Palisade History

Palisade, located in the eastern end of the Grand Valley, was named for the austere and dramatic palisades–steep cliffs of Mancos Shale bordering the town. The sculptured appearance was formed by various geologic uplifts in the area combined with localized erosion and down cutting by the Colorado River. Mancos Shale is mudrock that accumulated in marine environments of the Cretaceous Inland Sea which retreated about 75 million years ago. The Mesa Verde geologic sands were stripped from the mountains and built up as beach sands and river beds.

The Mesa Verde geologic formation is also known for its thick layers of coal. In Colorado, coal was formed in the middle Cretaceous Times (144-65 million years ago). In Palisade, the Mesa Verde formation provides abundant reserves of highly valuable low-sulfur bituminous coal.

At the turn of the 20th century, coal mining was a big business and as important to Palisade’s early development as fruit growing. More than a dozen coal mines operated in the area. John Nichols opened the Cameo Mine in 1885 which later provided coal for the Public Service Company power plant built on the former Cameo town site in 1957. Most of the mines closed in the late 1950s when natural gas replaced coal for heating.

For well over 10,000 years, Native Americans used the abundant waters flowing in the Grand Valley. When the area officially opened to white settlement in 1882, pioneers not disappointed by the Valley’s desolate appearance saw potential–if water from what was then the Grand River could be captured through dams, diversions, and canals. The subsequent irrigation projects transformed the desert into one of the most productive agricultural regions in Colorado and the Intermountain West.

By the mid 1880s, it was apparent Palisade’s unique geologic location protects crops from spring freezes. The local climate is often referred to as the “banana belt.” The mild climate and unique terrain create near-perfect peach growing conditions in the approximate 10-mile area stretching from the tip of Mt. Garfield to the south end of East Orchard Mesa. Wind moves 8 to 12 mph down-slope from the north and is focused by DeBeque Canyon. This “million dollar wind” is compressed and warms the air to prevent crop-killing frosts in the spring. As the katabatic wind moves west – down valley – it spreads out and its warming affect diminishes. In addition, the palisades absorb warmth and help prevent frost damage. The mild climate, a 182 day growing season, plenty of sunshine and water through elaborate irrigation systems, dams and canals, make Palisade the “Peach Capital.” Mineral-rich soil and our 4,700 foot altitude–which means warm days and cool nights–are also credited for Palisade’s great tasting peaches. Palisade makes Colorado the 7th largest peach producing state in the U.S.

Though a winter kill in 1962-63 wiped out most of the existing fruit trees, and a severe winter in 1989 again damaged the fruit trees and wine grapes, our growers bounced back. Palisade also largely survived pressure to convert prime irrigated land to high-density housing in response to a series of energy booms on the Western Slope. More recently, demand for locally-grown produce increased the number of fruit trees as well as expanded crops to include wine grapes, hops, and lavender. Palisade is a popular destination for fresh fruit, especially peaches, as well as 25 of Colorado’s 140 wineries. It is also the only wine grape growing region in the world more than 1,000 miles from an ocean and at 4,700 feet above sea level.


Palisade History

The 1880s

The Ute Indians were forcibly removed from the Grand Valley in September 1881, though white settlers were probably living in the area and envisioned the potential of the rich agricultural area, once irrigation water was available. Early orchards were planted next to water sources. In the Palisade area, J.P. Harlow planted crops in Rapid Creek east of Palisade at the mouth of DeBeque Canyon. The earliest irrigation canal, the Grand Valley Canal, built in 1883, did not serve Palisade and the “Poverty Flats” area east of town, now known as  Vineland. Consequently, water to Palisade orchards had to be hauled from the river in barrels with horse-drawn wagons. The other important economic driver in the Palisade area was coal mining from a dozen mines in two coal seams. The biggest deposit was in nearby Cameo–three miles east of Palisade–in DeBeque Canyon.


Pioneers were intrigued by what irrigation could mean for a desolate, sagebrush desert in the 1880s.

Courtesy of Carolyn Hansen Ford


An adobe house near the River and Grand Valley Canal headgate was considered to be the oldest structure in Palisade. It may have served as a trading post.

Courtesy of Robin Turcotte


Organizing a Pack Train at the livery on Third Street

Before the railroad came through Palisade in 1890, travel was by horseback and stagecoach.

Courtesy of the Palisade Library Auxiliary


Grand Valley Canal and diversion weir construction begins south of Palisade


First settler, J.P. Harlow, establishes farm and orchards, diverting water from Rapid Creek into the Grape Vine Ditch. By 1888, he harvests over a ton of peaches from his Rapid Creek Orchard.


The Purdy Hotel about 1892

Palisade’s first hotel, the Purdy Hotel, was built in 1882 or 1884 by Samuel L. Purdy, a gifted stone mason. Purdy Mesa near Whitewater, is named for him.

Courtesy of Marie Tipping Archives, Palisade Library Collection


Kate Harlow at her restaurant and store in Grand Junction.

Kate’s husband, John Petal Harlow, is credited for planting the Valley’s first fruit trees and successfully raising fruits and vegetables on his Rapid Creek ranch. He also developed irrigation canals, and operated what later became the Farmer’s Riverside coal mine across the river from his ranch. The Harlows had a restaurant and other business interests in Grand Junction as well. “Judge” Harlow, as he was known from his position as one of Mesa County’s first Justices of the Peace, passed away in March 1891. His gravesite on his Rapid Creek Ranch was added to the list of State Register of historic sites in 1995.

Courtesy of Loyd Files Research Library, Museums of Western Colorado


Grand Valley Canal south of Palisade provides irrigation water to much of the Grand Valley, but does not serve the rich agricultural land around Palisade.


The Grand Valley Canal headgate south of Palisade in 1883

The first canal, the Grand Valley Canal, did not serve the rich agricultural land around Palisade.

Courtesy of Marie Tipping Archives, Palisade Library Collection


Coal mining begins when George Smith establishes Book Cliff coal mine north of Grand Junction.


George Smith opens Cameo Coal Mine.


Roan Creek toll road completed. It provides passage through the Hogback (now DeBeque Canyon) to Palisade and the rest of the Grand Valley.   


.P. Harlow also diverts water from Rapid Creek into the Crawford Ditch. 


Col. C.C. Bower diverts water for irrigation from Grand River in Poverty Flats (Vineland).