Fort Laramie
Park History, 1834-1977
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4. Thor Borreson, Custodian, 1944-1946

During the three months custodial gap between Jess Lombard's departure and Thor Borreson's arrival the vacuum was filled by Canfield's assignment of Jack Moomaw "to hold the fort." Moomaw, a colorful grizzled veteran of the Rocky Mountain Park ranger force, had previously sustained a heart attack, but the Superintendent thought he was capable of coping with random visitors. Being from a well-forested National Park, Moomaw couldn't stand the sight of the barren parade ground with its pathetic scraggly saplings. His principal concern, therefore, was nursing along the quadrangular perimeter of anemic cottonwoods and green ash, setting new plantings, and utilizing lengths of condemned Rocky Mountain Park fire hose and an old condemned asthmatic pump to tap the Laramie River for irrigation. He also declared war on rattlers, which still infested the ruins, started a botanical list for the area, and augmented the park museum collection by industrious scrabbling for surface artifacts and twisting the arms of visiting neighbors to part with their alleged Fort Laramie relics. Jack, who had some reputation as a minor poet of the Rockies, also found time to write historical poetry for the Goshen County News, including this specimen pertaining to imaginary lovers at an emigrant camp at Register Cliff:

. . . Yet they carved their names and made their vows, and kissed and loitered here,

For their love was stronger than weariness, or poverty or fear. . .

Equally poetic were his monthly reports, one of which included this gem:

.. the whispering of wind in the grass and the call of a meadow-lark has long replaced the tramp of marching feet. . . Instead of the bugle's call there is only the sad-sweet moan of a turtle-dove. [38]

The sentimental ranger returned to his beloved Rocky Mountains when Borreson arrived on the scene August 9, 1944. Borreson had actually accepted the custodianship vice Lombard in March, 1943, but war-time manpower regulations prevented his release at that time from a job as ship carpenter with the Todd Shipyard, Dry Dock, and Refitting Company, Erie Basin, Brooklyn, New York. So Lombard lingered on, and Borreson could not pry himself loose from his patriotic shipping business for a whole year. [39]

Borreson was a self-educated Norwegian emigrant who had the finely honed practical skills of a true craftsman. He developed a reputation as a historical restoration specialist at the Fort Niagara State Park in western New York, and in 1938-1940 he had been the principal technician in extensive earthwork and redoubt restoration at Yorktown Battlefield, Colonial National Historical Park, Virginia. In theory he was a splendid choice for a Fort Laramie Custodian, with his orientation in military architecture and ordnance, and his restoration skills. In practice his remarkable talents were somewhat wasted, in part because the remains there bore little resemblance to the European-style military complexes he was familiar with, but mainly because of war-time restrictions which prevented any meaningful restoration work. The bitter irony of Borreson' a brief regime was that, despite the emphasis by his superiors in planning for the anticipated post-war boom, Borreson had to contend with existing war-time realities. He got bogged down in caretaker duties, and he suffered a succession of misfortunes, both personal and official, climaxed by his own most untimely death in December, 1946.

Thor had no sooner settled his sizeable family into the Cavalry Barracks makeshift quarters, complete with dry-hole unheated privy in the rear, than he was visited by Chief Historian Herbert E. Kahler, in company with Mattes and new Coordinating Superintendent John Doerr, successor to Dave Canfield who had got himself a commission in the Navy. Before 1944 was out he was also honored by the visits of Regional Director Lawrence C. Merriam, Regional Engineer W. E. Robertson, and Regional Architect Halsey Davidson, all full of ideas on the Fort's future, and prodding Borreson to apply his genius to restoration plans. They also urged him to devote more time to visitors, devising ways and means of making them happy. Assistant Superintendent George Miller and fellow Custodian (and Fort Laramie Historian) Merrill J. Mattes, being closer to the mundane realities of the here-and-now, protested that Borreson, all by himself at the area, had to contend with monstrous difficulties in the way of area maintenance and protection, that the conscientious Custodian was overstretched to the point of exhaustion, and that it was unfair to expect him also to perform planning miracles or to give each and every chance visitor the full personalized tour. [40]

Conditions at the Fort in 1944-1945 were aggravated by severe weather conditions, with an excess of rain, making the county approach road "a first-class example of a corduroy road." The incidence of leakage of historic roofs was on a sharp upcurve, and the weeds ran amok. Thor plaintively inquired of Doerr in a September 9, 1944 memorandum if he should think of himself as an administrator, a historical technician, or a laborer. "So far we have no choice but to be an out-and-out laborer. The quickest way to develop hay fever is to move to Fort Laramie. We need to have this weed patch looking like a National Monument." Thor waited for over a year for the delivery of a Jari power scythe and other equipment; meanwhile he had to combat the situation with hand tools and his own muscle power. Everything, it seems, grew wild except the parade ground trees which, despite the ample rain to reinforce the pump, somehow seemed to wither and die, no matter what!

