Above: Cecilia Bell, president of the Fort Bayard Historic Preservation Society,
in front of her group's bunting-clad museum near Silver City

YOU FEEL IT IN THE QUIET MOMENTS especially, moments that stretch as long as the shadows across the parade ground when the evening sun slowly cedes its dominance to the night. There’s something special here. Something in the buildings and streets and open spaces left from the varied ambitions this place has served over its 150-year history—first a post–Civil War Army fort, then the first significant Army tuberculosis hospital in the country, which later fell under the direction of the Veterans Administration, and later still a hospital and long-term care facility run by the state. You sense it in the grandeur of the mansions that stand in formation before the parade ground, stately houses with white porches and red roofs that once housed Army doctors and their families. You smell it drifting down from the Arizona cypress trees that lined what was once the driveway to the Army hospital, their evergreen beauty giving hope to the tuberculosis patients who left their homes and families and put their faith in the dry desert air.

Fort Bayard, gently resting in the brown hills east of Silver City in southwestern New Mexico, has that elusive, almost sacred quality that settles over places of serenity and reverence. Fort Bayard has presence. Today the buildings are still, the parade ground silent. Fort Bayard is empty. Not abandoned, exactly, but not occupied, either. Instead it seems to be—I can’t find a better way to put this—waiting.

Many times during my visit, I have found myself lingering on the grounds. Even when I was done reporting for the day, I’d remain. Not for any purpose that I can identify, but just to be there. To walk the parade ground, where uniformed troops would have displayed their pomp and readiness. To stand before those grand mansions on Doctor’s Row and bask in their commanding stature. To sit quietly on the bench next to the museum and listen to the birds in the trees around me.

I was never alone. There was always Corporal Clinton Greaves, a soldier here in the late 19th century, immortalized by a statue in the center of the parade ground, rifle in hand, turning sharply to forestall an Indian attack, poised in a depiction of the very moment of action that earned him the Medal of Honor back in 1879.

And the stories I had heard kept me company, too. Like those from Patsy Miller, a spry 90 years old, who shared with me her memories of working as a nurse at the hospital. She started as an operating room supervisor in 1958, went away for a bit, but returned in 1962, and stayed until 1993. Those dates spanned the period when the site transitioned from the auspices of the VA to the state. Patsy was one of only a handful of nurses to cross that divide—she, in fact, hired most of the state nursing staff and flew with the National Guard helicopter crew to and from the state hospital in Las Vegas, New Mexico, to transport patients here. She remembered the parades on the Fourth of July as they circled the parade ground, the clack of her shoes as she walked down the hospital hallways, and making the rounds to give tuberculosis patients their shots while they joked, “Roll over! Target practice time!”

That’s probably why, as I’ve wandered the grounds, I’d find myself looking twice at a shadow in an upstairs window. Or turning quickly at an unexpected sound behind me, missing whatever it was by a fraction of a second. My mind, in deference to the strength of the memories that have accumulated here, never once questioned that one of those memories might actually manifest. You don’t need imagination to see into the past at Fort Bayard. You just need quick reflexes.

Despite the peeling paint, despite the broken steps, despite the stray cats that wander the streets in search of rabbits, Fort Bayard retains a sense of dignity.

Now the fort is undergoing another transition. The state of New Mexico, which owns the property, tried selling it a few years ago but had no takers. Recently, the General Services Department opted to begin demolition of the 1922 VA hospital building, no longer needed when the hospital moved to another location nearby. The state is considering options for the site. So Fort Bayard will have a future. But until that’s decided, it just has to wait.

Ft Ftbayard Mayor

Above: Santa Clara mayor Richard Bauch hopes to turn
Fort Bayard into a destination for history buffs

On my very first day visiting the fort, I get lost. It’s an enormous place, with more than 70 buildings, most empty, like the nurses’ quarters, houses where the hospital staff lived, storage and maintenance buildings, and the large, three-story VA hospital. Unlike so many military installations in New Mexico, artisanally sculpted from muddy earth and just as diligently unsculpted by wind and rain over time, the wood and brick buildings of Fort Bayard remain intact, if a bit worse for wear.

Somehow I end up at my destination: the Fort Bayard Museum, housed in one of the old three-story mansions that distinguish the site. The Fort Bayard Historic Preservation Society has been allowed to use this building as a museum. They do so, however, without electricity or running water.

