Fort Windy Endures Through Time

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“FORT WINDY” ENDURES THROUGH TIME
A Visit to Fort Union National Monument in Northern New Mexico
By Eva Eldridge

 

Located in the high plains to the east of the Sangre de Cristo mountains, on the old Santa Fe Trail, Fort Union endures despite an almost constant wind. The wind is so prevalent, the inhabitants called the place “Fort Windy.”

The morning I arrived at Fort Union, the first thing I noticed was the walls of adobe-covered bricks standing like jagged teeth in fields of grass. The second thing was the wind. Wind and water and missing roofs have made their presence felt on the buildings of the third incarnation of Fort Union.

The first Fort Union, 1851 through 1861, was a collection of barracks built by unskilled enlisted men near the base of a bluff to the west of the current site. The men, not knowing proper building techniques, used timber they harvested from the local Turkey mountains. They did not peel the bark from the timber nor let it cure. Buildings were haphazardly placed, and their roofs were not water-tight. Over time, the troops were plagued with bugs, leaking roofs, and falling rotting wood. The men ended up sleeping outdoors when weather permitted. 

The Civil War intruded on the New Mexico territory in 1861. It was decided the fort would not be able to stand up to an attack especially since it was built below a bluff and could be easily attacked from above. The second Fort Union was located about a mile from the first Fort and was earth-sheltered. It took about a year for the second Fort Union to be completed during which the Confederates marched up the Rio Grande. The second fort had a cannon with an arsenal and was designed to withstand an attack.

Fortunately, in 1862, the Confederates were defeated south of Fort Union at Glorieta. The urgent need for a defensible fort was no longer needed and plans for a third fort began.

The third and last fort was designed and built to last longer than the other two. Proper building techniques using adobe, stone, and properly handled timber made the third fort much sturdier. The major function of Fort Union was to be the central provisioning and command location for the string of military establishments throughout the New Mexico territory and help protect the Santa Fe Trail. 

In 1876, the 9th Cavalry, the Buffalo Soldiers, arrived at Fort Union. They stayed for five years and served to patrol the Santa Fe Trail, worked on repairs and improvements to the fort, and assisted in conflicts with the Apache and Ute. In 1881, they were transferred to Kansas. 

The newest Fort Union had the best hospital in five hundred miles. It also had a vast quartermaster depot and stores to supply the other forts. Wagon trains stopped here to resupply on their way west. There was constant activity at the fort until the arrival of the railroad. 

With the arrival of the railroad, the supply depot wasn’t needed and Fort Union closed in 1891. By 1954 when the Nation Park Service acquired the fort, the walls were still standing, but many things had changed. 

The glass from the windows, tin from the roofs, lintels, doors, and any other usable building materials were carted away overtime for other building projects. All that abandoned material was a great resource for the local settlers to the area and over time, the fort was stripped. It was a supply depot while it was active and still provided supplies after it was abandoned. 

With all the protective material removed, the fort slowly melted. The stone foundations and flagstone sidewalks endured. The skeletons of the buildings with their brick chimneys stimulate the imagination on how active and alive the fort was in the past. Now it sits as a reminder of how we pushed our way west.

On the current site, a 60-foot flagpole pokes the sky like the mast of a ship. This flagpole was built in the same manner as they would have built the flagpole in the 1860s, however, the flagpole is only half as tall as the original. The original pole was 120 feet tall. You would have been able to see it from quite a distance. 

Fort Union National Monument is near Watrous, New Mexico, a short distance from I-25. Make sure you take a hat and some water because there is little shade on that plain and the wind blows.

For more information see: https://www.nps.gov/foun/index.htm 

Eva Eldridge is a contributing writer for Big Blend Magazines. Along with travel and lifestyle articles, she also writes fiction and poetry. Visit her at www.EvaEldridge.com

National Parks Arts Foundation

 

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