New Mexico Grapples With Future of Fort Bayard
By Margaret Foster | Online Only | June 23, 2009
A former U.S. Army post built by Buffalo Soldiers in southwestern New Mexico is at a crossroads. Currently leased by a medical center, the fort will stand vacant next year when a new hospital opens nearby.
At a public meeting June 8, about 100 people, including state officials, met to discuss the fate of the historic buildings at Fort Bayard. Bill Taylor, director of New Mexico Property Control, the state agency that owns the 468-acre property, emphasized the need for a master plan, and said that next year the state will issue a request for proposals for its future use.
"Fort Bayard could pass out of local control unless a master plan is developed," says Maureen Craig, community development planner for the Southwest New Mexico Council of Governments, based in nearby Silver City. "There are a lot of ideas out there right now" for the site, she says, including a Buffalo Soldiers heritage center, a vocational school, or a park.
In 1866, Congress established the first peacetime all-black regiments in the U.S. Army. The same year, members of the U.S. Colored Infantry built Fort Bayard to hold off Apache tribes and to protect the gold and silver mining communities. Native American tribes referred to the African American troops as "Buffalo Soldiers." (Fort Bayard was home to Cathay Williams, the former slave who joined the U.S. Army as William Cathay, and became the nation's first female Buffalo Soldier.)
Nothing except a cemetery remains at Fort Bayard from the 1860s. Surviving structures on the post all date either to the turn of the last century, when the site became a tuberculosis sanatorium, or to the 1920s, when it became a veterans' hospital.
Of the 80 buildings clustered on a third of the property today, most have stood empty since 2006. Only a few—including the commanding officer's house, which the state has maintained as the hospital administration building, and a 1941 theater, which was updated last year—are in good condition. The majority are deteriorating rapidly: a fire last January destroyed the roof of one house.
"The amount of vandalism that we've had in the last year is unbelievable," says Cecilia Bell, president of the Fort Bayard Historic Preservation Society, which hosts tours, reunions, and annual celebrations of the fort. "The last couple of times that we have given tours we have found [evidence that] people are staying in there. We really need to move on to [establish] a state or national park so we have security."
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