Imagine walking down a trail or beside a riverbank and coming upon an old rusty car sticking out of the ground. Deep in the forest behind the Bader Snyder dorms at FLC, there lie two buried cars with caved-in roofs and hollow windows protruding from the earth.
The rusty cars look decades old. They are mildly dilapidated and covered with graffiti. The interior, except for the steering wheel, is ripped out and full of dirt, rocks, and accumulated trash.
These remains sit in an area called,“The Point,” which is land owned by Fort Lewis College, according to Mark Gutt, the Project Manager for the FLC Physical Plant Services.
Even though Gutt knew the area where the cars sat, he said that in his 22 years at Fort Lewis he had never heard of them.
Why were they there? What was their purpose? And how long had they been resting in the ground?
Dr. Andrew Gulliford, a History and Environmental Science Professor at Fort Lewis, shed some light on the burning questions.
“In the 1940’s and 1950’s, it was fairly standard when ground was eroding to put rusted out, busted up cars, as some sort of material to help stop erosion,” Gulliford said. “People all across America used them to stop a riverbank from collapsing or to keep a gully from getting deeper by putting a couple of smashed cars in the path of moving dirt.”
People used the metal to stabilize soil banks, by acting like rip-rap, Gulliford said.
Rip-rap more typically consists of engineered layers of large rocks or stones that are used to protect slopes and unstable areas from erosion caused by the forces of running water.
“It was cheaper and easier than creating stone rip-rap,” Gulliford said. “Now when we see these cars they’re very inappropriate, they’re ugly, they’re rusty, they’re dangerous and their original purpose doesn’t serve well after decades.”
According to Gulliford, 1950s cars were made out of metal, steel, chrome, and glass.
“The cars don’t biodegrade, they get rusty, and can affect the plants, animals and insects around them and introduce metal in a place where it doesn't belong,” he said.
The cars need to be dug out, moved, and possibly replaced with traditional rip rap to provide a natural and longer term stabilization, Gulliford said. But the process of getting heavy equipment to the site to extract the cars is expensive, and a lot of work.
Marty Pool, the Director of the Environmental Center at Fort Lewis College, thought that the process of excavating the cars might create more of an environmental impact than leaving them in.
“At this point, I would be surprised if they were still leaching any toxic material into the environment,” he said. “It would probably cause more disruption and harm to go in and remove them and you may have to ensure that there was still proper erosion prevention in place.”
The soil would need to be analyzed to know for sure that the cars were no longer emitting material into the ground.
“From more of a historical perspective though, when something has been around long enough, it becomes an artifact of the community,” Gutt said. “It transitions from trash to history.”
Charles Riggs, the Chair and Professor of Anthropology at Fort Lewis College provided some insight onto the acceptance of these cars as history.
“One way to look at it would be to classify the cars as historic property under the 1966 National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA). In this case, a property is eligible for inclusion if it is 50 years old or older,” Riggs said in an email to The Independent. “ It may, however, be a stretch to nominate this property because of what it is.”
According to the National Register of Historic Places, the Secretary of the Interior established a list of criteria for discerning whether a piece of property is eligible for the National Register or not.
“The property must be historically significant, be old enough to be considered historic (generally 50 years or older), and have the integrity of looking similar to the way it used to,”said the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP).
The age of the cars align with this evaluation. Whether the cars are historically significant and still have their original physical integrity or not could be up for debate.
Some may see the cars in more of an artistic way.
Hayley Kirkman, the Executive Director of the Durango Creative District and a Fort Lewis Alumni, shed a personal light on the subject.
“I personally enjoy the nostalgia of coming across items made pre-60s,” Kirkman said. “There's a certain sort of excitement and wonder when we come across "relics" from several generations back and we see how things have radically changed.”
Whether these cars are historically significant or are simply trash, the question of whether they should be removed or not is still open for discussion. Anyone who sees the cars may have their own perspective on them.
“I don't want to imply that all junk is worth preserving, but everyone will experience found objects differently. Some may be outraged, some may be ambivalent, and some may find it to be an absolute treasure,” Kirkman said.