The stuff of legend

John Fetcher is still going strong after all these years


— John Fetcher and Kurt Castor huddled over a control box in the generator room at Stagecoach Reservoir earlier this week. They fiddled with electrical tools and miscellaneous parts and gadgets that only the trained eyes of an engineer and a mechanic would recognize. The crashing of water rushing through nearby pipes drowned out all other sounds and reduced the men's conversation, at least to an observer, to lip reading and sign language.

All of the water in the Yampa River below Stagecoach Reservoir flows through those the big, white pipes. Surrounding Fetcher and Castor was equipment that converts the water's energy into enough electricity to run a town the size of, well, Oak Creek.

But not at that moment. The generator had turned off because a relay was burned out and needed to be fixed. As an electrical engineer and the secretary manager of the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District, Fetcher, and his 89 years of experience was there to help fix the problem.

"John had performed a little experiment and found out (the relay) was getting 130 volts," Castor said.

Therein was the answer. You see, the relay, a magnetic switch activated by electricity, can only handle 120 volts.

"He's quite a man," water conservancy employee John Yurich said was Fetcher worked on the relay. "I'd hate to see him retire."

But for Fetcher, whose list of life accomplishments reads like the combined lives of three men, full retirement is not on the agenda.

"If you think you're indispensable, then don't retire," he said.

Fitting words for a man who has been, in his 52 years in Routt County, responsible for or had an influential hand in most of the man-made sites, things like dams and ski areas, that make the Yampa Valley go.

"The problem with engineers is that they like to build," Fetcher said of his accomplishments.

He helped build and run the Steamboat Ski Area. Led the charge for Stagecoach and Yamcolo Reservoir, had in the construction of Steamboat Lake and Fish Creek Reservoir. And, by the way, the Mount Werner Water and Sanitation District and the Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District are Fetcher endeavors.

All of that, and much, much more, was done while maintaining, or helping his son Jay maintain, a working ranch in north Routt County, where Fetcher still works. In fact, he was on the tractor plowing snow just last week.

Last Sunday, the day after athletes in the Nordic Combined World Cup competition took their last jumps at Howelsen Hill, it was officially John Fetcher Day. The day was set aside to commemorate the work he did to rebuild the jumps at Howelsen after a vandal burned them down in 1972 and threatened to end the tradition of ski jumping in Steamboat Springs.

Sadly, Sunday passed with very few little recognition beyond Howelsen of John Fetcher Day.

After the jumps burned, Fetcher successfully spearheaded an effort to raise money to rebuild them. He convinced the Colorado Legislature to pony up $100,000 and combined that with $300,000 from the Farmer's Home Administration and $200,000 from the Bureau of Outdoor Recreation. With another $100,000 from the city of Steamboat Springs, construction began in June of 1976.

A year later, mud was thrown in the face of the project literally. A mudslide destroyed early construction efforts and added a heartbreaking $250,000 to the building costs.

"At that point, a lot of people said, 'Forget it,'" Fetcher said. "But looking up at those hills and seeing that ugly scar there, how could you possibly leave it like that?"

With help from philanthropists, private foundations and local and Front Range businesses, the jumping complex, including tower, was completed in 1978 at a cost of $1.1 million.

"One thing about John," said Todd Wilson, the director of nordic sports for the Winter Sports Club. "He gets things done and he gets them done quickly."

He also gets them done right.

Wilson said the jumping complex at Howelsen is one of the best in the world. Before the fire, he jumps needed major reconstructive work every 20 years. Since Fetcher rebuilt them however, only minor work has been needed.

On Jan. 28, 1978, the new jumps were officially opened and the city declared that day to be John Fetcher Day. It was just one more in what has become a long list of honors and awards for John Fetcher.

Last fall, he received the inaugural Centennial Heritage Award for his influence in Routt County.

Also, it's clear just walking around town with Fetcher that he is well known and well respected. At Howelsen Hill, underneath the jumps that he calls, "my babies," a numerous coaches and athletes went out of their way to shake one of Fetcher's work-weathered hands and say hello.

"He's sort of like a grandfather figure for us here," said Rick DeVos, executive director of the Winter Sports Club.

The gentle, congenial Fetcher gets that designation not for his age, but for his knowledge and skill that have only increased in the last nine decades.

"He shows up here on any given day with his tool belt and just starts fixing stuff," Devos said.

Everyone at Howelsen knows Fetcher, and when there is something wrong that can't be figured out, he is the person who is called.

But as he steered his green Jeep Cherokee back from Stagecoach Reservoir last week, with Mount Werner in the distance, Fetcher hinted that he might slow down, someday.

His latest project is diverting water off the Yampa River, east of Hayden, into four large canals. Fetcher is rubbing elbows and urging them to earmark funding for the multimillion-dollar project. At the very earliest construction would start in the summer of 2002. Said Fetcher:

"If that gets done, I might take a break after that."


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