Septic Makeover at a Presidential Mountain Retreat

Historic preservation rules dictated minimal landscape changes for a new onsite system at Dwight Eisenhower cottages in Colorado’s high country

Septic Makeover at a Presidential Mountain Retreat

Interested in Distribution?

Get Distribution articles, news and videos right in your inbox! Sign up now.

Distribution + Get Alerts

Nestled on the western slopes of the Rocky Mountains along the Frazier River are a series of small cabins President Dwight Eisenhower used before and during his time in office. One was his family’s personal vacation cabin, and another was for his Secret Service detail. 

Located in Grand County, Colorado, the structures consist of two older log cabins where President Ike stayed in the 1940s (currently protected under historic preservation rules) and next to those are two newer dwellings built in 1953 where he stayed multiple times during his presidency. It’s said shortly after his nomination to be the Republican candidate for president, Eisenhower met his running mate for vice president, Richard Nixon, at the property to get to know him and strategize a campaign while wetting a line for trout.

Fast forward to early 2021 when contractor Rob McManigal purchased the Eisenhower fishing cabin historical property housing the two newer cabins with the goal to make them a functional homestead for his family. For that to happen, a new onsite wastewater treatment system was needed. 

“The old system was all copper and cast iron plumbing and as soon as it left the house it went to clay tile,” McManigal says. “I got a hold of L.L. Kourse, and I think it only took about two weeks from the first time we talked to actually getting the new system in place. She did the engineering and with my ties as a contractor we got the excavator in quick and got it done.” 

For a system built in the 1950s, parts of the original septic system had aged well. “The leachfield was really well done. It had a good gravel bed system and because it had only been used intermittently, it held up great,” says Kourse, the system designer. “But with modern technology and Rob here now with his family, he wanted to do the right thing and make sure the system could support them.”

The design and install went quickly thanks to McManigal’s involvement as a contractor and Kourse’s experience as a designer. Also, the changes needed weren’t too extreme. “Everything is basically the same with the system design except with better technology for a more efficient footprint,” Kourse says.

Historical digging

The site’s historical significance along with its geographical position created some obstacles for design and excavation. “We had to rebuild an OWTS with the same general footprint as the original septic system,” Kourse says. “A fluctuating water table and a location so close to the Fraser River required that the elevation of the system be carefully considered.”

Another challenge is the Fraser River Valley only has about 30 frost-free days per year, making a narrow window to execute the dig. Aside from that, the fact it’s a designated historical site means that the original exterior of the buildings must be preserved as they were, as well as the existing fishing ponds, historical ditches and flumes and a flagpole, which happens to be located in the leachfield.

The challenges didn’t discourage Travis Wagner, operations manager at Mountain Madness Excavation, who took on the project. Within four days he and his team were admiring a job well done. 

The first day consisted of making room for the new system. “The old septic tank was still in place. It was an old soft-steel cistern that was pretty much rotten,” says Wagner. “We were able to pump the water out of it, fill it in with sediment and shift the new septic tank over a couple feet to avoid it.”

With the old tank taken care of, Brain Munro, owner of Mountain Madness, James Johnston, operator, and Wagner dug and set the new one. The next day, the distribution system was installed, the third day was backfilling and on the last day the team did the final grade.

To get the job done, Wagner and his team relied on a Link-Belt 235X excavator and a Bobcat T76 tracked skid-steer for the project.

System flow

The Mountain Madness team attached 4-inch Schedule 40 PVC pipe to the main living cabin’s existing cast iron pipe and installed a two-way cleanout roughly five feet from the exterior wall. After the cleanout, another length of pipe was installed and connected to a septic tank. The span of pipe is set at a 2% grade and runs in a straight line to support gravity flow. The plumbing is also bedded with a minimum of 2-inch crusher fines on all sides.

Plumbing from the Secret Service cabin was connected in a similar way, but piping used was 4-inch SDR35 PVC. It connects to the drainline from the main cabin using a wye fitting, before emptying into a precast concrete 1,500-gallon, three-chamber septic tank located approximately 30 feet from the main cabin. The septic tank was manufactured by Front Range Precast Concrete in Commerce City, Colorado, with Roth 12-inch risers cast into the tank.

The septic tank has two settling compartments and a pump compartment. Between the second and third chamber, is a 4-inch Orenco Biotube filter to add another level of biological filtration and to keep solids from entering the pump compartment.

A Goulds Model PE51, ½ hp submersible pump moves effluent through a 4-inch perforated SDR35 pipe into a precast concrete distribution box, also manufactured by Front Range Precast Concrete, which evenly disperses effluent to the primary treatment zone. This zone consists of perforated pipe centered above four rows of trenches; each housing eight Eljen GSF 42 units placed over a 6-inch bed of sand. 

The total area of the leachfield is roughly 16 feet wide by 33 feet long totaling about 528 square feet. Due to the fluctuating water table levels in the area, the leachfield is mounded. All perforated pipe in the system is covered with 2-inch closed cell foam insulation to help protect against freezing. In case freezing did occur, or if the effluent pump were to fail, an SJE Rhombus high-water alarm is positioned in the pump compartment of the septic tank.

“The stars were in alignment in 2021,” Kourse says. “A thoughtful and diligent homeowner and general contractor, Rob, and a really good excavator, Travis, were the real stars.” Even with the challenges of location and historical significance, the Eisenhower fishing cabin project was a success from start to finish.

“While it’s a modern solution to handle modern-day use of a full family, this system is maintaining a historical site and an environment while keeping it as beautiful as it always was,” Kourse says. 


Comments on this site are submitted by users and are not endorsed by nor do they reflect the views or opinions of COLE Publishing, Inc. Comments are moderated before being posted.