CHAPTER 4: INTERPRETATION AND VISITATION
As one of the Park Service's main objectives for management, the knowledgeable presentation of this historic site to the public often takes a great deal of administrative effort. Working closely with the regional office, local community, and various experts, the park staff has been skillfully conducting an unending dialogue between the past and the present by making the monument a showcase of American frontier history for the visitor. Because of its excellent interpretive program developed in the past 36 years, Fort Union National Monument stands as an inspiring classroom, as well as tourist stop.
At the beginning, poverty struck every corner of the proposed Fort Union National Monument. Non-existence of any support facilities and the lack of interpretive material and reference information about the fort's past posed a major obstacle to the establishment of an operational park. In 1955, when the Park Service started developing it, the only comprehensive study of Fort Union available was Edward Steere's 108-page report written in 1938. With a limited amount of literature on the subject, the monument had to compile a tour guide for future patrons. Also, a visitor trail containing explanatory signs was necessary. The park's first administration, which had only one person, faced a tough challenge to meet these needs.
Acting Superintendent Wing lost no time in creating a temporary interpretive program. As soon as he took up residence in Las Vegas, he started to compose an interpretive leaflet. Within three weeks, Wing produced the first draft of the text and sent it to Santa Fe for comment. After he finished writing it in late December 1955, he began to plan a self-guided tour of the Third Fort in anticipation of opening the monument to the public in the following summer.  It took another two months to complete the plan for a temporary visitor route. At the same time, Anna Wing drew the cover design for the leaflet.  It showed a covered wagon in the foreground with the ruins of the fort in the distance. By the spring of 1956, the monument was ready for full-scale operation of its interpretive project.
In March, with the assistance of his wife, Wing began to lay out a visitor trail through the ruins. Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado supplied cut-out letters for use on the interpretive signs along the route. This enthusiastic and talented couple did a speedy job. Before the ribbon-cutting ceremony, they put the last touch on the visitor trail.  Also, the mimeographed tour guide arrived at the fort on time from the printer. Opening-day guests were greeted with a tri-fold leaflet containing a road directory and several fort pictures.  Following the interpretive signs and reading the illustrative leaflet, people for the first time enjoyed a guided tour of Fort Union.
In activating a comprehensive interpretation program, the monument could not ignore collecting historic items and displaying them. The lack of sheltered space and historic artifacts had limited the park's capabilities to offer a rich exhibition. But Superintendent Wing managed to present a few things on opening day. While walking into the temporary visitor center, the first visitors spotted several framed maps and photographs on the walls.  These historic pictures whetted people's appetite to learn more about the history of Fort Union. A month later, the park staff built a 10-foot display cabinet in the lobby to house artifacts found among the ruins. And another set of five old photographs joined the existing ones.  Not only did this exhibit provide an attractive orientation for the public, but also a mini-museum was born.
From this humble beginning, the museum grew faster than anything else in the first few years. After the monument initiated the ruins rehabilitation project, the archeological team led by George Cattanach, and later Rex Wilson, excavated numerous artifacts in the area. Unearthed objects included almost everything from glass bottle to a steam engine. As interested citizens learned of the establishment of Fort Union National Monument, they donated artifacts either collected at the site or inherited by their family. For example, Francis A. Timoney of Colorado Springs bestowed on several cases of unspecified U.S. Cavalry gear.  They created a nucleus around which to build displays. Through both excavation and donation, the monument owned a collection of 7,500 specimens by 1960. 
Storing these historic artifacts posed a problem. The nouveau riche had to find a safe place to deposit its unexpected wealth. After the cells of the stone jail at the fort proved insufficient, the recreation hall of Valmora, New Mexico, provided brief shelter for the material recovered through ruins stabilization activities.  In 1959, Fort Union ordered six museum cabinets for storage purposes, and the park staff put the catalogued specimens into the cabinets and moved them to the park residences' garages.  From the 1960s, the museum collections "permanently" rested in temporary metal storage buildings that lacked any moisture or temperature control. Plans to build a standard museum collection room have not succeeded because of lack of funding. Today more than 10,000 objects are still waiting for proper curatorial facilities.
