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Lasting Impression

Officers at Fort Union presided over the post, arsenal-armory and warehouse depots. (Courtesy of The National Park Service/Fort Union

With most travel restricted to rare and necessary trips to the grocery store, perhaps it is time to come up with an alternative way to visit new destinations, namely via our fingertips, keyboards and monitors.

Sure, there is nothing quite like seeing and feeling the real thing for one’s self, but that’s just not possible these days.

So here is a virtual tour of the now-closed Fort Union National Monument, (nps.gov/foun/index.htm)in northern New Mexico, about 30 miles north of Las Vegas.

The fort, or more accurately forts, as park Superintendent Lorenzo Vigil points out, played a large role in the history of the area.

The first fort, built in 1851, was constructed of green logs that weren’t even peeled of bark.

“It rotted really fast,” Vigil said. “And there were a lot of critters. It was a horrible place to be. Because of the bugs, the majority of the men slept outside in tents.”

Within 10 years, it was replaced by a Civil War-era star-shaped earthworks fort.

“It was the only one in the West and it was 70 acres large,” Vigil said. “The star fort is still here. You can walk around it, but you have to use some of your own ingenuity and imagination to figure it out in your head. You can get the shape, but that’s about all.”

At the time it was built, the Fort Union Hospital was the largest in the West. (Courtesy of The National Park Service )

That fort too had a short shelf life, and the third fort was constructed from fitted stone and adobe bricks from 1862 to 1866. It was the largest U.S. military-built fort in the West, and many of its walls – or portions thereof – are still standing.

It was the soldiers from Fort Union who marched into battle against the Confederates at Glorieta Pass, halting the Confederates’ advance.

Viewed in modern terms, the fort seems to be rather misplaced, because it is in a vacant plain far from any population centers. But its location was strategic, Vigil said, because it was near the two main branches of the Santa Fe Trail in New Mexico.

“It was the middle of Apache country,” he said. “Water was close enough to be foraged. Local goods, like flour, came from the mills in the Mora Valley.”

It was akin to Los Alamos National Laboratory, Vigil said, in that Fort Union was an economic center of the day.

“It was an economic engine for New Mexico,” he said. “That was Fort Union. You had huge contracts. People were being hired to transport goods, because Fort Union supplied 46 other forts. On any given day, you had 2,000 people here, laborers loading wagons, coming and going.”

It was a central fort that served as a post, a warehouse depot and an arsenal-armory, Vigil said.

It was decommissioned in 1891 and slowly deteriorated until 1954, when it was turned into a national monument.

A cold snap several years ago left frost on the plants surrounding Fort Union, creating a contrast with the adobe walls.

There has been no excavation of the grounds or reconstruction of the site, Vigil said, although each year a preventive plaster of mud is added to existing adobe walls to prevent their further decay.

The Fort Union website includes two interesting videos (nps.gov/foun/learn/photosmultimedia/multimedia.htm) that help bring the story to life, as well as several photos galleries showing both current and historical images of the fort, as well as seen through the lens of some extraordinary weather events.

Fort Union served many purposes with many visitors, so the machine shop was consistently busy.

The first video, a 100-year-old, black-and-white, non-audio edition shows the fort as a visitor to the area saw it a century ago. It claims the jail once held Geronimo and Billy the Kid, but that is inaccurate, Vigil said.

“It’s a great short film that gives you an idea of what the fort looked like after it was abandoned and before it became a national park,” he said. “It’s really incredible.”

The second video, “14,359 Sunsets Over Fort Union,” is a polished, modern version giving viewers a sense of the fort’s use and what it meant to residents near and far through the years.

“It’s a really nice set of historical photographs interlaced with time lapsed photography,” Vigil said. “You can hear people drilling in the background. It is the 3rd New Mexico Regiment. It was the regiment that served in New Mexico during the Civil War. The Civil War soldiers drilled in Spanish.”

Virtual tour explains why

West Fort Union was an early economic engine for NM

and the

Lasting impression

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