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50th anniversary Navajo State Park

SUN photo/Renita Freeman Navajo Lake has been a place of tranquility and beauty for half and century.

SUN photo/Renita Freeman
Navajo Lake has been a place of tranquility and beauty for half and century.

Everyone who was in attendance for the 50th anniversary celebration of Navajo State Park had one thing in common: a family history that was tied to the reservoir and the towns of Rosa and Los Arboles. The area, which officially opened July 7, 1964, originally was home to around 40 families. The popular tourist attraction also boasted of having a steam locomotive line that was part of the Durango/Silverton narrow-gauge railroad. The ill-fated rail line, however, was abandoned two years after Navajo Lake was created.

Janet Clawson, park naturalist and archaeologist who is interested in documenting the history of Navajo Lake, said, “The lake was the first government project that had major archeology work done. There is incredible archeology here. The railroad is what made the area boom, Rosa made it. That area is under water now.”

In order to build Navajo Lake, the Bureau of Reclamation moved, buried, burned or just flooded close to 85 structures in the town of Rosa, some of which today can occasionally be seen when the lake is low. The rail lines can also be seen as Navajo Lake levels fluctuate.

John Weiss, retired park manager, presented a short speech to document the history of the lake and to thank the families who attended the ceremony. Weiss went over the history of the lake and the differing personalities of park managers over the years. Weiss stated that one of the first park managers was a people person and the next manager to arrive was into planting the trees, which now provide shade and shelter around the lake. Each manager that took over the facility further enhanced the popularity of the lake.

Weiss said one of the things he did when he took over the management was to promote Navajo Lake in different areas around the state. “We started going to boat shows in Denver to help promote the lake. It is a gem,” he said.

One of the biggest drivers of the popularity of the lake was accessibility.  The Bureau of Reclamation, when in the initial planning, designed the boat ramp to be long, thus ensuring as the level of the lake dropped there would still be accessibility. “We are proud of how the marina looks now. It is a moneymaker,” Weiss said. “The lake and its campgrounds are booked up one hundred percent of the tourist season.”

Weiss went on to talk of how, in the 1960s, the railroad built the line around the lake, which was used for only two years before it was abandoned.

“I find it fascinating the train came though here,” Weiss said.

Doug Secrist, who has been park manager for Navajo Lake since 2006, spoke to the gathering and said, “The fiftieth anniversary sets a benchmark for the history of Navajo Lake. When first built, the lake was a lot smaller version than what it is now. The steam locomotive that went through was part of the Durango/Silverton line. It was incredible to watch the changes over time. Rec Rehab started in 2000-2001 and basically rebuilt the park again. I don’t know that anyone who helped in building the park in 1964 could envision what it looks like now.

“It is pretty fascinating, and very interesting when you think about all the people who would come to the lake. There were thousands who came, now that number is in the hundreds of thousands since the lake has been discovered. Navajo Lake has been compared to Lake Powell due to the fact it has lots of canyons,” Secrist said. “There are over fifteen thousand surface water acres when the lake is full and over one hundred fifty miles of shoreline.”

Navajo Lake’s original purpose was to provide water to the Navajo lands, as well as for the Farmington area. The undertaking was set up as part of the Colorado River Storage Project to provide storage for the Navajo Indian Irrigation Project. This project provides water to over 11,000 acres of agricultural land on the Navajo Nation land.

“It is incredible that there has been such a history associated with this park over the last fifty years. The community of Arboles has a very strong spirit. It has always been this way. It is incredible how a small community can pull together and get things done; it shows what we can do if we pull together,” Secrist said.

“The key to what Navajo State Park is, is the people,” Secrist stated. He spoke of how one very important aspect was visitors go away with the impression of an open and friendly community. “That this is a good thing to take away with them.”

Many of the people who helped to celebrate the milestone anniversary shared memories handed down from family member to family member.

Betty Seibel, whose family also goes back for generations in the area, along with Noreen Starbuck and Seibel’s brother, Robert Cox, said that they have seen the changes that have come to the recreation area over the years. Cox stated he helped to move the Navajo rock, which was found off of County Road 500 about a mile from Colo. 151. “There is still a big chunk of the rock out there, we just moved the small one in 1964,” Cox said.

The petroglyph boulder, which is proudly displayed at the entrance to the visitor’s center, is adorned with chiseled carvings of deer, corn plants and horseback riders. On the base of the mammoth stone is an unusual border of lines and marks, which is uncommon in Navajo rock art.

Julian Arny, another  one of the longtime residents, said his grandfather had a ranch on the Piedra River and his father rode to Rosa for school on horseback.

“The school is under water now; only when the lake is down can the foundation be seen. My grandfather raised sheep and drove them up the Piedra Trail,” Arny said. “My family was here early on probably from 1900 to 1918. My great-great-great-great-grandfather was territorial governor of New Mexico in 1862, William Fredric Mitton Arny.”

Arny said he was proud to be part of the history of the lake and area.

Ellen Warren, marina attendant, summed one main reason the area is so popular when she said, “The lake is available most of the year. It does freeze in a good winter, but that would be the only time.”

Warren stated that while the lake did go down, it was still usable. “Now, it is fine; very usable and boater friendly.”

This story was posted on August 28, 2014.