Cañon City, Colo., nestled into the foothills of the Rocky Mountains along the Arkansas River, draws in visitors to experience rafting, the Royal Gorge Route Railroad, and much more. (Video by Skyler Ballard)

Ask people in Cañon City about the early days of their residency, and there is a chance their origin stories will contain one common feature: the river.

“I arrived here in May 2004. I walked in the front office of Echo Canyon River Expeditions and on that day I met my future husband,” said Ashlee Sack, who would go on to spend six years as a whitewater rafting guide.

“We lived across the street from a river in Wisconsin. We had a boat on the river,” said Rick Harrmann, a part-time Jeep tour guide when he and his wife moved in 2015, and is now the city’s economic development manager. “Our lives are really outdoor-related."

For Loretta Bailey, who grew up in Cañon City more than seven decades ago, there were two things she remembered that children and their parents would regularly check: “the weather and what the river was doing.”

Outsiders may know the Fremont County city of 16,500 residents more for its numerous prison facilities above all else. Cañon City itself acknowledged that the corrections industry "seems to loom as a dark cloud over everything." (The population estimate includes inmates.)

The city also boasts a recreational and tourism economy based around the Arkansas River. There are roughly 845 people in the county employed in that sector who largely live in or close to Cañon City. While that represents approximately 10% of the city’s workforce, tourism grew by 148 jobs between 2016 and 2019, while many other industries saw lesser growth or even declines.

The heart of the urban-river interface lies just south of downtown between Fourth and First streets, with Centennial Park as the "crown jewel," as the city's parks director called it. A giant splash pad opened in 2018 for those on land, with gently sloping boulders facilitating a step-down into the water. Boogie boarders ride the play wave at the west end. The park's master plan eventually calls for a pedestrian plaza and connection to Main Street, on the other side of the river.

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A group of whitewater rafters head for the footbridge over Cañon City Whitewater Recreation Park on Thursday, July 29, 2021.

And Cañon City is not letting the river stand still: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency selected it as one of 11 communities nationally to receive a cleanup and revitalization grant, totaling $800,000 for riverfront and downtown planning. Council members also heard recently about plans for a project to improve Whitewater Kayak and Recreation Park, creating a venue for competitions and even Olympic athletes.

“We are trying to build a culture in the community so people can be proud of being from here," a representative from the nonprofit group Royal Gorge RIO told the council at its June 21 meeting.

The Arkansas River is still on the mend from Cañon City’s industrial past, and leaders are trying to figure out how to fill the physical and economic gaps in the process.

Diverse economy from the start

The hot and cold springs around Cañon City were already familiar to the Ute Indians by the time white settlers arrived in the area.

“It was pretty much the last stop for a wagon before they had to change to mules to get to the mining camps,” said Lisa Studts, director of the Royal Gorge Regional Museum & History Center.

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“Old Max” prison was built in Cañon City in 1868 and is the oldest prison in Colorado. Cañon City has a long time been known a prison town. The Arkansas River flows by the prison on the other side of U.S. 50. 

Although historical accounts report Cañon City was booming by spring 1861, the Civil War drew away many of its residents. One man, Anson Rudd, stayed behind with his family in their cabin mere feet from the river. Twenty families rejoined the settlement in 1864, and became known as the “resurrectionists” for breathing life back into the community.

When the population rebounded, the town’s economy began to diversify. Those who did not strike it rich in mining turned to agriculture. Cañon City secured the state penitentiary. The town began advertising the Arkansas River and its natural amenities to visitors. And railroads began competing over the route through the Royal Gorge.

At one point, the U.S. Supreme Court even had to weigh in on the dispute between the Denver & Rio Grande and the Santa Fe railroads, which each sought to build next to the river.

“Where the Grand Cañon is broad enough to enable both companies to proceed without inference with each other in the construction of their respective roads, they should be allowed to do so,” wrote Justice John Marshall Harlan in 1879. ”But in the narrow portions of the defile, where this course is impracticable, the court, by proper orders, should recognize the prior right of the Denver and Rio Grande Railway Company to construct its road.”

Apples, cherries, plums, apricots and celery were some of the commodities of the fields near Cañon City. So was zinc, with The Empire Zinc Company supporting as many as 400 jobs by the 1920s at its facility next to a coal mine southwest of downtown.

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A mural in Cañon City reflects the importance of the river to the city on Thursday, July 29, 2021.

