Chasing Ghosts at Fort Union National Monument
When the park ranger at Fort Union National Monument asked me what I thought about the site, I told him it was creepy. He said that was an unusual response, one he didn’t get regularly, but that I was the second person that day to call the place creepy. I tried to qualify the statement. I told him creepy wasn’t exactly the right word. The place felt eerie, maybe, sort of ghostly and maybe even haunted.
What remains of New Mexico’s Fort Union today is adobe walls worn down by time and weather. When I was there, it was hot and windy. The sun was out, the sky was huge as it often is in New Mexico and the clouds were perfect. I saw one rabbit and numerous signs warning me of rattlesnakes. The place was mostly empty, with only a few other visitors. When I left for the day, I was outnumbered four to one by park staff.
Between 1851 and 1891 there were three Fort Unions, each built for a slightly different purpose.
THE FIRST FORT UNION
Following America’s war with Mexico, in 1851, Lt. Col. Edwin Sumner commanded Military Department No. 9, which included the New Mexico Territory. He was ordered to revise the defense of that territory and relocated the department’s headquarters from Santa Fe to a location closer to the eastern frontier. The site chosen became the first Fort Union, at a junction of the Santa Fe Trail, which was then a significant transportation route connecting Independence, Missouri, with Santa Fe, New Mexico.
At the time, the Quartermaster Department usually built frontier posts, but Sumner instead assigned the job to his Soldiers. Having been built by an unskilled labor force, the place started falling apart almost as soon as it was built. Soldiers often opted to sleep outside on the parade field in good weather, rather than in their quarters.
Despite the shitty conditions, the first Fort Union remained in use for ten years.
THE SECOND FORT UNION
When the Civil War started, in 1861, the threat of rebel expansion into the southwest pushed federal forces to create a second Fort Union, this time one mile to the east, in a spot less vulnerable to enemy artillery. Over the course of the war, around 3,500 New Mexicans volunteered for federal service, many of them Hispanic. The first of these recruits helped build the second Fort Union.
Instead of the usual frontier fort with structures built around a parade field, this second fort included earthen walls, gun and infantry positions and bunker-style living quarters. It was built by volunteer troops, who worked around the clock to get it done, mostly because the threat of Confederate action seemed imminent.
In early 1862 the fort was finished and by that same summer, Confederate forces abandoned their campaign in the southwest. Still, attacks by Indians were frequent and Fort Union’s location was strategic, located right on the Santa Fe trail. With the second fort turning out to be almost as shitty as the first, the U.S. Army planned for a more permanent solution.
THE THIRD FORT UNION
The third fort included Fort Union, the Fort Union Quartermaster’s Depot and the Fort Union Arsenal. Civilian laborers built the third Fort Union, out of lumber, adobe and stone. Finished in 1867, the final Fort Union cost more than $1 million to build. It’s the remains of this fort, the third one, that’s most easily explored today.
Eventually, the railways made the old trails, like the Santa Fe trail, obsolete, and Fort Union was abandoned in 1891. After that it was left to elements. Looters took everything of value, like the lead window panes, and it wasn’t until 1956 that Fort Union National Monument was established.
Fort Union National Monument is about an hour and a half east of Santa Fe. It’s an easy drive, one that can take you through Las Vegas, New Mexico, where Teddy Roosevelt recruited a significant number of his Roughriders. The road to Fort Union is mostly empty. I even spotted a small herd of pronghorn antelope on the way out. I stopped in the middle of the road for maybe ten minutes to stare at them and didn’t see any other cars. In fact, the only other car I saw on the way out was a van that was driving very slowly behind a kid on a bicycle.
Fort Union is beautiful and weird. It’s a relic, leftover in the Wild West of America’s former frontier. I don’t know if it was the site itself or its history that made me label it creepy, but it still feels almost accurate. There’s a haunting vibe there, for sure, and the place withstood a lot, from decades of abandonment, to Indian raids, Civil War anxiety and the usual rigors of life on a remote Army base in an expanding nation.
Admission to Fort Union National Monument is free. The park is open 8 a.m. – 4 p.m. Labor Day through Memorial Day, and 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Memorial Day through Labor Day.