Cleaning out the historical closet

Sorting through and discarding some of our historical souvenirs 

by Allen Best

Historical preservation has been in the news recently in Colorado, and I’m by no means uninterested. Since a child, when my father first took me on Sunday afternoon expeditions looking for what archaeologists call projectile points, I’ve been keenly interested in our common backstory. I think most of us are.

But what is worth saving and why? Take the broad, flat valley in the high Rocky Mountains once called Eagle Park. A narrow gauge railroad arrived there from Leadville in 1881. Soon after William Henry Jackson took a photograph that showed a meandering river amid thick wetlands vegetation. Later, a makeshift road ambitiously called the Pikes Peak Ocean to Ocean Highway snaked through the valley, elevation 9,300 feet.

In 1942, the valley became known as Camp Hale, the training grounds for the 10th Mountain Division. Some 300 acres of wetlands were quickly obliterated and the Eagle River yoked into a three-mile-long ditch, the better to accommodate a city that, the following year, was among Colorado’s largest, with a peak of 14,000 residents.

Joe Louis, the boxer, stopped by to entertain troops, as did Jane Wyman, then the wife of Ronald Reagan. German prisoners of war were also held there, incongruously placed alongside Americans sympathetic to the Axis countries. Mischief ensured. Later, during the Cold War, Tibetans were trained by the Central Intelligence Agency to commit mischief in their native land.

The famous William Henry Jackson photograph of Eagle Park in the 1880s, long before it became Camp Hale.

The famous William Henry Jackson photograph of Eagle Park in the 1880s, long before it became Camp Hale.

Buildings were quickly disassembled as WWII ended, although asbestos remained as did unexploded munitions in the surrounding mountains. Today, diesel fuel may remain and perhaps even poisons of 20th century warfare.

In 1991, when I was managing editor of a local newspaper —like every other newspaper I ever worked at, now defunct—I noticed the Jackson photograph at John L. Martinez’s liquor store in nearby Red Cliff. Why not restore the river and wetlands, I wondered in an editorial?

CHS.X6176_Camp_Hale_digging ditch

Digging a ditch for a straight-and-narrow Eagle River in 1942.

Now, a restoration plan has finally emerged. It’s a compromise. Of the original 300 acres of wetlands of Eagle Park, 180 to 270 will be restored. The $20 million to $30 million in work would be paid through a wetlands bank. As wetlands are destroyed elsewhere, they will be recreated at Camp Hale. And the river will meander once again, although the ditch itself will remain, as a historical legacy. “I think we struck a pretty good balance,” says Marcus Selig, director of the Southern Rockies for the National Forest Foundation, the group that moved the conversation forward.

But what does preserving the ditch accomplish? I’m not sure why this is important.

In northern Colorado, high school students in Windsor recently unfurled the Confederate flag on their vehicles. To many who fly it, the flag represents either regional pride or, perhaps, a spirit of defiance.

Call me a literalist, but I see a flag invented to represent something else. The confederate states tried to break free to preserve and expand the institution of slavery. Oh yes, they also argued for states’ rights and economic self-determination. But it all came down to defense of slavery and the means necessary to keep slaves as slaves. That included the right to commit murder and unspeakable cruelties.

If southern pride is the goal, perhaps a flag of a mint leaf? Why not pitch this ugly 150-year-old souvenir?

In suburban Denver, I’ve also been thinking about historical preservation. People who have visited my house would contend I try to preserve everything, especially those curious artifacts of a long-ago era called magazines and newspapers. But it’s the exterior of the house that concerns the city government’s historical arm.

This house was built in 1888, probably as a result of Colorado’s prospering economy produced by the silver mining in Leadville, Georgetown and Aspen. This was not a mansion such as owned by the mining magnates, , but more like their servants’ quarters. It still lacks a washer and dryer. Garage? Not even.

Because the house lies within a designated historic district, I must get permission to alter the historical character. That includes, I am told, the use of white roofing materials. A white roof would reflect the intense heat of summer, reducing my need for an air conditioner. That lowers my demand for electricity produced by the Comanche coal-fired plants in Pueblo, in turn producing less pollution. But for this, I must seek a variance.

What history is being preserved? When this house was built, it probably had wooden shingles. Dark-colored asphalt shingles weren’t invented until 1901.

I like that we preserve history. But sometimes I’m confused about what we’re trying to preserve and why.

This column originally appeared in slightly altered form in The Denver Post.


About Allen Best

Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist. He publishes a subscription-based e-zine called Mountain Town News, portions of which are published on the website of the same name, and also writes for a variety of newspapers and magazines.
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One Response to Cleaning out the historical closet

  1. John Fountain says:

    Allen. Love the blog, just discovered it. About the roof. When doing a total remodel in Moab a few years ago I much contemplated the roof color, especially for heat affects given that I have an attic, a stupid design from any enviro point of view, and settled on galvalume-finished steel. This was a little more expensive than the other stuff but worth every penny to me in both heat and longevity. It also fits into my basically ag vernacular aesthetic interests. Maybe the Histerical folks would approve it. Best of luck. John Fountain

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