How Dillon residents moved an entire town three times before the reservoir was filled

View of Dillon from nearby Lake Hill circa 1950.
Courtesy Summit Historical Society

The history of Summit County spans 158 years, with many intertwining tales of exploration, conquest, fortune and heartbreak. But in 1956, nearly 100 years after Summit was founded as one of Colorado’s 18 original counties, the construction of Dillon Reservoir officially began, a singular event that would change Summit County forever.

The town of Dillon is the fourth iteration of the original town established in 1881. On July 26 of that year, the Dillon Mining Co. established a 320-acre residential town on the Snake River.

The town was meant to be a trading and railroad hub for trains traveling from the Front Range over the Continental Divide to Leadville. The only thing missing was the railroad.

Local historian Dr. Sandra Mather explained that the town of Dillon was named after Sidney Dillon, a powerful railroad executive who became president of the Union Pacific railroad four months before the town was established. The entire point of naming the town Dillon was to appeal to the man’s vanity and persuade him to build a railroad through town.

As it turned out, the railroad didn’t wind up going through Dillon. Instead, it went through Tenmile Canyon to Frisco, so Dillon’s founders decided to move the town to incorporate the tracks. Just 16 months after it was first established, the town was moved for the first time to a location between the Blue River and Tenmile Creek.

A month later, another railroad — the Denver, South Park and Pacific — arrived from Breckenridge and laid its tracks west of Tenmile Creek with plans to extend as far as Montezuma.

It was then decided the town should be moved for the second time to a third location, where it stayed well into the 20th century. That location is now underwater, where the Dillon Reservoir stands today.

Dillon remained more or less the same for the next few decades. Things started to change in the 1910s, when Denver started sniffing around for water. By the 1950s, Denver Water had secured nearly all the water rights it needed to create a reservoir. The town of Dillon, population of about 1,000, was the only thing in the way. The writing was on the wall.

Denver Water met with Dillon officials Nov. 3, 1955, to negotiate moving the town. Old Dillon residents would be first in line to buy or trade their land for parcels in the new town site. Denver Water would give the town $450,000 to build infrastructure and public works, and the town’s existing buildings would be destroyed or moved to a new location.

The Arapahoe Café — a restaurant still open today in downtown Dillon — as well as the Elk’s Lodge in Silverthorne, were some of the only places serving food to workers while they were building the dam, so they were among the last buildings to be moved.

All of the remaining land disputes ultimately were settled. One resident managed to bargain until the last minute to get a much better price on his land. Another stayed until the water started rising.

By April 1, 1961, every resident from the old town of Dillon was required to be gone. Any buildings remaining were burned to the ground. Contrary to local myths, Mather said, there are no buildings lurking under the depths of the reservoir, only a few foundations and roads.

The residents of the new town of Dillon watched from the hill above throughout the next two years as their whole way of life disappeared under water.

Old Dillon — which still held fast in the 1950s as one of the last living relics of the Old West, complete with cowboys and ranches and prairies — was gone forever.

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