Inside, I meet Cecilia Bell, a former history professor at Western New Mexico University in Silver City and the president of the society. Cecilia and the other society members are dedicated to preserving the fort and its history. Through the museum, tours of the property, and the annual birthday celebration for the fort in August and Fort Bayard Days in September, they hope to keep this historic site alive.

For some of the society members, that dedication comes from a very personal place.

“A lot of the members had a relative at Fort Bayard,” Cecilia tells me, referring to the VA or state-run hospital—indeed, the hospital is an important part of the last memories many have of their loved ones. “So it makes a difference,” she says.

Cecilia ushers me into an adjoining room, where volunteer Bill Kupke gives me the historical overview of Fort Bayard. Established on August 21, 1866, the fort was one of several built to protect settlers on the frontier, and specifically the mining camps in this area. Soldiers with Company B of the 125th U.S. Colored Infantry, men sometimes referred to as Buffalo Soldiers, first garrisoned the post. They saw duty, with other companies, on scouts and campaigns against the Warm Springs Apache as part of the larger effort known today as the Indian Wars. Soon-to-be-famous Army officer John J. “Black Jack” Pershing (then a second lieutenant) served here in 1886, when the Army set up a series of heliographs, including one at the fort, to relay messages between frontier posts via sunlight and mirrors. It was his first post after graduating from West Point.

In 1899, after the frontier had quieted, the fort switched duties and became an Army hospital for the treatment of soldiers with tuberculosis. That’s also the time the grand mansions were built, replacing earlier officers’ quarters, to house Army doctors and their families. Not long after, in 1922, the site was transferred to the Veterans Administration, where it continued to treat tuberculosis patients. The large hospital—the one slated for demolition—was built at that time. Fort Bayard became a state hospital and long-term care facility in 1965. But in 2010, patients were transferred to the modern Fort Bayard Medical Center, just outside the post, and the fort itself was left empty.

Cecilia and Bill take me on a tour, which Bill tells me will focus on the military history of the fort—Cecilia’s husband, John, a doctor who worked at the state hospital, is better with the medical tour, and I’ll get that tomorrow. I’m struck by the implication: There’s so much history here, I need two different tours to get all of it.

It quickly becomes clear, though, that it’s not possible to separate the histories here. They are entwined. So, while we visit the site of the original sally port, the fort’s entry point and one of the first buildings built when the fort was established but, sadly, no longer standing, Bill also notes the former location west of there where soldiers who had been exposed to gas during World War I were treated. And while we cross the parade ground where troops would have assembled in the late 19th century, Cecilia tells me about Dr. George Bushnell, the Army doctor who became commander here at the beginning of the 20th century, after military operations had ceased. Bushnell, who was the leading expert on tuberculosis at the time, and who ironically suffered from it himself, believed in the power of beautiful things to aid in healing. So he planted splendid and exotic trees around the installation and turned the former parade ground into a landscaped open space where patients in the Army hospital could bring chairs and sit in the shade of pine and cedar trees. Patients at the VA and state hospitals in later years enjoyed that same shade.

At the far end of the parade ground, I find myself lingering at the informational sign with the slightly blurry black-and-white photo of a band practicing on the otherwise empty parade ground back one day around 1885. Something about that long-lost moment reaches out to me. I try to hear the sound: woodwinds and brass and a drum joining together in harmony against a march-time rhythm, the melody inspiring and rallying the troops to their duty.

But it’s another sound entirely that comes to dominate my time at the fort. Leaving the museum that afternoon, I’m startled by a crashing sound at the end of the old hospital building. A yellow Caterpillar excavator reaches its long metal arm out toward the building, while several people holding walkie-talkies and wearing hard hats watch from a short distance away.

By coincidence, I’ve happened here on the very day that demolition of the hospital has begun.

After a moment, Cecilia joins me in the grass. She didn’t know the demolition would begin today either, and I can see that the loss of one of the historic buildings is a tough moment for her.

“Sad,” she says to me quietly. “Very sad.”

Others have gathered, too—Cecilia knows most of them, friends of hers from town, who share her love for the place. The demolition will have an audience. In fact, throughout my time at the fort, people would come in steady streams throughout the day and into the evening to watch.