Meanwhile the Goshen County Commissioners, with problems of their own, turned a deaf ear to the Custodian's plea to grade the county approach road. The shallow well next to the Cavalry Barracks, with a wheezy electric pump, served as the post water system despite misgivings about its bacteria count by the State Inspector. Then, in 1945, occurred a series of natural disasters. The Borreson family was hard-put to find ways and means, somehow, to survive, and plans for the glorious future somehow became irrelevant.

In early April there were "ruinous blizzards" and Borreson had to add to his repertoire of manual chores the shoveling of tons of the lovely white flakes by hand, in the complete absence of any mechanical equipment, in order to enable his vehicle to reach the plowed county road. Then things got worse. Apologetically, he wrote on April 14 to the Superintendent: "I am sorry but this is going to to be a bad news memo," and he proceeded to describe "a real Wyoming blizzard," with drifts shoulder-high, power- and telephone lines down, and railroads and highways up and down the Valley all blockaded. Through the generosity and cooperation of neighboring ranchers, the beleaguered Custodian managed to break a track into town where he was able to borrow lanterns and water buckets. Since his electric pump was knocked out, Thor resorted to another old well, the one behind Officers Row, and installed a hand-pump at his own expense, to carry water through the drifts in the manner of old country peasants. "We have certainly gone back to pioneer days," he wrote, not omitting the fact that the water had to be boiled to prevent typhoid or other dread diseases, while all manner of little creatures flapped and scurried around in the Cavalry Barracks attic, a haven from the blizzard.

Things were finally put back into shape, at the Fort and in town, thanks mainly to "Gleason at Guernsey," the Bureau of Reclamation manager who called the shots on local power distribution, and some token emergency funds from Washington, D.C. [41]

On July 30, 1945, Thor had to report "a second unfortunate incident to the Fort Laramie power line." On the 29th a violent windstorm snapped a tree, forcing the 33,000 volt Bureau of Reclamation line into contact with the Park's 2300 volt line, blowing out wiring and appliances in the Cavalry Barracks to the accompaniment of a spectacular series of flashes and outpourings of black smoke. Providentially no one was injured and the Barracks did not go up in flames, but it was a close call. "Sparks from the overhead wires set the grass afire," according to Borreson's report, and it is not clear why with all that wind to fan the sparks it didn't do likewise to the ancient and highly combustible roof. (One is inclined to credit the Providence that had preserved this and other Fort Laramie structures for over 50 years, despite all hazards, human and natural.) Again the "water system" was knocked out, and again Thor had to put the old historic well back of Officers Quarters E into service. Then the hand pump itself went out of commission, and what happened next is worth quoting from his memorandum of August 1:

Evidently it was not sufficient damage to put all electrical appliances out of commission, but on Sunday evening when we started to use the hand pump over behind the Officers Quarters, this too refused to work. . .

Since labor is scarce in this part of the country, a welcome sight appeared on the horizon at 9:30 AM in the person of Mr. Merrill Mattes. Having no time to confer on historical matters, he and I joined in a good day's work. Between two amateur well and pump workers, we succeeded in removing the pump and cylinder and installed a new valve and leather pump shoe by 5 PM. The Borreson family could drink water once more (previously Merrill and I had only beer). . .

Mr. Mattes returned home that evening happy in knowing that he had done his good deed for the day, and with the Custodian's praise and hearty appreciation ringing in his ears. . . The cost of the parts was $3.10.

Thor failed to collect for this expense or others incurred in the April and July electrical breakdowns. Chief Clerk Hodson at Rocky Mountain took the position that permission to incur such obligations had not been obtained in advance. The fact that telephone connections were also — as usual — kaput and there was no way to obtain such authorization failed to sway the regulation-minded guardian of Fort Laramie's meager funds. [42]

