LAS ANIMAS, Colo. (CBS) – Among the Colorado historical sites making this year’s list of Colorado’s Most Endangered Places is a place seeped in tragedy and pop culture: Fort Lyon.
“If the rocks and old buildings could talk, there’s a lot of good and bad and ugly and pretty things that have happened in this part of the state,” explained John Carson.
Carson is a man who knows a bit about Fort Lyon on a personal level; his great-grandfather Kit Carson died at the fort.
Fort Lyon is closely linked not only to Kit Carson, the hero of dime novels, but also Bent’s Fort. Bent’s Fort was a supply center for the Army and those explorers.
“Kit, the Bents, St. Vrain all those old guys came out here wanting to be mountain men fur trappers,” Carson said.
In the middle of the 19th century, Colorado’s Eastern Plains were the front line of the Western expansion.
“At that time the government was setting up a whole series of forts up and down the Santa Fe Trail,” said Carson.
That included Fort Lyon, established along the Arkansas River in 1860.
“The original Fort Lyon played an extremely important role in the transition of the symbiotic trading relationship that existed here starting at Bent’s Old Fort in the 1830s,” said Alexa Roberts with the National Park Service.
But four years after being built, the history of Fort Lyon took a dramatic turn when it became the launching point for perhaps the most infamous military campaign in Colorado history, the Sand Creek Massacre.
A total of 163 Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians, most of the women and children, were killed in a military campaign which fueled uprisings that lasted for 30 years, ensuring a heavy Army presence in the region.
Then came the flood of 1867, washing away the original Fort Lyon.
The rebuilding started with two-story adobe houses known as Officer’s Row.
“These buildings represent that transition or the contiguity of that whole story from Bent’s Old Fort to Bent’s New Fort to the original Fort Lyon to the continuation of Fort Lyon,” Roberts said.
When the Indian Wars finally came to an end in 1897, the U.S. Army abandoned the fort and the U.S. Navy moved, turning the fort into a medical facility.
“In early days, it was a tuberculosis hospital,” said Bent County Commissioner Bill Long. “But after World War I it slowly became more of a hospital for those in need of psychiatric service.”
Fort Lyon continued in that hospital role until 2001 when it became a minimum security prison. In 2011 state budget cuts closed the prison and shuttered the fort.
Now Bent County is hoping to return it to a medical mission by serving veterans as a homeless rehabilitation center.
“Our biggest challenge right now is getting this idea funded,” Long said.
And doing it quickly.
“If this place is abandoned it will be — I’m quite sure — looted. Just the daily maintenance you do at your home would not be taking place.”
The hope is to save Fort Lyon and make it as indelible on Colorado history as its long ago visitor Kit Carson remains.
“You don’t need the old dime novels that were written about Kit,” said Carson. “You don’t need the glorified stories because if you read true history, it’s amazing how folks survived and what they had to overcome here.”
Watch more video reports about more of Colorado’s Most Endangered Places.