made of old stone-laced concrete.
Cement was just beginning to be used widely in the late 1800’s so the holding pond might have been an original part of the irrigation system. In fact, this may be the only structure left of the original La Plaza de los Leones.
The water from this pond was released to the south and east to irrigate vegetable gardens along the river. In the 1940s, one man was still using this water to grow vegetables to sell to the mine worker families. Bill said he felt sorry for the man who could hardly keep up with the lateral ditch cleaning because kids would play in the flowing water and throw things into the ditch.
The Atencio ‘hermits’ Francisco (Frank) and Anastacio (Nate) routinely blocked the lateral ditch just above 8th Street as late as the 1950’s to water their gardens, according to Louis ‘Squeaky’ Martinez who lived nearby. It is pure speculation as to whether other long lots north to the railroad yards were watered by blocking the lateral ditch and spreading the water east and west. We should assume that they were because such lands would not be productive without water.
It is thought that a Leon was the regional alcalde. Yet we see no long lots owned by a Leon. Maybe Leon reserved for himself and his family the whole large portion of the area that was west of Main Street (the Trail) – from the present Methodist Church (where Main becomes Walsen) south to the river and west almost to the Walsen mine or to what is now the Loma addition.
This large area was served by the west lateral ditch of the Sporleder sketch which was probably located along what is now Hendren Street, according to Gilbert Rice who lives near the Walsenburg ditch (also known here as the 4th Street ditch) at Hendren. This large tract of land west of Main, the record shows, was sold to Henry Jones in 1866.
So, call it ‘Walsenburg’, but the core design and legacy of the town is La Plaza de los Leones.
Final question: What might be the reason for the jog in Main Street where it becomes Walsen Avenue?
Noberto Valdez, PhD CSU ethnic studies/anthropology
Acequia Culture by Jose Rivera, Golden Railroad Museum library staff residents Butch Corsentino, Doug Brgoch, John Stroh, Carolyn Newman, Bruce Quintana, Elador (d.) and Mercy Sandoval, Jerry Skrzynear