CHAPTER 4: INTERPRETATION AND VISITATION (continued)
At the beginning, the living history program received dissenting reports from chief ranger Arnberger. He expressed that unlike reconstructed Fort Davis, Texas, the ruins of Fort Union offered no setting for living history. The noise of cannon and rifle demonstrations fractured the ghost-like beauty of Fort Union, which spoke for itself. Using live ammunition, weapons firing also posed a serious threat to the public safety. Rangers in period clothing robbed the park of green and gray uniforms. Since Hopkins had become addicted to living history, Arnberger's legitimate concerns had little effect on his superior's determination to pursue his hobby. Arnberger reluctantly but dutifully participated in the living history program, which he called, a "circus." 
In the fall of 1975, the two-year-old living history program went into "mothballs." In a speech before the National Press Club earlier in the year, National Park Service Director Gary Everhardt reminded the audience that some services in the park system were going to be reduced because of lack of funds. Consequently, the Regional Office in Santa Fe thought that Fort Union's living history program was too costly despite the fact that it produced a seventeen percent increase in visitation in 1975. In response to the suggestion of Santa Fe, Superintendent Hopkins agreed to suspend the living history project indefinitely so that the monument could direct all available resources to ruins preservation. Hopkins expressed hope that the park would resume the popular program in the future, as soon as it became economically practical. 
The cancellation of the project directly impacted visitation. In 1976 and 1977, two years in row, visitation to the park plummeted. During the same period, a 50 percent reduction in the interpretive staff precluded the usual summer extension of park business hours. This affected the monument negatively too. Thus, visitation in 1976 decreased by nine percent in comparison to that of 1975; visitation in 1977 declined by another six percent from 1976. The Park Service tried to lure visitors back by lowering the entrance fees at Fort Union, but with limited results. 
During the decline in visitation, the monument managed to spend more time and resources on the improvement of its existing interpretive facilities. In anticipation of increased reliance upon self-guiding means, the park administration decided to upgrade the visitor trail at the Third Fort and to revise the decade-old guidebook. In 1976, all audio stations were rehabilitated and new trail guides printed. Catalogued for the first time, all books at the library went on newly-built wooden shelves. Above all, the most significant improvement was the museum exhibits. Because of energy conservation needs, the park reluctantly cancelled a plan to construct eight exhibits for the Bicentennial Celebration of the United States and rotate them through northeastern New Mexico communities. Instead, a new lobby exhibit for the visitor center was installed.  Those internal improvements helped ease the pain of cancelling the living history program.
In 1978 after a two-year hiatus, the living history presentations returned to Fort Union. New Regional Director, John Cook, played a key role in resuming the program by appropriating more funds to the fort.  Dusting off the old army uniforms and oiling up the replica military rifles, the park rangers started offsite talks and presentations. To help the ranger get a better feel for nineteenth-century military life, Hopkins sent a few of his men to attend a six-day camp in military instruction at Fort Laramie, Wyoming. Joined by two dozen comrades from other national parks, they lived as frontier soldiers, 24 hours a day. As soon as these highly trained "soldiers" returned, Fort Union began onsite living history performances on June 5.  In July, the staff presented the first weapons firing demonstration since September 1975.
Overall living history enhanced the fort's interpretative program. Unfortunately, visitors did not immediately return to Fort Union in large numbers. In the summer of 1978, the New Mexico State Highway Department inadvertently removed the Fort Union signs along Interstate 25. Visitation had been slowly increasing but began to drop after the removal of the signs. Although the signs were replaced in April 1979, visitation continued to decline due to a drop in tourism caused by a fuel shortage and economic recession.  Visitation for 1979 reached its lowest point since 1961. The nation's sluggish economic situation prevented a quick recovery of tourism through the early 1980s. It took 15 years for the park to attain the attendance numbers of 1972. Not until 1988 did Fort Union see a surge in the numbers of visitors.