Despite all the hardships and preoccupation with bare survival, Thor was able to make one important contribution to the Fort Laramie planning process, but it is first necessary to give the background of this. Before his leave of absence to help win the War, Dave Canfield had championed a Master Plan which would place all new facilities on the right bank of Laramie River, near Deer Creek, to be approached by a road on that side requiring an extension of Monument boundaries, the new complex to be connected with the historic parade ground area by a pedestrian bridge. Despite the fact that this plan was in harmony with basic principles laid down in 1939 by Washington officials Lee and Carnes, there were misgivings now about the plan by others in the Director's Office. [43] While the esthetic idealism of the Canfield Plan was recognized, its practical aspects were questioned, partly because of war-inspired cost consciousness, and partly because of a feeling that compatible uses of the historic buildings themselves should be seriously explored. The first expression of this approach is a memorandum of March 3, 1944 from Mattes to the Coordinating Superintendent. During most of Borreson's custodianship Mattes continued to do double duty as both Custodian of Scotts Bluff and "Historical Technician for Fort Laramie." (As a matter of fact he did triple duty, since during the War Regional Director Merriam designated him as "Acting Regional Historian" and had him come into Omaha frequently.) In February 1944 Mattes did a stretch in the Director's Office, and in his memorandum he set forth the collective thinking at that time of Carl Russell and Ned Burns of the Branch of Natural History, and Herb Kahler and Dr. Charles Porter of the Branch of History, relating to the location of a headquarters arrangement for Fort Laramie. This is summarized because it demonstrates that efforts to think through all "viable alternatives" go back over 30 years time:

1. The "historic approach" to Fort Laramie from across Laramie River would be nullified by the presence of modern headquarters buildings; conversely, the presence of these buildings would spoil the view to the east from the Fort area which view is now essentially unspoiled.

2. If there is merit in separating the Fort buildings from modern buildings, why not go further and eliminate modern buildings altogether by adaptive use of Fort buildings?

3. Maintenance cost of historic buildings will be heavy. Utilization of the Cavalry Barracks as museum and headquarters and the Commissary as equipment shed, for example, would cut the cost of Fort Laramie upkeep tremendously.

4. There was some thought that Officers Quarters A, E and F could be used as residences, but most felt that the historic integrity of the historic parade ground sector should be preserved inside and out.

5. Acquisition of the Foote land on the Fort side of the river (a) to include lands which were integral parts of the historic building picture and which might yield priceless archeological results; (b) to allow for a decent margin or buffer strip; and (c) to allow for possible building of one or two residences in the vicinity of the Cavalry Barracks. Such residences might simulate restoration in situ of certain extinct fort buildings.

6. External historical appearance of the Cavalry Barracks need not be disturbed by incorporation of a modern museum and office. In fact, if used, the chances are it would be much better preserved. Utilization of this building for our purposes would not preclude restoring a portion of the interior as Cavalry Barracks.

7. Development of modern improvements in the Cavalry Barracks and the Commissary building would not hinge on land acquisition. We would be in a position to start the museum-headquarters alterations at any time funds were available.

8. The permanent approach road to the Fort would be direct from the county road which adjoins the area to the north, probably through the Foote land when it is acquired. This approach would eliminate the present roundabout approach from the west and ensure a pleasant first view of the parade ground sector. [44]

Subsequently, in his completed report on "Historic Approaches to Fort Laramie", by documentation and mapping Mattes demonstrated the chronological sequence of emigrant and Army trail approaches to the Fort. Broadly speaking, emigrant approaches were either from the north, by crossing of the North Platte via the Mormon Trail or Council Bluffs Road, or from the east-northeast by various crossings of the Laramie, via the main Oregon-California Trail. Earlier fords and ferries were replaced by bridges across the Laramie in the 1850s, and across the North Platte, 1875-1876. The late-period Army approach, following the Cheyenne-Black Hills Trail, was on the north-south axis. From these research findings it was possible to see merit in the Canfield Plan as one that capitalized on the historic "Oregon Trail approach." On the other hand the alternative of coming in from the north would be more valid from a late-period military viewpoint, which would be the viewpoint consistent with the surviving buildings, themselves predominantly of the 1873-1890 period.

On this basis "the Oregon Trail approach" could still be viewed in relatively unspoiled condition while looking eastward from the parade ground area, and actual Oregon Trail remains on the east bank could be made accessible for viewing on guided interpretive tours. A grand approach to the late-period remains by an early-period route seemed illogical as well as far more costly. (Such at least was the prevailing thought among Service historians in 1944.)

In a June 1944 memorandum Chief Historian Kahler reinforced the above view by urging that "using historic structures would help preserve them and obviate the need for modern buildings which would be intrusions." He thought that visitors could better visualize the Oregon Trail approach without the aid of a modern highway. By way of consolidating the Washington position Acting Director Tolson suggested to the Region, on June 8, four cardinal principles:

1. That the Cavalry Barracks be used for museum and headquarters, which would aid in its preservation.

2. That some of the remaining structures be utilized for living quarters or other purposes, provided there were no alteration in their outward appearances.

3. That lands be acquired east of the present boundary and west of the Laramie River for the possible location of all living quarters and utility buildings, the structures to be built in harmony with older structures that once occupied the site.

