Inside the Capitol

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Fort Stanton is NM's Newest State Monument


Syndicated Columnist


      SANTA FE -- Fort Stanton has taken another big step on its way to opening as a state monument. The fort, between Capitan and Lincoln, became a state monument in August of last year. It was constructed in 1855 for the protection of area residents.

   Renovations have been taking place during the year. This month, the property was transferred to the Department of Cultural Affairs, which operates state museums and monuments. The state monument could open as early as next summer.

   Fort Stanton is the crown jewel of frontier forts in the southwest. Constructed of native stone, it is much better preserved than most southwestern forts, which were made of adobe.

   I had not visited the fort since former Gov. Gary Johnson closed it as a state health facility in 1995. The interest in locating a state Veterans Museum at the fort renewed my interest in making another visit.

   Historian and advocate for preservation of the fort, Lynda Sanchez, who made the Fort Stanton presentation to the Governor's Veterans Museum Task Force revealed that the facility was more than large enough to be used as a state monument and a veterans museum.

   The veterans task force made a decision to build a new museum in Las Cruses but my interest was piqued to take another look at Fort Stanton.

   Sanchez gave me a great tour, pointing out areas that had deteriorated since Gov. Johnson pulled the plug 13 years ago and areas that have been improved recently.

   The parade grounds, inside the main quadrangle are as beautiful as ever with lush grass. Most of the Victorian-style stone buildings around the quadrangle are in decent shape, well painted and feature porches with white columns.

   Current educational and field discoveries are uncovering exciting new details. Recent oral history interviews have verified hidden underground rooms made by World War II Nazi prisoners that contained Nazi flags, photos and paintings of Hitler.

   In late 1939, a German luxury liner was scuttled in the Caribbean rather than have it fall into British hands. An American ship rescued the crew. Over 400 men of fighting age were detained, but not as prisoners, since we weren't at war yet. The captain of the ship was given his choice of where he wanted his men detained and he chose Fort Stanton.

   The Germans remained throughout the war and were housed just across the Rio Bonito from the fort, which at the time was a tuberculosis hospital for Merchant Marine seamen.

   Later Japanese American detainees and then, a tough group of Afrika Corps Nazis. That likely was the source of the Nazi memorabilia, which was burned by locals as soon as it was discovered after the war.

   Sanchez believes there is a good chance more secret underground rooms may still be found. She is encouraging federal agencies to use ground penetrating radar to locate additional underground rooms.

   Oral history interviews also have revealed rumors of the existence of a large dump area where wagons filled with saddles, spurs and other supplies were buried when the fort was decommissioned by the Army in 1896.

   Besides providing protection in its early days, the fort also provided economic opportunities, jobs and social activities for Lincoln County residents. It played a decisive role in the Lincoln County War of 1878. Even though it was supposed to be a peacekeeper, it took the side supported by the Santa Fe Ring.

   Shortly after taking office, Gov. Johnson decided the fort was too expensive to keep open for health missions. He shut it down, throwing 200 Lincoln County residents out of work.

   He wanted to convert it to a minimum security prison. Residents said anything but that so Johnson  put it on the market for a $1 million a year lease. The state advertised it nationally but used forts are hard to market.

   A museum and conference center type of usage is probably most appropriate for the facility. A living history museum with daily reenactments would be ideal, but expensive.

   It's unfortunate the Veterans Task Force couldn't visit the fort prior to its final decision.

WED, 9-24-08


JAY MILLER, 3 La Tusa, Santa Fe, NM 87505

(ph) 982-2723, (fax) 984-0982, (e-mail)



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