The preparation of permanent museum exhibits proceeded without difficulty. While the park employees were busily sorting, cleaning, and cataloguing the newly acquired items, outside assistance aided in the planning of a long-standing display. Curator Per Culdbeck of the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe volunteered his expertise in the restoration of copper, brass, and steel artifacts.  Historian Arthur Woodward provided valuable advice concerning the historical background of Fort Union. In 1959 when the construction of the visitor center was to be completed, the Park Service asked its Western Museum Laboratory in San Francisco to design and install Fort Union's permanent museum exhibits with an American frontier history theme. A few days before the official dedication of the monument, four members of Western Museum Laboratory set up the exhibits in the visitor center. 
Along with the development of the museum, the monument staff improved its interpretive tour guide. Almost from the very beginning, the administration realized that the three-page mimeographed leaflet used at the opening ceremony was too brief and could not satisfy people's interest. In December 1956, an eight-page information folder supplemented the original handout. It provided the visitor with basic knowledge about the past of Fort Union.  The following March the park staff revised and enlarged the primitive leaflet, incorporating new signs on the map and better photographs into the text. Soon the new edition of the Fort Union trail guide was available for sale at the visitor center. 
For the interpretive program to be successful, the job of bringing more visitor to the monument was crucial. From day one, the park administration strove to attract as many visitors as possible, thereby creating a symbiotic relationship between the park and the visitor. During the first months local citizens constituted more than eighty percent of total visitation. The infrequency of outside visitors was due to the newness of the monument, the absence of prominent highway signs, and the nonexistence of the entrance road on maps. To make Fort Union a "national" monument rather than a local recreation area, the park staff extended their work beyond the monument boundary.
Cooperating with state and private organizations, Fort Union quickly developed a plan for advertising. In October 1956, the New Mexico Highway Department helped install a sign showing the daily business hours of the monument at the junction of the entrance road (NM 477) with Highway 85. Also, the department proposed to move the Fort Scenic-Historic Marker to the same area.  In the park, a traffic counter began to record the number of entering vehicles. Three years later, the regional office allowed Fort Union, Inc., a non-profit organization that helped promote Fort Union National Monument, to set up another sign advertising the fort at the intersection of US 85 and NM 477.  As everybody expected, these signs increased traffic flow toward the monument.
In addition to the roadside advertising, the Park Service practiced other publicity methods. Much as a business corporation approaches market strategy, the monument sought out customers rather than waiting for their arrival. Through Fort Union, Inc., the park distributed free information leaflets at hotels, restaurants, and gas stations in the state. As a liaison officer between the park and society, Fort Union, Inc., often conducted trips to the ruins, published postcards of the fort, and dispersed interpretive literature among citizens.  The organization also sponsored an essay context for high school students on any topic related to the fort. Meanwhile, the park staff frequently delivered talks at various places including Rotary Clubs, the State Hospital, and public schools. Because of these aggressive campaigns, Fort Union National Monument soon became familiar to many New Mexicans.
With the increase in visitation, Fort Union needed a full-time historian to carry out the interpretive work of the monument. For almost two years, Superintendent Wing acted as a part-time interpreter; he designed the trail, wrote the guide, and directed visitors. An extra person would make it possible for Wing to concentrate on administration. In the spring of 1957, he drove down to Albuquerque and visited the Department of History at the University of New Mexico, and sought to recruit a graduate for the proposed historian position.  His trip was fruitless, but in September tour leader Donald Mawson of Carlsbad Caverns National Park agreed to take the position. A month later, he reported for duty at the fort.  The arrival of Mawson coincided with a new phase of the interpretive program.
Last Updated: 22-Jan-2001