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Chapter VI:

Stabilizations At Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument

Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument was established to protect what in 1907 was a single and very remote archeological site, and the withdrawal of a mere 160 acres was deemed sufficient for that purpose. Despite an expansion in 1962 to include additional archeological sites, the monument still comprises only 533 acres. As a result of the monument's original purpose and its small size, most attention applied to the management of resources has focused on cultural ones—specifically, stabilizing the cliff dwellings and mitigating the potential for damage to the prehistoric architecture that might be inflicted by visitors.

A brief overview of stabilization and interpretation activities—which overlap in their mission to protect the ruins—divides easily into four periods: 1907 to 1933, when the Gila National Forest initially administered the monument; 1933 to 1962, when the Park Service administered the monument prior to its expansion; 1962 to 1975, when the Park Service administered the monument after the expansion; and 1975 to the present, when administrative responsibility was returned to the Gila National Forest.

Stabilization I
1907 to 1933

Unfortunately, designation as a national monument in 1907 entailed no funds for halting the effects of time and vandals at Gila Cliff Dwellings. Nor was protecting prehistoric sites a clearly defined mission during the early years of the Forest Service, the agency responsible for administering that remote archeological monument until 1933. Protection of the site relied on posted cloth signs that designated the legal status of the cliff dwellings, the incidental patrols of the McKinney District ranger, and a wire fence that the ranger built with the help of cowboys from the TJ ranch. No stabilization activities were undertaken, although in 1917 the district ranger did obscure some graffiti with a mud slurry and occasionally with soot from burning pitch. [1]

Stabilization II
1933 to 1962

In June 1933, responsibility for Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument was transferred to the Park Service. Nearly two years later, G. H. Gordon, an assistant engineer for Southwest National Monuments, drove 53 miles from Silver City, New Mexico, over increasingly worse roads to the Goforth Ranch on Sapillo Creek. There he mounted a saddle horse to cover the next 20 miles to the monument in the heart of the Gila Wilderness. The first employee of the Park Service to see this isolated monument, Gordon reported that the ruins were in fact worthy of recognition [2] and he drew up a brief plan for developing the monument. [3] Among his recommendations were the inclusion of the prehistoric dwellings in "the plan for Ruins Stabilization" and the construction of a fence in Cliff Dweller Canyon. The fence was built as a cooperative gesture by the Gila National Forest Service in 1938, but the first activities to stabilize architecture at Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument did not occur until 1942.

In March of that year, "Doc" Campbell was hired as a nominal custodian and directed as his primary duty to monitor the condition of the cliff dwellings. Four months later, Charlie Steen, a junior archeologist with the Southwestern National Monuments staff, arrived at the cliff dwellings to begin five days of stabilization work at the prehistoric site. With the help of a hired man, Steen chinked undercut sections of wall, built dry masonry supports under a few breached walls, and supported a cavity that threatened to undermine yet another wall. [4] Afterwards, the men measured for a ground plan using a Brunton pocket transit and a steel tape, dug two trenches to recover sherds, gathered and burned trash from the ruins, and cleared the trail leading to the ruins.

Unfortunately, activities by the Southwest National Monuments program were dramatically curtailed as funds were cut and staff joined the armed services during the Second World War. Gila Cliff Dwellings was not officially revisited until 1948, at which time Steen reported some structural damage that would require stabilization. Seven years passed, however, before funds were allocated for repairs.

Impetus for the next round of stabilization work at Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument began in June 1954, when Marjorie Lambert, the curator of archaeology at the Museum of New Mexico, wrote to Erik Reed, who was the archeologist for Region III of the Park Service. [5] Accompanied by members of the Grant County Archaeological Society, Lambert had recently visited the ruins, which were managed as an uninterpreted reserve unit, and she was writing to express concern about damage to the prehistoric architecture caused by people walking on the tops of walls and otherwise touching the masonry. Lambert also expressed dismay about the defacing presence of graffiti on walls and pictographs.

In response to a subsequent inquiry by John Davis, general superintendent of Southwestern National Monuments, "Doc" Campbell acknowledged the prevalence of graffiti, adding that this problem could not be controlled without supervising visitors. [6] He observed that some structural wear and tear did occur, especially in Cave 4, where people tended to walk on walls to avoid a dangerous ledge on the outside. Campbell's observations about access and safety drew attention. When Roland Richert, an assistant for the Ruins Stabilization Unit of the Park Service, arrived in July 1955 with five Navajo laborers to further stabilize the architecture of the monument, a wooden stile was built to facilitate passage over the east wall of Room 19, and two masonry steps were added on the far side of the wall. Along the dangerous sloping ledge outside of Rooms 21 and 22 in Cave 4, a three-foot-wide trail was built and stoutly supported by a steel-reinforced, tinted concrete retaining wall. [7] Providing safe and obvious paths through the ruin mitigated the most contemporary threat to the prehistoric architecture: people. In addition, Richert and his crew invested a little more than 10 work-days of labor improving the trail that climbed through Cliff Dweller Canyon to the ruins.

Repair and support of the architecture included the placement of integral or reinforcing members to span holes in the outer walls, capping some walls, resetting another wall undermined by pothunters, and patching large holes—one of which was also the product of pothunting. More than a dozen small holes gouged by visitors into other walls were also patched with tinted cement. [8]

The last stabilization activity before the monument was expanded and permanently staffed occurred in 1962, when "Doc" Campbell constructed a small buttress wall in Room 31 to support an overhanging rock slab that threatened to fall on visitors and the architecture. [9]

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Last Updated: 23-Apr-2001