During the late 1870’s, the ranching town of Big Bend was established in the river valley that is now underneath McPhee Reservoir. At its height, Big Bend had a saloon, sawmill, hotel, blacksmith shop, and two general merchandise stores. However, when the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad came through, it bypassed Big Bend and went straight to Dolores. That spelled the end of Big Bend.
In 1924, the New Mexico Lumber Company built the town of McPhee about 3 miles downstream from the remains of Big Bend. At the time, McPhee was the largest town in Montezuma County and the largest lumber mill town in Colorado. By 1927, there were 1,400 people living in McPhee and there were more than 40 miles of narrow gauge railroad track connecting McPhee to the surrounding logging camps and to the town of Dolores. However, the Great Depression caused the mill to shut down in 1930. It reopened in 1935 as the Montezuma Lumber Company but big fires in 1941 and 1942 crippled operations. In 1948, another big fire almost wiped out the town, then the post office closed that July and McPhee was finished.
In its heyday, company housing for Anglos rented at $10 per month (automatically deducted from their wages). These homes were 5-rooms with running water and electricity but the bathroom was out back. Hispanic 3-room housing was 3/4 mile from the mill site, had no electric or running water and rented for $2 per month. They did have outdoor faucets nearby but used kerosene lanterns at night and the privy was out back. The company did provide free firewood and there was an ice house for everyone near the mill pond.
The Bureau of Reclamation purchased all the land and homes in the Dolores River Valley that would be inundated by the reservoir in the 1970’s, prior to construction of the dam. The reservoir was designed to be a reliable water source for farmers on the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation and in the Montezuma Valley. Funds from the Dolores Project built the dam, the irrigation canals and the Anasazi Heritage Center.
Looking northeast, near Escalante Pueblo
Looks like the reservoir is down a bit