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In 1906 Congress established Mesa Verde National Park, the first to expand the parks concept beyond exclusively preserving scenic natural wonders (like Yellowstone), to include the “works of man.”

Cliff Palace ©SR Euston

In 1888 the Wetherills, a local ranching family, stumbled upon magnificent and mysterious cliff dwellings perched in caves up Mesa Verde’s canyon walls. Throughout the 1890s commercial pot hunters looted these ancient ruins; many original artifacts now reside in private collections. This widespread destruction led to the drive, spearheaded by Colorado women’s clubs, to preserve Mesa Verde for posterity.

Although the cliff cities remain the park’s major attraction, there are vast mesatop ruins in Mesa Verde too. Today, within its 52,000 acres, there are the over 4500 identified archeological sites, only about 600 of them cliff dwellings.

One of the most accessible of the mesatop complexes is Far View, an agricultural community which encompasses a cluster of small unit family housing within a stone’s throw of each other. There are larger pueblos too: One of these is Far View House, a two-story 40 room building enclosing four kivas. Because of its size, archeologists speculate that Far View House was more a town hall than a housing development, serving public purposes for the extended Far View community. Along with four other partially excavated sites, the Far View complex give a flavor of ancestral puebloan agricultural life.

But there is also a different kind of surprise at Far View. Unnoticed by most visitors are the remnants of Mummy Lake, a specially engineered reservoir to the north of the community. A network of upstream ditches served as catch arteries for runoff which was channeled into this 90 foot diameter stone walled and lined depression. Mummy Lake could hold as much as one half million gallons of water. Besides providing water for Far View’s 500 residents, it also was used to irrigate nearby fields of corn, squash and beans.  In the late 1200s, when Far View inhabitants moved over the edge to cliff dwellings below, they built a ditch which continued to provide water for fields and drinking.

This now dry, sediment-filled reservoir was certainly a remarkable feat of coordinated planning and construction. In 2004, a millennium after its construction, Mummy Lake received a Historic Civil Engineering Landmark designation as “One of the earliest public works projects in North America.”

How was all this planning and construction—cliff cities, mesatop towns, huge reservoirs—accomplished with tools of only wood and stone? It’s those kind of questions that make Mesa Verde such a haunting place.

Edge of Chapin Mesa ©SR Euston

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