Beginning in 1980, after Superintendent Hopkins, a living history advocate, left for Saguaro National Monument, Fort Union National Monument modified its living history program. An extravagant, summer-long living history program had become a burden to the park. Rangers agreed that a well organized event could draw more people to the site in one day than the monument normally did in a month. Thus, Superintendent Crane decided to change the fort's interpretive course by arranging a few special events, with a living history motif. Soon after the unit manager Carol Kruse arrived, she quickly institutionalized "special events," as a standard for future interpretation. 
Among creative ideas was a "Children's Christmas at Old Fort Union." On December 28, 1980, between ten o'clock in the morning and two o'clock in the afternoon, the fort hosted an old-fashioned Christmas celebration for local children. While eating cookies made from nineteenth-century recipes, children played old games such as Leap Frog Relay, There, Squat, Bird, Beast, and Skip. Also, a costumed ranger vividly told young visitors some frontier children's stories, most of which they had never heard before. More than 300 children and their parents attended the celebration. The event was so well-received that the park considered making it an annual affair. 
Tasting the success of this special event, the interpretive personnel tried a few more ideas. Besides the second annual children's Christmas party, another fiesta called "A Family Day at Fort Union" was held on July 12, 1981. Two hundred thirty-five people spent a pleasant afternoon at the fort. In 1982 and 1983, the monument hosted only one large event each year. But it invited more performers, including both the New Mexico and Colorado Volunteers as well as several Boy Scout troops. In addition to drills, flag ceremonies, and conducted tours, these "frontier soldiers" demonstrated adobe making, hardtack baking, scrub board washing, butter churning, horse shoeing, and other routines of frontier life. Each two-day show attracted more than 500 visitors. After a period of experimentation, the park was ready to try a more spectacular event for 1984. 
To commemorate the founding of the first fort on July 26, 1851, Fort Union National Monument hosted a gala entitled the "Fort Union Founders Day" celebration on July 28 and 29, 1984. Little different from previous special events, the Founders Day mainly served to carry out the park's living history program. Forty-two volunteers-in-parks (VIPs) contributed 684 hours to make the program run smoothly. Handled by Mike Pitel of the New Mexico Travel and Tourism Department, news coverage appeared in several newspapers and magazines, including New Mexico and Sunset magazines. At the same time, park employees spoke on KFUN and KNMX radio stations in Las Vegas to publicize the upcoming event. As a result, visitation reached an all-time high, with 1,622 persons attending the two-day party. 
After the initial triumph, the Founders Day became an annual attraction, which occurred on the fourth weekend of July. Each year some fresh ideas and services were injected into the program. Starting in 1985, the park served a barbecue to all Founders Day visitors. Thus, tourists, particularly travelers from other areas, stayed longer at the site. In return, their presence helped the local economy. According to the New Mexico Economic Development and Tourist Department, the Founders Day celebration of 1985 generated $56,200 in travel industry gross receipts for San Miguel County, where Las Vegas was located. 
The living history program became more dramatic. For example, in 1986, Ann O'Shea, proprietor of "Old Clothes Only" store in Las Vegas, portrayed a prostitute from the nearby Loma Parda. A curious crowd gathered to hear her lecture as she sauntered up the visitor trail. Changing characters a moment later, Ann along with five other women conducted a "Temperance Rally" march followed by a speech on the "Evils of Alcohol."  The park developed the living history performance from simple skills demonstrations into refined skits.
Meanwhile, an outside event boosted the park's interpretive program. In the 99th Congress, House Representative Bill Richardson from New Mexico introduced a bill (H.R. 4794) to designate the Santa Fe Trail as a national historic trail. The bill received opposition from landowners along the route. They appeared before the House subcommittee and expressed the concerns of private landowners. The bill passed the House but suffered a lingering death in the Senate.  In 1988, Richardson reintroduced the bill with certain revisions to the 100th Congress. This time, the bill passed both houses and President Ronald W. Reagan signed it into law. The Santa Fe Trail officially became a national historic trail. 
A growing interest in the Santa Fe Trail inspired the park administration to make some adjustments in interpretation. Because of its close ties to the Santa Fe Trail, Fort Union National Monument became a multi-theme park. In supporting the campaign for Richardson's bill, chief ranger Dave Roberts gave a speech on the Amtrak train running between Trinidad, Colorado, and Raton, New Mexico, in 1986 when the Santa Fe Trail Symposium was held in the region.  A year later, the fort changed the name of the Founders Day to "Soldiering on the Santa Fe Trail." The pageant remains the largest annual gathering at the site.