The operator uses the claw at the end of the excavator to push against the building. Once the wall is breached, the claw ventures in and grasps pillars, metal girders—one time an entire floor at once—dismantling the building by literally pulling it apart. Sometimes, metal rods pulled from the wall pop through the cement in quick succession, making a sound like firecrackers.

After a bit, the people who have gathered move on. I watch until one whole corner of the building is gone, but that’s as much as I can endure. I hastily depart, leaving Corporal Greaves alone on the parade ground to watch.

The next morning, I piggyback onto the medical tour that Cecilia’s husband, John, is giving. All the while, the demolition continues at the hospital, sending loud crashing noises across the post. John does his best to raise his voice above the din, and the group huddles tightly around him to hear.

We stop near the placards in front of the north wing of the old hospital, not yet reached by the demolition crew. John tells us about the scourge of tuberculosis, a leading cause of death in the early 1900s. Absent a cure, the treatment at the time was to isolate the infected and offer them rest, sunshine, and good nutrition. He points out the photo on an informational sign of tuberculosis patients sitting outside and using small handheld mirrors to direct sunlight into their throats as part of their therapy.

The soldiers in the photo are sitting on the very same terrace of the hospital that’s directly in front of us.

“You’re going to be some of the last people to see that terrace,” John tells us.

The group wants to see the inside of the theater, built by the Depression-era Works Progress Administration—the only other building the society is allowed to enter.

It’s a grand place, with a large stage at the south end, used as both a movie theater and a performance space; Army doctors and their families would sometimes act in plays they wrote themselves. The society has put up wall displays with information about notable people in the history of the fort. Like the Reverend Allen Allensworth, an African American officer, born a slave, who learned to read as a child and went on to become an Army chaplain. He arrived at Fort Bayard in 1888, ignored the fact that white soldiers would not salute him, and developed a successful program to teach soldiers to read. And Josephine Clifford, the first officer’s wife to live at Fort Bayard, back in 1866, who spent most of her time trying to escape her abusive husband, a terrible man who more than once tried to kill her. She succeeded in joining a military wagon train home to St. Louis, then later moved to California, where she was granted a divorce and went on to write many stories of frontier life. Cecilia portrays Josephine during historic reenactments at the fort.

Finally, one visitor asks the question everyone is wondering.

“What’s going to become of this place?”

I suspect that John, a doctor, is not too comfortable with ambiguity. But that’s the best anyone can do right now.

“I just don’t know what’s going to happen,” he confesses.

Nobody does at this point. And so Fort Bayard exists today in a sort of historical purgatory, trapped between the desire to preserve our history and the sometimes prohibitive costs of doing so. But there are ideas that bridge the gap.

One proposal that’s gaining traction comes from the nearby village of Santa Clara, a town of some 1,600 people located literally across the street from the fort. The two locations share boundaries and histories. During the time the fort was an active military installation, Santa Clara—known then as Central City—became the social hub for soldiers, who took a shortcut through an arroyo to get to town.

Santa Clara provides some maintenance to the fort already, like mowing grass and filling potholes. But town officials hope to do much more. They hope, in fact, to take ownership of and annex the site.

“Fort Bayard is like a small city,” Santa Clara mayor Richard Bauch tells me as we visit in the conference room of City Hall, “and we’re in the small-city business.”

The mayor shows me the master plan the city is writing that outlines their vision for the site, which they plan to present to the state. Developed with public input and help from outside budget expertise, the plan emphasizes maintaining—even enhancing—the historical integrity of what would become the Fort Bayard Living Heritage Park. Where possible, properties would be restored, like the theater and the doctors’ houses, and other facilities revitalized, like the rodeo grounds and the military-era pecan and fruit orchards. New amenities would be blended in over time, including an Apache history museum, riding stables with trails into the surrounding hills, and displays focusing on the area’s mining history. And the idea of “living heritage” would be realized by offering opportunities for participatory experiences, like spending a few days living as a cavalry soldier. At the same time, the plan creates self-sustaining revenue through new opportunities, including an RV park, restaurants, and event hosting.

The plan also restores some of the historical aspects of the fort that aren’t as well known. Like the small masonry dam along Cameron Creek, which would become part of a new wetlands area with public walking trails. And the all-but-forgotten nine-hole “pasture golf course”—a course designation defined by its location in an unmanicured, natural spot—built back in 1925.

