Preservationists in Plain Sight: Bent County Commissioner Bill Long and Fort Lyon

Fort Lyon Pic

Preserving the past, while building for the future, can be a daunting endeavor even for the experienced preservationist. Such was the case in 2011 when Bent County undertook the task of repurposing the historic Fort Lyon campus located in southeast Colorado. Fort Lyon, first established in 1867 as a military outpost adjacent to the Santa Fe Trail, consists of approximately 560 acres and 120 some buildings. Several of the original 1867 structures still stand, including six two-story adobe homes on officers’ row, the original hospital and two stone warehouses. A large American flag still flies at the center of the historic parade grounds.

Fort Lyon remained as a military post until 1889 when it was abandoned. The United States Navy reopened the facility as a tuberculosis sanatorium in 1906 and in the 1920’s, Fort Lyon became a neuropsychiatric hospital operated by the Veterans Administration. Fort Lyon provided medical and mental health services to 1000’s of United States military veterans until 2001. For a short period of time following 2001, the State of Colorado utilized Fort Lyon as a medium security prison.

When, in 2011, the community learned that Fort Lyon was to close as a prison, the bells of concern rang loudly. The economic impact of the closure would be disastrous. But it took only days for the real concern to be realized, an American treasure, the life blood and fabric of our community, was to be vacated. Protecting settlers for 22 years, providing services to our veterans for 95 years, serving the country for 144 years, was it all to end? Vacated without a plan, purpose or future? The preservation and repurposing of the Fort Lyon campus was sure to be a challenge that would require meaningful partnerships, collaboration and the utilization of unfamiliar resources. One highly regarded organization to offer assistance to Bent County for the Fort Lyon preservation project was Colorado Preservation, Inc. (CPI).

CPI, with a long history of promoting historic preservation, has become more than a partner. Fort Lyon was nominated and then selected to be placed on the CPI Endangered Places list in 2013. The CPI Endangered Places list recognizes historic buildings and sites that are considered threatened. Fort Lyon’s placement on the list elevated the awareness statewide of the site and the danger it faced.

During the 2013 Colorado legislative session, legislation was introduced to preserve and re-purpose the Fort Lyon campus. With the large acreage and number of buildings at the site, it was imperative to find a use that preserved the historic integrity of Fort Lyon, while providing a service and benefit statewide. CPI actively supported the Fort Lyon legislation and encouraged legislators to do so as well. CPI’s effort to educate elected officials and staff significantly contributed to the ultimate passage of the Fort Lyon legislation.

As Fort Lyon begins a new mission with Bent County providing for the operation and maintenance of the campus, we look forward to continuing our work with CPI and accessing the technical assistance provided by their staff. Their ongoing support and assistance will be very helpful as we begin the development of the Fort Lyon Preservation Master Plan.

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