Memorial for a Ruin: Fort Union, a cultural landscape.

Fort Union is a cultural landscape that stretches from both ends of the spectrum, “from the purely cultural to the purely natural” discussed by Robert Cook in Is Landscape Preservation an Oxymoron? In Fort Union’s case, oxymoronic landscape preservation can also be attributed to its 1954 designation which, specifically stipulates that it be preserved as a ruin. At the time Fort Union was designated, the intention that the site be preserved as opposed to reconstructed was a noble one. However, years of looting, poor initial construction and weather have been erasing the ruin Fort Union was sixty-one years ago. Management has sustained the ruin with “patchwork preservation,” and up until recently, this preservation approach might have prevented its total decay, but inclement weather due to climate change is accelerating damage and threatening the remaining material fabric. If we were ecologists like Robert Cook, we could just sit back and watch Mother Nature carry out her own preservation plan. But because we care for more than ecology, the erasure of the ruin is our problem. As the adobe walls crumble, it is very possible that in the near future the cultural landscape known as Fort Union will only exist through collective memory. To act more in thinking with Boito (less like Ruskin) and maintain the layers of the built fabric would be ideal but since this is a challenge under normal circumstances, and nearly impossible in this case, we must rely on memory to keep the history of Fort Union alive in future.

Fort Union’s historic value is immense; over a forty year life span (1851-1891), the fort underwent three separate constructions (the third of which is most structurally visible today) and served as a depot to the West before trains could transport supplies to the forts and Americans in the West. It was built on the Santa Fe Trail which, was itself arguably established on trails and routes used by Native Americans. It was a hub for the US military fighting Native Americans, like the Apache. One of its last uses was to serve as a collecting station for Native Americans being sent to reservations and oh, it also played a role in the Civil War. If this isn’t the very history that defines America, I don’t know what is!

Would Fort Union be worth mentioning if it weren’t for its natural landscape? Even as a ruin, BJ Jackson’s comment—“But nowhere else are the works of man on such a generous scale, nowhere else do towns and cities stand out so dramatically against their setting”—applies. Should we lose the material pieces of Fort Union and all that remains are the prairies, rolling clouds and the Turkey Mountains (first seen by Native Americans, then by the Spanish and lastly by Americans (and tourists)), Fort Union National Monument will continue to be a cultural landscape in need of preserving.

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Fort Union, View of the Turkey Mountains.

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