I can’t resist. After my meeting with the mayor, I drive to the hill behind the fort and trek down a dirt road into a desert landscape. Giant clouds fill the sky, and everything around me is green and brown and beautiful.

And just when I think I’ve missed it entirely, there it is: a tee.

It’s a block of cement, maybe five square feet, ringed with encroaching bushes but easy enough to spot. Golfers of bygone years—including 51-time PGA Tour winner Billy Casper, who played some of his first rounds of golf here with his locally based grandfather back in the 1930s—would stand atop this block and tee off. I wander farther and find a green next to a juniper tree and a rusty barrel, covered with magnetite from the local mines. Small metal pipes pounded into the ground served as the holes. Amazingly, it’s all still out here, a ghost golf course.

Cemeteries, ironically, can be great places to learn about life. Fort Bayard is the site of Fort Bayard National Cemetery, currently one of only two national veterans’ cemeteries in the state. There I meet Cecilia, John, and society board member Rocky Hildebrand to learn more about some of the soldiers at Fort Bayard.

As we wander the brilliant white gravestones, the first thing I notice is also the most wonderful thing: There are no divisions in the layout of the graves. Not by rank, nor year, nor company, nor race. World War II is next to Korea; 1868 next to 1992; private next to corporal; soldiers who served here are next to soldiers who convalesced here; black soldiers next to white soldiers, row upon row upon row. Even the histories here are entwined.

There are two Medal of Honor winners buried here. Rocky leads us to the grave of Sergeant Alonzo Bowman of the 6th U.S. Cavalry, who received his Medal of Honor in 1882 for a skirmish in a fort in Arizona. The second is Sergeant John Schnitzer, who rescued a fellow soldier during an Apache attack in 1882.

As we walk, Cecilia points to headstones and tells me the stories of the people buried there.

John Givens, a Buffalo Soldier with the 9th U.S. Cavalry, stayed in the area after the fort closed—and even served for a time as justice of the peace in Santa Clara. Walter Foote Sellers, a patient in the tuberculosis hospital who passed away in 1912, looked out upon the landmark rock formation on the mountainside south of the fort and wrote the well-known poem “The Kneeling Nun,” about the “faithful, kindly and patient” sister the rocks resemble. I pass the grave of Simon Link, of the 5th U.S. Cavalry, whose stone includes the word BAND, and wonder if he’s one of the men on the parade ground in that old photo.

One headstone stands apart, both in location and history. It’s that of John William Richmond, son of a lord justice in England. John was a patient in the Fort Bayard sanatorium. When he died, in 1914, his father allowed him to be buried here, among his friends, rather than have his body returned to England.

“On Memorial Day,” Cecilia tells me, “we place an English flag on his grave.”

My last day at the fort, I find myself unexpectedly in one of those quiet, elongated moments. The demolition has ended for the day, and the fort has settled into a comfortable silence. If there’s any echo to be heard from that long-ago band practice on the parade ground, the breeze is carrying it away.

There’s something special here. You sense it in the love people have for this place and the hope they stake in its future.

A sudden movement down the road gets my attention—and this time my reflexes are quick enough to catch the phantom.

A doe and a fawn have ambled down from the cemetery. Cecilia told me I might see wildlife here, like deer and elk and burrowing owls from the nearby mountains.

The doe and I watch each other from a distance, neither side moving. After a moment, she turns her head back to her task, and mother and child begin nibbling the grass. They are unconcerned with my presence. After several days at this place of such abundant history, I understand why. Fort Bayard is alive with the memories of generations of men and women who served, worked, lived, and passed away here. I’m the true specter.

—Contributor David Pike writes about small-town New Mexico. He is the author of Roadside New Mexico: A Guide to Historic Markers (UNM Press).

The Fort Bayard Historical Society will celebrate Fort Bayard Days, September 16–17, with post tours, reenactments, and a presentation on the role of Buffalo Soldiers in the pursuit of Pancho Villa after his 1916 raid on Columbus, New Mexico.

The Fort Bayard Museum has displays and photos that document the long history of the fort. Among the artifacts are medical equipment, a ration book for the Fort Bayard canteen, period clothing, and information on the heliograph machine. The museum is open every Monday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., April to September. Tours are given during those hours or by appointment. (575) 388-4477; fortbayard.org

Want more like this? Subscribe now!