CHAPTER 7: IN RETROSPECT
The experience of Fort Union National Monument appears to be as fascinating as the legend of the Fort Union military post. Under the management of the National Park Service, the weathered ruins have served society as a museum of the past, a classroom in the present, and a model for the future. Like any other institution or organization, the park has tasted both success and failure. To understand the park's administrative history, the 36-year experience can be divided into four periods, artificially by the author and naturally by the decades. The four periods consist of the age of establishment from 1956 to 1959, the age of continuity from 1960 to 1969, the age of innovation from 1970 to 1979, and the age of improvement from 1980 to 1991. Each period contains its unique themes and characteristics, which make the administrative history exciting.
When Fort Union joined the Park Service family in 1956, the abandoned military post, still in a wilderness and frontier condition, had no supporting facilities or interpretive materials. Poverty struck at every corner of the proposed monument. Hoping to serve the public as soon as possible, the National Park Service concentrated its efforts on facilities construction, ruins rehabilitation, archeological excavations, and historical interpretation. Within three years, Fort Union had a permanent visitor center and two residences complete with electricity and running water. A paved highway and a telephone line linked the fort to the outside world. Even the aged adobe walls had received modern cosmetic treatments such as silicone coating. In the interpretive field, the visitor center provided people with the first exhibits and a trail guide. After cleaning most of the areas, the archeologists helped to accumulate the bulk of the museum's collection. Two scholars authored the first comprehensive studies on the history of Fort Union. By 1959 the monument had passed the first period of intensive development when the dedication ceremony announced a fully functional national monument.
After four years of intensive development, Fort Union entered a relatively quiet period. As the new decade of the 1960s arrived, fort management shifted emphasis of management from construction to maintenance. Routine operations such as cleaning the water tank, painting the wooden fences, and repairing the buildings occupied the park staff's many tedious working hours. The procedures for preserving the ruins remained unchanged even though the regional office asked the local unit to test a few new methods. Silicone coating, which later proved unreliable, still served as the principal formula for maintaining the weakened adobe walls. Without any fundamental change in philosophy, the interpretive program grew steadily with an oral history project and a revision of the guidebook. A few slide-show talks and uniform demonstrations by Homer Hastings and the rangers did not become a mature program of living history. Free from accidents and crime, the park enjoyed a peaceful period. In this "era of good feeling," continuity was the theme.
The decade of the 1970s marked the most innovative and exciting era in the monument's history. Under the leadership of Ross Hopkins, fresh ideas and new events sprouted. The ruins entered another intensive care period as the fort received about half a million dollars for preservation. The maintenance crew developed a five-year preservation system to maintain the adobe walls that proved more effective. The once-static interpretive program took a major departure by shifting its emphasis to living history, in which vivid presentations recaptured the American frontier experience and attracted more visitors. The living history program set the tone for future interpretive activities. The most significant innovation, however, belonged to the field of natural resource management. Influenced by the nation's environmental movements, the fort's administration reconsidered its priorities and responsibilities by devoting more time to environmental issues. Consequently, a new field in management emerged. With so many changes, the decade marked the most important era for the fort's administrative history.
Less creative but no less active in the 1980s, the park sought to reach new heights in management. Following the trails marked by the previous managers, the park staff continued to improve their work in every aspect. In ruins preservation, the maintenance crew returned to the original adobe material because the mud coating appeared capable of surviving longer than did the other materials. A systematic study of the ruins instead of simple experimentation characterized the preservation program. To enrich the living history program, the interpreters arranged several special events each year, some of which became annual programs. Meanwhile, natural resource management began to harvest a decade of cultivation. Several topical studies and professional planning documents were completed. More areas of the park's resources received attention and the management was more specific. Based on the groundwork laid in the previous decade, the management of Fort Union improved a great deal.
Despite an overall picture of managerial success during the first 36 years, Fort Union National Monument is still struggling with some vexing problems. For example, annual visitation remains disproportionately low; it reached the 20,000 mark only twice. During the campaign for the establishment of the monument in the mid-1950s, history professor Lynn Perrigo of New Mexico Highlands University postulated that Fort Union would become a tourist center in the Southwest. That prediction proved too optimistic. People quickly blamed low visitation on isolation. The cases of Chaco Canyon National Historic Site in New Mexico and Fort Davis National Historic Site in Texas disproved this argument. Chaco Canyon is more isolated geographically and Fort Davis is arguably less significant than Fort Union. But both of them host three times as many annual visitors as Fort Union. Thus, a further study is needed to explain the mystery of low visitation at Fort Union.
Another questionable issue is ruins preservation. In an agreement with Congress in 1954, the Park Service promised not to rebuild the fort, only to preserve the remaining structures. For 36 years, several million dollars went into the preservation project. But the adobe walls have lost one-third of their total square footage since 1956. While the adobe walls continue to shrink, the probability of attracting huge numbers of visitors is slim.
During the first 36 years, Fort Union National Monument received nearly half a million visitors who were curious about American frontier history. Using this abandoned military post, the Park Service has established a dialogue between the past and the present. A large measure of the success can be attributed to the competent and responsible management at the monument. Still nine years away from the year 2000, the fort administration has already begun to prepare for new challenges. As the Statement for Management (1990) points out, the park staff is going to make extra efforts "to preserve the resources of Fort Union as an integral whole which can inspire and educate visitors well into the twenty-first century." Fort Union National Monument is a place to link the past with the future.
Last Updated: 22-Jan-2001