7 decades of growth, change
January 26, 2012
FORT CARSON, Colo. -- In a warehouse off of Specker Avenue, Steve Ruhnke works, diligently handling photographs, documents and artifacts that represent 70 years of Fort Carson history.
"We have about 2,800 artifacts from the 4th Infantry Division and 800 artifacts from Fort Carson history," said Ruhnke, who has worked as a curator at the Mountain Post since 2009.
A fraction of those artifacts are on display at the Mountain Post Historical Center, building 6012, where Ruhnke and a handful of volunteers have organized exhibits featuring various events from Fort Carson and 4th Inf. Div. history.
"Fort Carson has always been an important training center. The post has fluctuated based on the training needs," he said, reflecting on the important events of the post's seven-decade history. "There's so much."
Camp Carson begins
Just weeks after the attacks at Pearl Harbor, Congress approved the building of military installations across the country. Colorado Springs residents campaigned to bring an Army installation to the area.
The town, which had an assessed value of $28 million, was chosen to host the new Army camp, a contract worth $30 million. William Harden, author of "A History of Fort Carson," said the city purchased 5,533 acres south of the city limits for $36,500, which was to be given over to the Army. The government purchased an additional 29,676 acres from private land owners.
Named for Brig. Gen. Christopher "Kit" Carson, Camp Carson construction began Jan. 6, 1942, and within a few months, barracks, barns to house more than 3,000 horses and mules, a prisoner of war internment camp and headquarters buildings were completed. A hospital and facilities for more than 35,000 enlisted Soldiers and nearly 2,000 officers were also built.
Harden wrote, to meet the July 13 deadline, "huge flood lights were set up, making way for the fury of construction that was to follow. Work went on around the clock despite winter weather, with some grading and other tasks that did not require daylight hours being done at night."
In order for construction to continue at a rapid pace, the camp was designed to fit the contour of the land, hence the banana-shaped layout that still exists today.
In addition to Camp Carson, construction began at Camp Hale near Leadville where troops skilled in skiing, rock climbing and mountaineering trained with the 10th Mountain Division.
Soldiers from the 89th Infantry Division began arriving at Camp Carson in June, a month ahead of the July 15 activation date. Throughout World War II, more than 104,000 troops trained at Camp Carson.According to Harden, "Camp Carson received and trained four divisions -- the 89th, 71st, 104th and 10th Mountain -- and 104,165 Soldiers. Also training here were a Greek infantry battalion, an Italian ordnance company and during 1959-60, several hundred Tibetans were training at Camp Hale in parachuting and demolitions."
New recruits came to Carson to complete basic training. The camp was also home to one of three major POW camp sites in Colorado, with the capacity to house 12,000 German, Italian and Japanese prisoners. At the peak of its operation, the camp housed 9,000 POWs.
"Fort Carson: A Tradition of Victory," published by the Fort Carson Public Affairs Office, states, "During 1944, POWs alleviated the manpower shortage in Colorado by doing general farm work, canning tomatoes, cutting corn, and aiding in logging operations on Colorado's Western slope."
Prisoners earned 80 cents a day for their work and could purchase luxury items, including food and cigarettes, from canteens in their compounds. After the end of the war, prisoners were released to their home countries.
During the war, Soldiers came to Carson to train and deploy. With the end of the war, Carson officials began making accommodations for Soldiers stationed at Camp Carson permanently. Family housing was built for enlisted Soldiers and older buildings were renovated for officers' quarters.
Rising from the ashes
Less than 10 years after Camp Carson was completed, a massive fire almost destroyed the camp.
Reports from the time state the fire began near the Broadmoor Hotel and high winds drove the flames eastward across Highway 115. Despite efforts to dig fire lines, 80-90 mph wind gusts continued to fuel the fire, which destroyed 33 buildings the first day.
Soldiers armed with burlap bags and pack shovels attempted to vanquish the inferno, but it wasn't until the winds ceased that the fires were extinguished around midnight. More than 90 buildings, valued at $3 million, were destroyed or damaged, but that was of little concern when compared to the human cost. Eight Soldiers and one civilian, 14-year-old Harley McCullough, died as a result of the fire. Nine streets on the Mountain Post were named in their honor.
Carson becomes fort
In the wake of the end of the Korean War, a recession and budget cuts, many believed Camp Carson would not survive. However, in 1954, Congress authorized more than $13 million for construction of domestic quarters, new barracks and bachelor officer quarters and Camp Carson became Fort Carson Aug. 27, 1954.
Despite its permanent fixture, urban legends and rumors surrounding the post threatened its existence.
A passage from "A Tradition of Victory" reads, "Just as tales of rattlesnakes and knee-deep year-round snow had almost stopped Camp Carson in 1941, so reports of high respiratory ailment rates in Colorado Springs came close to wiping out Fort Carson in 1958-59. Carson had a flu epidemic and 1,000 people were in the hospital during that time."
Fort Carson survived and was home to the 31st, 8th and 9th Infantry Divisions along with the Army Dog Training Center and the men and animals of the 604th and 605th Field Artillery (Pack) units, which used and trained mules until 1956.
A surge in construction and population came in the mid-1960s at the start of the Vietnam War. Between 1965 and 1967, 61 units were activated at Fort Carson and 29,000 Soldiers deployed for the jungles of Southeast Asia.
"A Tradition of Victory" states, "The economic impact of Fort Carson on the State of Colorado rose from approximately $55 million in 1964 to $100 million in 1967. By January 1973 the economic impact of Fort Carson on the Pikes Peak area was over $340 million annually."
In 2010, Fort Carson's economic impact in the region reached $1.9 billion, according to an independent research company report.
The Mountain Post grew exponentially in the latter half of the 20th century with the acquisition of Piñon Canyon Maneuver Site, 235,000 acres located about 100 miles southeast of the post.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, construction continued at a rapid pace with the conversion of old World War II buildings to "permanent buildings." In 1986, Evans Army Community Hospital opened, replacing the old hospital complex.
Fort Carson also grew in population, with 20,400 Soldiers serving and 2,900 civilians working on post in 1973.
Since the start of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, those numbers grew to 25,000 Soldiers and 5,700 civilians. Approximately 47,000 veterans have retired to the Colorado Springs area, many of whom served at Fort Carson, making it one of the largest veteran populations in the country.
Soldiers and civilians at Fort Carson continue to set and achieve new goals. Post officials accepted the challenge to become a net zero installation by 2020 and will work to reduce waste and develop technologies to produce as much energy as the post consumes.
Officials also remain dedicated to providing care for Soldiers struggling with physical and invisible wounds with resiliency campaigns and plans for a resiliency center to better serve Soldiers in the Warrior Transition Battalion.
Even in the face of budget cuts and drawdowns, Fort Carson is expected to grow with the addition of a combat aviation brigade, which will bring 2,700 additional Soldiers, approximately 120 helicopters and approximately $700 million in military construction projects.
With plans to build a permanent museum to display remnants of Fort Carson's history still in the financial planning stages, Ruhnke works to log, organize, protect and preserve the Mountain Post's history.
"Although the past 70 years has provided an exciting history, Carson will surely add to its storied legacy in the future," Ruhnke said. "I'm sure future historians will be amazed by the continued legacy Fort Carson will uphold and the exciting history yet to be made."