Frontier — Short


We suggest that the Interior Department should create a new type of land use for the West — a historic-preservation area that will allow visitors to see how life was lived on the Nineteenth Century western frontier.  This could be done in one sizeable valley.  This area would be open to the creation of a few new scattered towns and farming areas, on the simple but far-reaching conditions that cars and electricity not be used.  The result would be a string of nineteenth century towns in an extended nineteenth century landscape, on a scale large enough to step into and become immersed in.  Creating this area would bring several advantages to the valley and to the people who use it: (1) It would preserve the memory of pioneer settlement in the West, and of the Indian cultures that were there before them.  (2) It would allow visitors to see how the towns and technologies of the nineteenth century functioned as an integrated whole.  (3)  It would support a wide variety of outdoor activities, with the towns available as support points that do not break the feeling of distance from modern conveniences.  (4) It would create a world-class travel destination, and with it a source of revenue and growth for the local economy.  (5) It would encourage local governments to support land conservation around the towns, as a way of preserving their uniqueness and economic value.  (6) It will provide a new alternative to familiar management approaches whose partisans have now become deeply entrenched in deadlock.

The need for a new kind of historic preservation

The need for a new kind of historic preservation can be seen in the stark contrast between the successful way that the Interior Department has managed the nation’s raw lands, and the way that we know so very little about what the daily life of all Americans in the years before modern technology
Some parts of the old West have been perfectly preserved.  Great stretches of the natural world stand today as they did then, the redrock cliffs and the hidden springs preserved unchanged as wilderness and lovingly guarded by statute.  This is the great triumph of wildlands preservation.

But the civilization, the human culture of this world has vanished oddly, inexplicably, without a trace.  Some isolated buildings have been saved, of course, but the broader texture and feel of that age have been forgotten so thoroughly that we are no longer even aware that we have forgotten them.  We no longer know how a town looked at night when it was lit only by kerosene lamps, or how neighbors interact when they have no television to help pass the time, or what it feels like to walk along the high road from one town to the next without having to keep some part of the mind alert for oncoming cars.  And in this loss of memory lies the great failure of the historic preservation movement.

The historic valley

It is possible to create a new kind of historic area in which these things can be re-discovered.  Six or seven nineteenth-century towns could be founded at intervals in a valley forty to eighty miles long, in such a way that civilization gradually “thins out” as the travel goes farther along the valley, just as anglo civilization thinned out to wilderness along the original frontier.  The towns will be arranged so that each one is a little smaller, a little more remote, and its architectural model is a little further back in the past.  The towns might follow these models: (1) A town of 1914.  (2) A town of 1905, with gaslight and a telegraph office.  (3) A town of 1880, with kerosene light.  (4) A pioneer town of 1850.  (5) An Indian pueblo.  (6) A simpler Indian village of earlier building techniques.  These towns would have resident populations capped at perhaps 500, 300, 200, 100, 70 and 30 people respectively, for a total population in the valley of about 1200 people.

A traveler passing through all of these towns would go fifty miles or so with reasonable support but without encountering a single car or a single electric light.

Having a number of different nineteenth century towns has several benefits.  First, the multiplicity of towns will support a wide variety of outdoor activities, since visitors will then be able to travel among the towns by foot, horse, bicycle, or other means.  Second, multiple towns will permit adjacent but really quite distinct historical periods to be presented and differentiated, showing evolving anglo forms of organization and also showing how Indian cultures had adapted to the same environment.  Third, having several different towns will suggest a solution to the problem of how to make the historic area reasonably accessible to visitors without having it be so heavily and casually visited that its character is lost.  The first town, with its public access by rail, would be reasonably accessible to many people.  The later towns, without public transportation, will be harder to reach and more serene, and life will proceed on less visitor-oriented terms.

A matter of scale

What makes the proposed new project different from current historic preservation efforts is the element of scale.  The historic valley would be built with a geographical vision an order of magnitude larger than today’s historic zones, and this will produce four effects that are absolutely, qualitatively different from anything that presently exists.

First of all, the historic zone will be big enough for the visitor to become immersed in.  It will become possible to stand without distraction in a place where only period-specific things meet the eye.  Wildlands and historic buildings can then be seen with a sense for their true original significance.  Today’s beautifully conserved buildings are all too often surrounded by tour busses, roads, and commercial development, and do not convey a sense of the context and environment they were designed for.  Even in the very best case, when more extensive historic neighborhoods are conserved entire, their feel has still been utterly altered by the proliferation of automobiles in them.  But all that could change if historic areas were larger and more buffered from outside trends.

Second, the reconstructed nineteenth century environment will allow the reemergence of earlier social patterns and earlier ways of doing things.  This is so because the historic area will be large enough to support towns and permanent populations.  And people living with a certain technology will find that this technology leads to certain behavior.  People living in a nineteenth century town without electricity, for example, are surely going to rediscover things like delivery wagons and town laundries and porches with awnings for talking on hot summer days.  And the frontier area is likely to appeal to visitors precisely for the chance to rediscover the complexity and interaction of this earlier set of solutions to the problems of daily life.

Third, the presence of extensive wild lands around the towns will remind modern visitors of the distinctive experience of the Western frontier.  This is important, since the presence of the frontier shaped national attitudes in ways large and small.  It supported egalitarianism and democracy when the country was founded, and contributes to the sense of space and wanderlust that Americans feel today.  Yet we no longer really remember the defining specifics of the frontier experience, the remoteness and sense of distance from established population centers.

Fourth, the towns will be located in a way that will encourage visits to nearby wilderness areas, and so they will foster appreciation of the wild part of our Western heritage as well.  The towns will be appealing starting points for trips into the undeveloped areas, because they will be close to those areas, small and non-modern in their feel, yet still comfortable.  The wild lands will be of two kinds.  Some will lie close at hand, between the towns themselves, perfectly wild but not too hard to reach.  Other wilderness areas will be larger and will be concentrated at the further, more remote end of the valley.  These will remind all visitors of the really quite formidable quality that the frontier once had.

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