4. That consideration be given to approaches to the Fort from west and north, as well as east. Travellers approaching from the east would not see the Fort as it was in Oregon Trail days; likewise, if he were to look back over the eastern approach, he would see modern structures in the foreground. [45]

Borreson's Master Plan comments of January 20, 1945 are of interest because of his historical perceptions as well as the fact that his independent conclusions happened pretty much to coincide with the concepts then prevalent in the Director's Office. These were his salient points:

1. Development across the river would be prohibitively expensive because of new construction of roads, bridges, buildings and utilities. It would also be impractical because of seepage from the big canal plus Laramie River overflows.

2. The three Oregon Trail branches approaching the Fort from the east identified by Mattes-Borreson research, should not be intruded upon by modern development. "Fort Laramie sits within a natural bowl of sandhills" that have remained unspoiled except for the well-camouflaged canal. "It should be our effort to retain them at that same stage," wherever the approach of emigrant and military trains could be envisioned. Modern buildings, roads, parking area and a swarm of automobiles on the east bank would spoil the interpretive illusion.

3. The Commissary Storehouse should be used as utility and storage, the Cavalry Barracks as museum, library and administrative office. Both would be restored first externally. The several buildings around the parade ground would be fully restored, inside and out.

4. The modern approach should be from the north or northwest, along the edge of the second bench, or else across the first bench to a parking area north of the two converted buildings. Borreson questioned that reconstruction of vanished buildings in the extinct Quartermaster area, except as museum or trailside exhibits, would ever be justified. However, complete archeology of this section would be required.

5. In Borreson's view, preservation of trail remains, and the visitors view toward the eastern trail approaches, was at least equal in importance to the restoration of the historic buildings themselves. In fact he felt that there were only two buildings — Old Bedlam and the Sutler's Store — that offered "any special notice of antiquity or [distinctive] architectural features. It is only their associations that make them valuable."

Not everyone would agree with all of Borreson's views. Master Plan thinking has since veered back to the idea of placing all or most modern facilities across the river from the historic complex. But no Master Plan or Environmental Plan thinking, now or in the future, should ignore Borreson's most valid emphasis upon the need to have proper understanding and respect for the Fort's historic setting as well as its buildings. Over the decades the persistent efforts to plant parade ground trees which never existed during the "period of maximum importance," and to defend the post-1890 cottonwood grove along the river from any historical vista clearing, as well as general support of the Canfield Plan involving construction work opposite the Fort, suggest that Park Service planners and managers have never been overly concerned with the sanctity of the historical setting. [46]

In 1945 an alternate Master Plan, agreeable to the Kahler-Mattes-Borreson concept, was prepared by Associate Director Howard Baker and Regional Architect Halsey Davidson. Since the full flowering of either plan required additional land both north and east, Borreson was elated when Lee Foote offered to sell to the Park Service his 200 acres, downriver from the Fort, for $10,000. In an urgent memorandum of November 27, 1945 he pointed out that this would include all the historic Quartermaster area, the site of the original telegraph line and station, the late-period military road, the old Army dump, and other archeological riches. It was his opinion that it could all be had for a mere $7,500. The proposal was vigorously seconded by Mattes and Canfield but, of course, nothing came of it because the Washington Office had no land acquisition funds, boundaries had not yet been settled upon, and in any event Congress would have to pass a new bill authorizing any additions. While the Park Service debated for the next 15 years about the precise ideal development and boundary extension needed, the price of land would rise dramatically and, when authorization was finally given in 1960, and purchase subsequently consummated, only a portion of Foote's original 200 acres was bought for around $50,000. Now (as of 1978) the Park Service would like to have all of the land between the river and the county road, which present owners have no interest in selling at any price. "For the want of a horse-shoe nail the battle was lost." An opportunity to buy all or most of this historic ground for a trifle, in 1945, using National Park Foundation or other philanthropic funds, was passed by in favor of keeping up a running argument about fine points of the Master Plan. [47]

