More lives than a cat, Ft Lyon has survived numerous changes and abandonments over the past decades. Ft Lyon was abandoned as a military post by the Army in 1897. The frontier post was shuttered for 9 years. The US Navy acquired the post in 1909 and made it into a Tuberculosis Hospital for sailors. Later it became a treatment center for veterans with mental health issues in 1922. The Veterans Administration opened a Psychiatric Hospital on the former Army post. 2001 saw the VA close the hospital and the Federal Government later gave Ft Lyon to the state of Colorado. Colorado made it into a prison but that did not last long. The prison was closed and the fort is now a Rehab Center for homeless people. The many lives of a frontier place that refused to die.
One can drive through the installation and look at the varied buildings that have been built on it over the years. There are some of the old buildings from its early days where native rock was used in construction. There are tall stately formal buildings around the parade ground and the grass is well manicured. A gate sits on the corner and just a short ways in is a chapel that was built from some of the rock that had been part of the hospital when Kit Carson was hospitalized there and later died. The NE area of the compound is the National Cemetery. Here, there are veterans from the Indian wars, Spanish American, both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam and the Middle East.
Ft Lyon had its beginnings in 1833 when the Bent brothers and their partner St Vrain built a trading fort on the banks of the Arkansas River. The men were merchants and had been trading with the Indians in the area for some time plus Mexico. They had stores in Taos and Santa Fe and later would open more trading forts.
At the time when the fort was built, it was in Mexico and the trade route through here was busy with freight wagons. Bent’s Fort as it became known was in the heart of Indian country. Trade with the Indians for the buffalo robes was a booming business and the travel on the Santa Fe Trail gave the traders an expanding market for trade goods between the two countries of Mexico and the United States. The Mountain Men trappers used Bent’s fort for trading and supplies as they headed into the mountains. It was a busy hub of trade on the Arkansas River.
Hostilities between Mexico and the United States was brewing and in the i840’s, The United States was at war with Mexico. The US military used Bent’s Fort as a staging site for their battles with Mexico. With the treaty of 1848, Bent’s Fort became a part of the United States. The trading post was becoming a adjunct to the Military. Trade was resumed between the US and Mexico but now the US Military had a larger presence in the area. An Indian agent for the government set up office in Bent’s Fort.
With so much government business going on at the trading fort, the government was approached about buying the place. No deal was reached to buy. The fort was closed and Charles Bent went east a number of miles and began building a new fort. Here at this place the government agreed to buy the new fort. Bent’s new fort was named by the government, Fort Wise after the governor of Virginia. With the US Army taking over the post, Bent returned to his old fort and destroyed it. There had been an outbreak of cholera earlier and it was speculated that is why Bent blew his fort up. He also did not want anyone else to use it. Taking gunpowder, the fort was blown up.
During this transition, the Indian attacks in the new US territory had escalated. The Santa Fe Trail travel had almost ceased. The arrival of troops at Ft Wise did not change the attacks on the plains across Kansas into Colorado. 1850’s-60’s was the throes of Indian wars. A peace Treaty had been signed at Ft Laramie, with the Indian Reservation to be most of eastern Colorado and western Kansas. With the discovery of gold in the Rocky Mountains, more invaders crossed Colorado with gold fever. There were more Indian attacks. Ft Wise was a focal point of these skirmishes with the Indians. Ft Learned in Kansas to Ft Wise the Army moved their troops and supplies.
When the Civil War broke out, Ft Wise became Ft Lyon. The government did not want their Army post named after a southerner. So it was named for General Nathaniel Lyon. With the Civil War, the Indian battles became secondary. The US government had tried another Peace Treaty with the Indians. The Ft Wise treaty shrunk the reservation land and gave commodities to the Indians. This treaty did not last long and when the Civil War began the Indians were staging attacks across the high plains. Travelers arriving in Denver had varied reports of Indian attacks and mutilations by the Indians. Outrage at the brutal Indian attacks inflamed many a citizen in Denver. With a Confederate Military detachment marching towards the gold fields of Colorado, Col. Chivington was dispatched by the US Army to stop the Confederates. Chivington and his militia met the Confederates at Glorieta Pass. The battle was short and a decisive victory for the troops under Col. Chivington. The Confederates were thoroughly routed and sent back south.
Retuning to Denver, triumphant, Chivington was incensed by the brutal Indian attacks. The Colonel met with Territorial Governor John Evans and discussed what to do about the attacks. Sometime later after the meeting, Chivington mustered his Colorado Militia and they marched to old Ft Lyon. Here, Colonel Chivington moved about the local troops finding more soldiers to march with him to the Indians camp on the Big Sandy Creek.
Gaining more troops, the combined Militia and Army soldiers moved out for an early morning attack on the Indian Village.
Just five years later the Army would launch a similar attack on the Indians at Summit Springs. They were on a rescue expedition of two kidnapped women. Numerous Indians were killed in the attack and one woman was rescued, while the other captured woman was killed by the Indians. The leading chief was hunted down and killed and the Indian village was burned to the ground. The battle at Summit Springs will be in another chapter.
Old Fort Lyon would not last much longer. It was not well built and it was too close to the Arkansas River, susceptible to spring flooding. A new site for Ft Lyon was chosen to the west a few miles. The new post was completed in 1867 and the troops were moved into their new quarters. The previous year the old fort had been seriously flooded and the troops were ready to move. After they had moved to the new location a detachment was traveling back to the old place and found Indians in the old fort ransacking it and it had been set afire. Today, outlines of Ft Wise adobe walls can still be seen a local ranchers pasture.
The summer of 1870 was the last major Indian attacks across eastern Colorado. Ft Lyon would settle into a quite outpost on the western frontier. The Army Post was marking time until its closure in 1897. The settlers were arriving and the Indians were gone. The railroads had replaced the large wagon trains traveling on the Santa Fe Trail.
For almost ten years the empty breezes flutter through the vacant fort. The Navy acquired and a new chapter was beginning for the frontier Army Post. Soon the place would take on the appearance of a TB sanatorium. Large brick buildings were constructed around the quadrangle for the new patients.
The Navy operated the sanatorium until 1922 when the VA took over operations of the hospital. The former Army Fort was now a mental health facility for veterans. It would remain this way until the federal government gave it to the state of Colorado. At that time the state made it into a minim security prison. The fort was fenced off and inmates were now housed in the buildings. The prison had a short life and was converted again. Fencing was removed and new program was started there for homeless rehab work. Today it is the homeless and their counselors that walk on the grounds of the venerable frontier post.
On the north side of the post is a National Cemetery. They began burials there in 1907. There are soldiers there from the Indian wars to present day.
It is at the end of the road that leads to the chapel. The construction of the chapel used some of the materials from the infirmary where Kit Carson died.
Stroll the grounds, visit with the ghosts of the past, peer back into their day. Listen to the ruffles of times past ebbing across the grasses. There are moments that beg one to pause and look, listen….. let the imagination rum.