Fort Logan bore witness to Western history

Beyond veterans’ cemetery is old Army post dating to 1880s

Posted 5/21/19

Mention Fort Logan to most people in the Denver area, and they’ll picture Fort Logan National Cemetery, where thousands of America’s veterans lay beneath rows of precisely-laid headstones. But …

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Fort Logan bore witness to Western history

Beyond veterans’ cemetery is old Army post dating to 1880s

Posted

Mention Fort Logan to most people in the Denver area, and they’ll picture Fort Logan National Cemetery, where thousands of America’s veterans lay beneath rows of precisely-laid headstones.

But just up the hill from the solemn silence of the cemetery is the old Army fort itself, now hosting an array of mental health facilities, where much of the stately 19th-century architecture still stands.

Tucked away in far-south Denver near Sheridan Boulevard and Quincy Avenue, Fort Logan is “a place where you can step out of your car, take a moment to reflect, and envision the contributions of men who helped make Colorado,” said Bart Berger, whose great-grandfather Col. Henry Merriam once commanded the fort.

Visitors today can wander the fort, taking in the grand Victorian buildings of Officers’ Row, or pay a visit to the fort museum to gain a better sense of a place that played a role in pivotal moments of the American saga.

A growing nation

By the 1880s, with the Transcontinental Railroad nearly 20 years old and the West’s indigenous people forced onto reservations, the Army was looking to close and consolidate its far-reaching network of pioneer-era forts, said Dr. Jack Ballard, a retired Air Force Academy history professor whose book “Images of America: Fort Logan” is one of the few sources that deals at length with the fort’s history.

Denver, by then a rapidly growing metropolis, seemed a natural location for a new urban-type fort, Ballard said, and “Denver leaders campaigned hard for the fort. It represented a huge economic boost.”

The first troops at what would become Fort Logan arrived from Kansas in October 1887. Named for Civil War general Alexander Logan, the fort soon began taking in soldiers from around the West. Col. Merriam, who would be the fort’s longest-serving commander, arrived with troops from Wyoming’s Fort Laramie in 1889, Ballard said.

Fort Logan’s soldiers soon found themselves part of history. In 1890, Merriam and six companies deployed by train to South Dakota, where they were to join hundreds of troops encircling fleeing Lakota after soldiers killed Chief Sitting Bull, Ballard said.

Merriam’s troops were en route to South Dakota on Dec. 29, 1890, when American troops massacred upward of 300 Lakota men, women and children at Wounded Knee, and Ballard said Fort Logan troops did not take part in the killing.

Fort Logan’s troops served as strikebreakers during several labor conflict in the 1890s, including during the nationwide Pullman railroad strike of 1894, according to historian Almont Lindsey. Troops from the fort traveled to Trinidad in southern Colorado, where they protected deputy marshals as they arrested dozens of union leaders. They would be put to use amid other labor strife in northern New Mexico.

The fort also became home to a piece of high-tech equipment in the 1890s: an aerial observation balloon, manned by daredevil aerialist and tightrope walker Ivy Baldwin.

Baldwin and the balloon — dubbed the General Myer — deployed with troops from the fort to Santiago, Cuba during the Spanish-American War in 1898, though the balloon was soon shot down by Spanish artillery.

A new century

As America’s military priorities increasingly shifted overseas in the 20th century, Fort Logan took on new life as a recruitment depot, Ballard said.

“By the time of the First World War, the countryside was starting to fill in, and there wasn’t enough room to maneuver,” Ballard said, but the fort proved invaluable as the country mobilized for the war.

Thousands of recruits and draftees mustered at Fort Logan, filling rows of tents stretching across the grounds before heading out to coastal military bases to be shipped overseas.

New Deal-era work programs shored up and expanded Fort Logan’s facilities during the period between the World Wars, Ballard said, before reaching a new fever pitch as American involvement in World War II loomed.

The fort became a subpost of the Army Air Corp’s Lowry Field on the east side of Denver, according to Ballard, and later added a convalescent hospital. As many as 5,500 men were stationed at the fort during the war, with many training as clerks.

Many temporary buildings were added to the fort grounds during the war — mostly temporary wooden structures, of which few remain.

After the war, the fort was declared military surplus, and used for a time as a Veterans Administration hospital, before eventually being handed over to the State of Colorado in 1960 to become a mental health hospital.

Place of healing

Today, the fort’s idyllic grounds make for a therapeutic environment for patients dealing with mental illness, said David Polunas, the director of the Colorado Mental Health Institute at Fort Logan.

“Having dozens of acres with mature trees and big grassy areas is a calming, healing environment for our patients that you might not easily find elsewhere in the Denver suburbs,” Polunas said. “It’s quiet and spread out in a way few other facilities are.”

The hospital currently has 94 beds for persistently mentally ill patients, Polunas said, down from about 400 beds when the facility opened — part of a nationwide effort toward moving mentally ill patients out of inpatient facilities.

Many of the buildings on Officers’ Row are used by an addiction treatment program run by the University of Colorado School of Medicine, Polunas said, and staff and patients alike take pride in the campus’s legacy.

“We’re stewards of that history,” Polunas said.

The hospital itself has its own significant history, Polunas said, as a forerunner in what were in the 1960s new concepts in mental health treatment, focused on quality of life.

“It was a response to the dungeon-like atmosphere of earlier institutions,” Polunas said. “We have a deep respect for the history of this place, and are proud to shepherd it into the future.”

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