Fort Bayard, New Mexico: Urban ExplorationSeptember 27, 2011 No Comments
I just love the idea of urban exploration–wandering through abandoned attractions or historic sites with a camera, capturing the eerie silence where once there was life and laughter. I can spend hours surfing the Internet for photos taken by intrepid explorers who sneak into spots that are off-limits. But I don’t welcome the idea of getting arrested. So I confine my own urban exploration to things that are open to the public. Consequently, I was thrilled to discover Fort Bayard, New Mexico, an abandoned military fort that the public is permitted to explore.
About Fort Bayard
Located near the old mining town of Silver City, New Mexico, where Billy the Kid spent part of his childhood, Fort Bayard was established as an Army installation in 1866. Situated on the Apache Trail through the Superstition Mountains, the fort’s purpose was to protect settlers from Apache attacks. The post became a major base of operations for the Buffalo Soldiers, the brave African-American troops who played a prominent role in the Indian Wars of the late 1800s.
Following the surrender of Geronimo in 1886, the Apache were no longer considered a threat. Fort Bayard was set for decommissioning until Army experts noted the site’s incredible health record. In 1899, just before the fort would have been abandoned, the Army opened a tuberculosis sanatorium at Fort Bayard. In 1922, control of the fort transferred to the Veterans Administration and a modern clinic opened. In 1944, German POWs were employed as maintenance workers and paid an Army private’s wage. The State of New Mexico took over the site in 1965, maintaining a hospital on the grounds.
Today that hospital is closed. Medical services are provided at a shiny new medical center along the main road outside the fort. The 1866 cemetery is a designated National Cemetery, and the fort is a National Historic Landmark. But unlike most historic places we have visited, this one remains as it was when it was abandoned.
Dad and I discovered Fort Bayard by accident. On our way to Silver City, we followed an intriguing roadside sign. We had no idea what to expect, but what we found was mind-blowing. We eased the car off the main road, not entirely sure if what we were doing was legal. But at the old guard shack, we found visitor maps in a plastic container attached to the wall. The gates were open, and several buildings were labeled with tourist signs. Yet the place was utterly deserted. Although we were not allowed inside anywhere, wandering around outside was genuinely like stepping back in time.
Neat rows of white duplexes lined the street across from the hospital. A sign informed us that officers’ homes had stood here during the fort’s early years, while the duplexes were built for medical officers at the new hospital in the early 1900s. New homes for married hospital workers were constructed down the road in 1923.
The hospital was extremely cool, but exceptionally creepy. Built at the beginning of the 20th century as a tuberculosis treatment facility, the hospital was modernized numerous times. Each new development was like a new layer of history, and even from outside it was easy to see the signs of progress. But the place looked legitimately abandoned, as if everyone had just up and left without warning. Old signs advertised long-forgotten meetings and events, and it seemed as if at any moment a nurse might roll a patient in a wheelchair out for some fresh air.
Throughout the property, the surprises kept coming. At the well-maintained National Cemetery, a copy of the Gettysburg Address was emblazoned on a plaque. Perhaps one of the most interesting discoveries was the old movie theater. Installed in a converted building in 1904, the theater offered two fireplaces and the most advanced technology then available.
We spent at least two hours exploring the old fort, reading informational signs and taking photos. If your interest is more casual, you could see the highlights in less than an hour.
Tips for Parents
Visiting Fort Bayard is like stepping back in time, in a way that simply isn’t possible at heavily restored historic sites. This is a chance to see things as they were, rather than a modern interpretation of how they might have been. Guided walking tours are offered on select dates. As of 2011, the suggested donation is $3 per person. Private walking tours, at $4 per person, are available by appointment. Visit the official Fort Bayard website for details.
It is obvious that, despite the lack of restoration, those in charge of the facility are proud of their history. The website is packed with interesting information that can help put your visit in perspective, whether you join a guided tour or visit on your own.
The fort is a wonderful place to let kids burn off some energy. The wide open grounds provide plenty of room to play without worry about traffic or crowds. Of course, the fort is a designated historic landmark, and visitors are asked to be respectful. Keep your kids on the main walkways, well away from the buildings. Although the site is maintained, it is an abandoned property, so use caution as you would anywhere else.
If you plan to stay awhile, pick up snacks and drinks before you arrive. The New Mexico sun is intense, and it is easy to get dehydrated. Hats and sunscreen are always a wise choice.