Inside the Capitol

Sunday, March 07, 2010

3-8 Saving Fort Stanton

WED, 3-10-10

SANTA FE - Anyone interested in New Mexico's Wild West history will want a copy of "Fort Stanton: Legacy of Honor, Tradition of Healing." The illustrated history is a beautiful, paperback, coffee-table sort of book by Lynda A. Sánchez, with stunning photographic spreads by David Tremblay. There are over 200 color or sepia tone images that depict the magnificent country and the flamboyant characters who lived and worked at the fort.
All forts have stories but Lincoln County's Fort Stanton has a history more varied, colorful and lengthy than others in New Mexico. It is often referred to as the crown jewel of military forts in the Southwest.
Fort Stanton's long history is due in part to having been built of stone rather than adobe. It seems the adobe making was not going well and there was ample stone in the area so the fort was constructed of stone.
Fort Stanton was originally built to protect settlers from marauding outlaws and Apaches on the frontier but it soon became evident it was needed just as much to put down conflicts between Anglo settlers competing for government contracts.
Billy the Kid was the best known of the characters in Fort Stanton's history but other notables whose lives involved the fort were Lew Wallace, Kit Carson, Black Jack Pershing, George Patton and the famed Buffalo Soldiers.
By the mid-1890s, when the fort no longer was needed to protect settlers, it became a tuberculosis hospital for Merchant Marines throughout the world. From 1940 to 1945, it also served as an internment camp for the crew of a German luxury liner captured by the British in the Caribbean.
Lynda Sánchez takes you through a history of the area beginning with the Clovis culture through the Jornada Mollogon to the Mescalero Apaches. Next comes a recounting of the military beginnings of the fort. And then the Public Health Service years from 1899 to 1953, which were a part of the opening of the desert Southwest to the healing powers of dry air, which conquered the "White Plague."
Following the unexpected and sudden pull out of the PHS in 1953, Fort Stanton went through many uses. Briefly it was operated by the U.S. Indian Health Service. Then it was a hospital for the mentally handicapped. In 1995, newly elected Gov. Gary Johnson closed the hospital as part of his downsizing of state government. For a while it became a women's prison and then a rehabilitation center for drug and alcohol abuse.
During the period the fort was operated by the state, it slowly fell into disrepair as there never was enough money for maintenance.
Soon after Gov. Bill Richardson took office in 2003, he appointed a Fort Stanton Development Commission to suggest alternatives for the use of Fort Stanton. The commission, composed largely of residents from the area, proposed a plan involving a 600-unit subdivision. The plan didn't sit well with Sánchez and many others.
A battle ensued that halted any further thoughts of development and resulted three years later in the establishment of New Mexico's newest state monument. Credit for the new status of Fort Stanton goes largely to Sanchez, who has been dubbed Fort Stanton's Angel. Her passion for preserving our unique NM heritage has become evident to many who have come to know this determined historian.
Sanchez has produced a publication telling not only the history of the fort but including offerings by noted Lincoln County historians, such as Fred Nolan and Bob Utley, extolling the merits of the work Sanchez has done to preserve the magnificent facility in a manner far exceeding any rivals.
Utley, a retired top National Park Service official even proposes turning the entire area into a national historic park. He contends the fort and surrounding area qualifies for such a status.
The book is a great read. Sanchez covers the fascinating story of the captured German ship crew and other German prisoners who joined them later in the war and built imposing facilities that still are standing.
She also tells of the fabulous underground caverns beneath Fort Stanton and how they worked into the history of the area.



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