Nineteen eighty-eight was an important year for the monument. The congressional effort to declare the Santa Fe Trail a national historic trail helped market Fort Union. Consequently, visitation increased. To maintain this momentum, the park hosted three special events instead of one. In addition to "Soldiering on the Santa Fe Trail," "The Santa Fe Trail--the Early Years" and "An Evening at Old Fort Union" added two more shows to the park's interpretive program. In June, for the first time, the park administration opened the First Fort to the public. Because of its separate location, the First Fort hosted visitors only one day a year, usually on the Memorial Day weekend. Also, a Christmas open house was held on December 17 when students from Wagon Mound decorated a Christmas tree with reproductions of historic ornaments. The park's VIP, Nicki Sperry, researched and provided information to the school for the manufacture of the ornaments. Through the event, the students learned a great deal about the costumes, traditions, and material aspects of Christmas at the frontier post.  All of those developments, at both national and local levels, contributed to a revival of interest in the monument. Annual visitation increased by 25 percent.
Nevertheless, an even bigger season was ahead. While continuing to benefit from the historic trail activities, Fort Union did not forget to exploit the modern highway network. In 1988, with the help of the State Highway Department, the monument relocated its signs on I-25. The signs in both directions were moved farther away from the exit connecting the entrance road to the interstate. Thus, travelers now had more time to decide whether to visit the ruins. This old highway trick again worked well, and intercepted some hesitant or reluctant tourists who would have passed the exit if the signs had remained at the original locations.  In 1989, annual visitation for the first time reached the 20,000 mark.
Entering a new decade, Fort Union National Monument witnessed continued improvement in interpretation. The three special events held in the two previous summers were repeated in 1990. Since those annual pageants had established reputations, they drew people from as far away as Denver. Congressman Bill Richardson and Governor Gary Carruthers also visited the fort. But excluding special guests, attendance declined for the first time since 1979 after a decade of steady growth. There were three reasons: first, the honeymoon of the Santa Fe National Historic Trail celebration was over; second, the Persian Gulf crisis began in August and raised gasoline prices; and third, unpleasant weather occurred more frequently. These factors forced annual visitation to drop by fifteen percent. However, fewer visitors did not automatically mean less progress in interpretation. Acting chief ranger T. J. Sperry continued to improve the quality of interpretation, making everything historically more accurate. The interpretive program was the pride of the park and it accounted for Fort Union being one of three finalists in the 1990 Lon Garrison Gold Award competition, a contest for the best interpretive program in the Southwest Region.  In 1991, Fort Union won the award.
Fort Union recently commemorated the 100th anniversary of the military post's abandonment, as well as the closing of the American frontier. The special ceremony to honor those historic events occurred on May 15, 1991. At seven o'clock in the evening, the band from Robertson High School of Las Vegas welcomed visitors. Despite a strong wind, 300 people remained in high spirits. Superintendent Myers gave an introduction. Then, history professor Michael Olson of Highlands University delivered the keynote speech to commemorate the significant role the fort played in the conquest of the West. Finally, the park interpretive personnel and volunteers, all in military uniforms and led by acting chief ranger T. J. Sperry, lowered and folded the American flag, recapturing the historic scene. As another success in the interpretive activity, the jubilee ushered the park into a new era. In 1991, annual visitation reached a new historical record of 22,300. 
Thirty-six years of experience in interpretation has produced a fine, mature program designed to encourage an unending dialogue between the manager and the visitor. The principal theme is the American frontier; and the chief goal is a marriage of recreation and education. Today, people can enjoy visiting the ruins while learning about frontier history. The park also serves as a research institute. Its library contains more than 1,600 Western books and numerous rolls of microfilm. The museum collection contains more than 10,000 objects. Fort Union National Monument has become a classroom for both tourists and scholars.
Last Updated: 22-Jan-2001