When Canfield returned from his Navy stint he was upset by the preoccupation of the Omaha and Washington offices with the alternate plan, to make modern use of historic buildings and an approach road from the north. He demanded another field conference, to which Mr. Merriam acceded, and in May 1946 there was another grand get-together at the Fort, with more debate about the merits of the respective plans. In addition to Canfield and Borreson, the Regional Office was represented by Regional Historian Hagen and Regional Landscape Architect Jerry Miller. It was Merriam's idea that the eminent scholar and Fort Laramie historian, Dr. LeRoy R. Hafen, might be able to supply words of wisdom as a consultant, so he too joined the conference, coming up from Denver where he served as Director of the State Historical Society of Colorado. As it turned out, Hafen was simply bewildered by all the arguments about putting the headquarters here, there, or some other place. The only thing he was interested in was something the Park Service hadn't ever proposed — the reconstruction of Fort John, the adobe trading post of 1849, and no amount of explanation could dissuade him from this highly impractical suggestion. In fact it was downright unthinkable in view of the long-standing opposition of the Park Service to conjectural re-constructions. Aside from that, such reconstruction would require the demolition of Officers Quarters A on the site, the 5th oldest building on the premises, not to mention the creation of a monstrous anachronism, with a resurrected adobe fur trade structure which had disappeared in the 1850s standing in awkward proximity to buildings and ruins of the 1880s. [48]

As might be anticipated the NPS conferees split down the middle between the two plan alternatives, with Miller supporting the Canfield plan and Hagen supporting Mattes and Borreson. And there the Master Plan stood, in a schizophrenic state, for a decade. It turned out to be all academic anyhow, since the only important money that turned up during the ensuing 30 years all went into the preservation of historic structures. The Park Service could afford the luxury of indecision about permanent modern arrangements because it was saddled with a moral obligation to first preserve and restore the historic buildings, no matter how long it took.

In March, 1946 Merrill Mattes was transferred, first to the temporary Chicago headquarters of the National Park Service, then in July to Omaha as Missouri River Basin Survey Historian. Before going he transferred to Omaha for safekeeping extensive Fort Laramie research files. During his incumbency as Fort Laramie Historian, 1942-1946, he completed three major works: a card file Fort Laramie bibliography of over 2,000 entries, later typed up in bound report form; the final draft of the Mattes-Borreson report on "Historic Approaches to Fort Laramie; and (with the help of Secretary Louise Ridge of Scotts Bluff) several volumes of transcriptions of "Fort Laramie Journals", consisting of overland journals from the Newberry Library in Chicago, which he had extensively researched in 1944. Among other research chores, some in concert with Borreson, were interviews with Johnny O'Brien, foreman for the Rutherford sisters, who was a Fort Laramie original, having witnessed construction of the 1876 iron bridge; extensive correspondence with G. O. Reid of High River, Alberta, Canada, onetime civilian wagonmaster (which correspondence was reprinted in Annals of Wyoming); and securing a promise from L. G. (Pat) Flannery to turn over to the NPS the John Hunton diaries, a promise never fulfilled. [49]

Another stab in the right direction was a plan initiated by Borreson to identify and hopefully to acquire furnishings and furniture in the possession of former Fort residents or their descendants and friends living in the vicinity or elsewhere, all looking toward that happy day when the restored buildings could be made historically liveable as well. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Borreson's plan here was the germ of the idea to furnish the historic buildings, a project which would not find fulfillment for another 15 or 20 years. [50]

In 1946 things seemed for a while to be looking up for Thor Borreson. The County Commissioners finally got around to grading the approach road, and the battle to batten down the buildings and eliminate obnoxious weeds seemed to go favorably for a change, with the employment of Art Darnall as part-time Laborer for the area. But then everything went bad. Rampaging winds racked the buildings, blowing off the carefully constructed chimney covers, and raising dust clouds that afflicted the Borreson family with lung trouble. On a trip to Rocky Mountain for supplies, the "hard luck Custodian" was caught with other autoists in a record blizzard between Fort Collins and Cheyenne, and had to be dug out of his pick-up with frost-bite and a mild case of carbon monoxide poisoning.

The litany of Borreson's troubles reads like the book of Job, who was sorely tested by the Lord, but Job survived and Borreson did not. The family horse died from rattler venom and, while in Scottsbluff, his boy, Thor James, was struck by a Texaco oil tanker and hospitalized for weeks, with some permanent impairment of his leg. Then on December 4 Thor Borreson himself died suddenly from a coronary occlusion, plunging the Fort Laramie and concerned Park Service communities, as well as the family, into deepest sorrow. Dave Canfield, Chief Ranger Herschler, and Custodian Budlong of Scotts Bluff did what they could to ease things for the family, and arrange for Mrs. Borreson's departure with Thor's remains and the children to her parent's home in Niagara Falls, New York. [51] Between trains in Omaha they stayed overnight with the Mattes family. This tragedy was undoubtedly a record low in the fortunes of any and all Park Service families associated with Fort Laramie.

Thor Borreson was not a large man, but he was rugged, muscular, and apparently healthy. The writer believes that his extreme conscientiousness, coupled with an impossible physical workload, and a series of worrisome incidents, contributed to his premature death.

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Last Updated: 01-Mar-2003