Family shares gift of a lifetime
Nola Dempsey had a childhood unlike most others in Colorado — she spent her high school years living next to Gross Dam in Boulder County where her father was the dam’s first caretaker.
“My father loved taking care of the dam,” Dempsey said. “He thought of it as his baby and he took a lot of pride delivering water to the people of Denver.”
John Fuller first came to the rugged foothills west of Boulder as one of the hundreds of workers who built Gross Dam in the early 1950s. Fuller started in 1951 and served as a laborer and surveyor at the site through the dam’s completion in 1954.
But Fuller also had a passion for photography. He documented the dam’s 340-foot rise from the valley floor of South Boulder Creek up the sides of the canyon.
“Dad loved to take pictures, and he took a lot of them as the dam was going up,” Dempsey said. “He just enjoyed being part of history and wanted everyone to see the progress.”
Fuller took pictures in the form of slides and his family held on to them for years.
“We didn’t know what to do with all the slides, so we decided to give them to Denver Water,” Dempsey said.
In late October 2019, Dempsey, along with her sister Oriole Hart and Dempsey’s daughter Diana Vonfeldt, visited Gross Dam to share their unique gift with the current caretakers.
Denver Water’s current head caretaker, Andy Skinner, was happy to accept the one-of-a-kind present.
“I enjoy learning about the history of the dam, so it was a great opportunity to see the photos, meet with Nola and learn about her father and their time here,” Skinner said.
The photographs provide snapshots of the enormous effort it took to construct the dam. Hundreds of workers spent four years in the remote canyon working long hours, often in harsh weather conditions.
“My dad knew everything about the dam from the day it started,” Dempsey said. “If there was something he didn’t know, he took the time to learn about it.”
Dempsey’s favorite story about her father’s time at Gross is from the time when the dam was in its final stages of construction.
“The workers constantly made fun of the Stetson hat my dad always wore,” she said. “When the last batch of concrete was being poured, they got him to toss his hat in it. So, I guess you could say a piece of my dad is in Gross Dam.”
When the dam was completed in 1954, Fuller applied for Denver Water’s caretaker job and got it. Fuller moved his wife and daughter, Nola, up to Gross, where they lived from 1955-58.
“He just fell in love with the area and the dam,” Dempsey said. “It was a special place and I loved driving around with my dad in his truck as he did his duties to operate the dam.”
His hard work ethic at Gross Dam was looked at highly by the organization. In 1958 he was promoted to start up the new hydropower unit at Denver Water’s Williams Fork Dam in Grand County.
He continued taking pictures and documenting activities at his new home.
“It was great to look at all of John’s photographs and learn about his dedication to his work at both dams,” Skinner said. “I hope to continue his legacy during my time here at Gross.”
Past helping the present
Denver Water built Gross Dam and Reservoir with the foresight that it would need to be enlarged in the future. While Denver Water waits for final approval to raise the dam, Skinner and the other caretakers at Gross are reviewing Fuller’s photos of the original construction.
“The photographs are an incredible resource for Denver Water,” Skinner said. “They provide a snapshot of what lies ahead for us.”
Dempsey said her father would have liked being a part of the expansion process. She offered words of advice to those working on the project.
“He would have told them to work with the same integrity that he and the others did back in the 1950s,” she said. “It’s important work that has to be done right.”
Retirement and legacy
Fuller started work on the crew at Gross Dam when he was 43. Before that, he’d worked a variety of jobs and picked up an array of skills — including engraving and silversmithing. (His skills earned him the nickname ‘Silver.’)
Recognizing Fuller’s unique talents, Denver Water’s Employees’ Association asked him to engrave employee retirement plaques as well as plaques for various locations. Some of them still hang at Denver Water facilities.
Fuller retired in 1973 after 22 years of service at Denver Water. He died in 1978.
“I was always proud of my dad and what he did,” Dempsey said. “He loved his work, he took pride in serving the public, and he took pride in every picture he took.”