However, the river historically “was a place where industry was,” said Ashley Smith, Cañon City’s mayor. “You had the ice plant there, Skyline Steel, the petroleum place, the coal plant was along the river. And it was the designated spot if you had cement peelings — you’d dump it on the river banks.”

Cleanup efforts

In the latter part of the 20th century, efforts were underway to abate the industrial pollution. The Bureau of Land Management noted in 1993 that the state had recently worked to stabilize mine waste, and an effort was ongoing to remedy pollution from the Leadville mine drainage tunnel.

“All of these studies and projects indicate that the trend for water quality in the Arkansas River is toward improvement,” the agency said.

But in 2005, an estimated 50,000 gallons of oil and water spilled into ditches and drainages along the river, which Fremont County attributed to a paving and trucking company. In 2015, Cotter Corp.’s shuttered uranium mill south of the city leaked 1,800 gallons of contaminated water, the latest of at least five incidents at what is now a "Superfund" site. With floods in the 1960s causing ponds at the site to overflow into Sand Creek and contaminate nearby areas, a legal settlement two decades later resulted in Lincoln Park being connected to the municipal water supply and Cotter Corp. cleaning up railroad loading sites in Cañon City where uranium ore had spilled.

"One of the things that those of us who live here in the area keep pressing for is further testing and further checking, because through the years there have been reports of containments," said Jeri Fry, a co-founder of Colorado Citizens Against Toxic Waste and who is involved in the citizens' advisory group for the cleanup. However, she added, "I wouldn't express any concerns at all about people rafting or playing in the water as it flows by."

The city has pushed ahead: a community cleanup covered 35 miles this year. When the whitewater park was installed a decade ago, the project involved riverbank remediation and restoration, including removing old industrial waste.

“We have worked very hard getting the town to buy into improving the river corridor, specifically near Centennial Park," said Chris Moffett, the president of the conservation organization Royal Gorge RIO.

The monetary investment has been substantial: Royal Gorge RIO estimated there have been $1.5 million invested since 2010 in the cleanup and upgrade of the river in town between First and Fourth streets.

“It is probably one of the most pristine and beautiful rivers there is. They cleaned up an awful lot of the mining waste and things we were having issues with 20 years ago,” said Mannie Colon, a third-generation produce farmer and a director on the Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District’s board.

However, Colon was concerned that fires bring sediment into the river via snow melt, which can adversely affect irrigation.

“The burn scars are newer things, and that becomes an issue,” he added.

Future plans

River watchers are currently eyeing a piece of property west of downtown owned by Black Hills Energy. If all goes well, that could soon be an additional parcel of open space, and the city as of 2016 acknowledged its "motivated interest in acquiring" the land.

"We want to bring the people from all over southern Colorado to use our section of river, but also to teach the locals how to be safe. Historically, the river wasn't the safest thing in town, so people wouldn't use it," said Moffett. "Now that we've got it cleaned up, we still have some of those old attitudes."

Cañon City has also been a place where people relocated for its climate and its amenities, but Smith, the mayor, said 2020 gave a new group of people a reason to migrate.

"There are a lot of people now that are coming to Cañon City to enjoy the outdoors and get out of the big cities. We definitely see that — to get away from violence and rioting," she said. "And now that people can remote work, it's a great place to enjoy small town charm."

Like other attractive locales, Cañon City has a housing shortage it is attempting to address, including through mixed use development along the river. Harrmann, the economic development director, said that some residents worry the riverfront may replace, rather than complement, downtown. The downtown strategic plan from 2012 alluded to the tension between river and city center, but a “five lane expanse of pavement” creates a physical barrier.

"We need to increase the number of year-round, full-time jobs," he said, hoping to staunch the outflow of spending to Pueblo and Colorado Springs by people who live in town.

Although the railroad ceased regular, intercity passenger service through the Royal Gorge in 1967, the Royal Gorge Route takes tourists on a 24-mile round trip from the Santa Fe depot, and is firmly integrated with the river, supporting more than 300 employees and carrying roughly 160,000 passengers annually from all around the world.

The amenities of the city consequently can be quite the draw. On a July afternoon, Heather Black of Colorado Springs watched her young children play in the river adjacent to Centennial Park.

"I read that they cleaned it up," she said. "I looked it up to make sure it was safe, and they were like, 'Oh, yeah, it used to be polluted but now it's really nice.'"


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