Fort Union Among Nation's least-visited monuments

FORT UNION NATIONAL MONUMENT, N.M. (AP) - "They fought the Civil War ... here? Out in New Mexico? You're kiddin'!"

That's what sightseers frequently say when they happen onto Fort Union National Monument, about 40 minutes north of Las Vegas, N.M.

"We hear that particularly from visitors who travel from the East," said Fort Union's superintendent, Marie Sauter. "Those who grew up back there think the war was fought in the North and the South. Anywhere else wasn't taught in school."

No actual battles were fought at Fort Union, which stands proudly on a side road off Interstate 25. Nor was Fort Union ever attacked. Still, you might think that such a historic curiosity, set along the famed Santa Fe Trail, and near a major highway, would bring minivans by the dozen, especially during the summertime.

Such is not the case.

With 11,070 visitors last year, Fort Union was the fourth least-visited national monument in the country, out of the 75 managed by the National Park Service.

A recent article in the Los Angeles Times revealed the 20 least-visited U.S. national monuments in 2009. Six national monuments in New Mexico made the list.

But Fort Union, established in 1851 as the guardian of the Santa Fe Trail, was the real puzzler.

Though small in size with only 721 acres its land actually makes up two National Park Service sites: a national monument and a national historic trail.

"We're not big, but there's a lot to learn here and a lot to see here," Sauter said.

In its 40-year history, three different forts were constructed close together. The third Fort Union was the largest in the American Southwest, and functioned as a military garrison during the Civil War, territorial arsenal and supply depot.

The national monument was created in 1954 and opened to the public in 1956. Sauter told the Journal that yearly attendance at Fort Union peaked at about 22,000 in the early 1990s.

Sauter said ruts made by covered wagons passing by may be the biggest draw.

But why are visitors today passing it up?

University of New Mexico history professor Paul Hutton said, "I think it's a marketing problem. Fort Union serves two masters. It's not a fort from the glory days of the Indian wars and most visitors there are trail buffs."

Some forts in the country have been restored.

"I would hate to see it reconstructed," Hutton said. "The ruins are quite haunting. I wouldn't change a thing. I've visited it many times, and I think it's a wonderful place."

The other monuments in New Mexico making the top 20 list for least-visited in 2009 are:

No. 11, Salinas Pueblo Missions: 37,848 visitors.

No. 12, Aztec Ruins: 38,899 visitors.

No. 14, Gila Cliff Dwellings: 43,016 visitors.

No. 16, El Morro: 48,245 visitors.

No. 18, Capulin Volcano: 50,935 visitors.

The most-visited national monuments in New Mexico for 2009 are White Sands (471,167), Bandelier (212,544), El Malpais (123,290) and Petroglyph (118,688).

The least-visited national monument? That's Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve, in Alaska. Remote and no stranger to bad weather, Aniakchak only had 14 visitors in 2009.

The reason? No roads will take you to Aniakchak, on the Alaskan peninsula 450 miles southwest of Anchorage. To access this park, you need to hire an air taxi or a power boat. The park encompasses a 6-mile-wide, 2,000-foot-deep caldera formed by the collapse of a 7,000-foot mountain and offers visitors a taste of one of the wildest terrains in Alaska. Presumably, most of the travelers came during the summer.

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Information from: Albuquerque Journal, http://www.abqjournal.com