FORT LYON, LAS ANIMAS
Since 1997, Colorado Preservation, Inc. has produced an annual Colorado’s Most Endangered Places List to build awareness of, and assistance for, historically significant places within the state that are in danger of being lost. Of the 96 sites that have been named to the List since its inception, 32 have been designated as Saved, 41 are In Progress, 18 remain in Alert and 5 have been Lost.
Five diverse, but very significant, sites were selected this year that need special help. Demolition, neglect, natural forces, land value fluctuation, and unsympathetic owners are the forces that typically threaten historic buildings and significantly increase the danger to the unique places that link us to Colorado’s past. These are the special places that define our communities and form the foundation for our collective identity as Coloradans in the future. Colorado Preservation, Inc. devotes staff time and resources to raise funds and rally concerned citizens so that Listed sites can be Saved. Fort Lyon was among the sites Listed, a comprehensive list of Listed sites can be found at, http://coloradopreservation.org/programs/endangered-places/.
Fort Lyon is located along the Historic Santa Fe Trail, at a location where historically the Arkansas River had a pronounced bend, about 20 miles west of Bent’s New Fort. Fort Lyon was completed by the Army in 1867, with the period of significance extending to 1956. This was about 30 years after the founding of the major international commercial artery which connected the United States with Santa Fe, Mexico’s northernmost trade center. Due to the subsequent construction of the John Martin dam, dike, and reservoir, the visual relationship of the Fort to the river has been lost. However, the dike does bend around the site in a configuration reminiscent of the historic river bend. Old Fort Lyon was notable as the staging post used by Colonel John Chivington in 1864 as he led an attack by the Third Colorado Cavalry and other forces on friendly Cheyenne and Arapaho camps that became known as the Sand Creek Massacre.
Key organizing elements of the site are the central Parade Ground, the Gate Road, Northeast (or Cemetery) Road, and the Arkansas River. The historic district is a 560 acre parcel, and the Character-defining features of the historic district as a whole are the: Main Entrance, Parade Ground, Officer’s Row, Medical and Administrative Buildings (on the Parade Ground), Residential Areas, Utility Area, Wastewater Treatment Area, Recreational Facilities, West Farm, Road System, Agricultural and Irrigation Components. The history of Fort Lyon can be separated into 3 periods beginning with the Army Period (1868-1888) when the Fort was laid out in the tradition of a late nineteenth-century western military fort. Next was the Navy Period (1907-1922) when the Fort was used as a tuberculosis treatment facility, then the Early VA Period (1922-1956) when the Fort was maintained as a tuberculosis treatment facility, and later changed to be a residential care facility for veterans with neuro-psychiatric needs, extending until 2001.
During the Navy Period the abandoned post was redeveloped as a hospital for tubercular sailors and marines, and according the National Register Historic District Nomination, “the most significant period in Fort Lyon’s history.” This is when the long-term shift to a health-care focus began and came to fulfillment. During this time, the facility was expanded and became an important element in a national system of naval medical care.
The early VA period marks a second period of significance in the history of Fort Lyon. There were several phases encompassed during this period including: the continuation of tuberculosis treatment on a broader military scale, and the replacement of that program with a neuro-psychiatric treatment program. In addition, the facility took on a shape that conformed to a national model of Verternas’ Administration hospital complexes, while maintaining the core layout.
Though the Army Period at Fort Lyon marks the earliest period of significance it is ranked as the third. The Army first established a post at the site in 1867, and occupied the site for 22 years. Interestingly, the “New” Fort Lyon was the second post of the name in the Arkansas Valley, the first one, founded in 1860, having been flooded beyond recovery in the spring of 1867.
The Fort is an important part of the area’s early history and demonstrative of the opening up of the West. The Colorado Department of Corrections has vacated the entire facility and the Fort’s future is uncertain. Ideally, a new owner and use will be found for the facility that highlights the importance of the site and maintains the overall integrity and historical significance of the entire Fort Lyons complex. Currently, lawmakers are considering a proposal from the governor to use the former prison as a voluntary treatment center for the chronically homeless, especially veterans.
We need your help to encourage the legislature of the benefits of re-purposing Fort Lyon. Read more about HB13-1261 and this proposal here.
 Reference made throughout the article to: National Register Historic District Nomination, Fort Lyon; Las Animas, Colorado, U.S. Naval Hospital, Site ID: 5BN.117, May 5, 2004.