Throughout its history, the Barr Lake area has been an oasis for wildlife and people. Over 150 years ago, the Barr Lake area was a bison wallow. This natural depression in the prairie collected and held water in the spring. Bison, wolves, and elk congregated in the area, taking advantage of available water. Pronghorn antelope roamed the lush mixed-grass prairie adjacent to the wallow. Abundant wildlife attracted American Indians to the area as well. Arapaho, Cheyenne, and even Ute hunted the area seasonally.
The 1860s brought Spanish steers and the cowboys to the Barr Lake area. Nutrient rich grasses and water from the wallow made for an important rest stop on the way from Texas to Wyoming on the Goodnight-Loving Trail.
Railroad Comes to Barr Lake Area
Perhaps the greatest influence on the Barr Lake area has been from the railroad. In 1883, the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy railroad completed a link between Denver and Chicago that passed right by the Barr Lake area. Suddenly this prairie oasis was ripe for settlement, if only there were a reliable source of water. In 1886, construction began on the Burlington Canal. This canal would assure a reliable water source for settlers by diverting water from the South Platte River into the wallow to create Oasis Reservoir.
With the ephemeral wallow replaced by a constant and reliable reservoir, the grassy landscape adjacent to the reservoir was transformed into a cottonwood forest—creating an important refuge for wildlife. This wildlife oasis attracted birdwatchers, anglers, hunters, and Denver’s elite who would ride the rail and spend a day at the Oasis Reservoir "rusticating."
In 1908, the Farmer’s Reservoir and Irrigation Company increased the size of Oasis Dam. The new dam combined Oasis Reservoir and the smaller Burlington Reservoir to create what is now known as Barr Lake. The name Barr is taken from one of the civil engineers that worked on the railroad in the area. A reliable water source meant that soon local sugar beet farmers were producing "more gold than all the miners in the mountains".
Barr Lake Cleans Up
The darkest chapter in the history of Barr Lake was in the 50’s and 60’s. Located downstream from Denver, Barr was the unwilling recipient of Denver’s untreated wastewater for over 70 years. In 1964 and 1965, clean water legislation and the flood of ’65 literally flushed Barr Lake clean.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife received a recreational lease for Barr Lake State Park in 1975 and two years later Barr Lake State Park opened to the public. Today birders from all over the world arrive at Barr Lake seeking to add new and interesting birds to their extensive life list. Hopeful anglers fish for trout, wipers, and more from the shores and the waters of the north side of the lake. Hikers, bikers and joggers seek solace along the Lake Perimeter Trail. Although the bison, elk, and pronghorn are gone, hearing the evening chorus of the coyote, watching bald eagles fledge, or simply enjoying the sunset over a peaceful prairie reservoir will remind each of us that Barr Lake has always been an oasis for wildlife and people.