“springs of living water would roll forth from these hills”

Old irrigation works at the mouth of Bluewater Canyon, near Bluewater, New Mexico. In the distance is Tsoodzil, which we today call “Mt. Taylor,” and is sacred to the Navajo.

A story is told in one of the old accounts of the community of Bluewater, New Mexico, about a visit some time around the turn of the last century, by Apostle Brigham Young, Jr., to the Mormons trying to scratch out a farming life in this high desert valley west of Grants. The story involved water, conflict, and gunfire. Water was scarce, conflict over it a commonplace. Told of an incident of gunfire in which one of the Mormon settlers’ adversaries lost his life…

the apostle told us to continue to pray and be faithful and a new and durable good reservoir would yet be built; he told us that springs of living water would roll forth from these hills that surround the valley.

The durable reservoir was built, now holding back Bluewater Lake, which didn’t have much water in it when my friend Kathryn Sorensen and I crunched through recently fallen snow yesterday to the dam overlook. The current dam seems to date to the mid-1920s, as near as I can tell, the work of what was then called the Bluewater-Toltec Irrigation District. I made the pilgrimage with Kathryn because her great-great grandfather, Ernest Tietjen, in the mid-1890s, built one of the earliest dams at the site.

It was a hard place then, and remains so today – above 7,000 feet, hard up against the Continental Divide on the Rio Grande side, with sparse and variable runoff from the Zuni Mountains to the south. Native communities have made their lives here for time immemorial, but it’s not a land well suited to settler agriculture, tied to an export economy.

After getting permission from the current owners of the ranch – descendants of the Nielson family, who with Kathryn’s great-great-grandfather Earnest Tietjen built that 1890s dam – we took a lovely walk up Bluewater Canyon.

Bluewater Creek

There was a steady base flow, iced over in places. The trail, such as it was, was muddy as the recent snow melted. Cliff swallow nests, mud-built works of architectural genius, stood empty, waiting for the migrant residents to return to their summer homes.

At the mouth of the canyon, the irrigation headworks was silted up, looking like it hadn’t seen water other than occasional flood flows for many years. The “springs of living water” Apostle Young promised seem not to have arrived. Perhaps the Saints did not pray faithfully enough.

In the little cemetery on the edge of Bluewater, Kathryn found the headstone of her great-great-grandmother, known as “Emma O.”

Pioneer Cemetery, Bluewater, New Mexico

A note on sources:

  • The story of Apostle Young’s visit can be found in Tietjen G. Ernst Albert Tietjen, Missionary and Colonizer. Bountiful, Utah (845 S. Main St., Bountiful 84010): Family History Publishers, 1992. Kathryn brought her copy, it also can be found in the University of New Mexico library.
  • The UNM library also has copies of Frihoff Nielson’s diaries, kindly donated by the Nielson family: Journal of Frihoff Godfrey Nielson: Born 1851 in Copenhagen, Denmark, Died 1935 in Mesa Arizona. The Mormon tradition of keeping diaries has created a remarkable record.
  • The invaluable “New Mexico Geology”, published by the Bureau of Geology, summarizes additional history of the area.

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