Augusta Liddic/The Daily TimesAztec Ruins will celebrate its 90th anniversary as a National Monument on Thursday.
Augusta Liddic/The Daily Times Aztec Ruins will celebrate its 90th anniversary as a National Monument on Thursday. (Augusta Liddic)
AZTEC — Although its official 90th birthday isn't until Thursday, Aztec Ruins National Monument celebrated it on Tuesday with a birthday cake and a presentation on the park's history.

Dr. Carla Van West, from the SRI foundation in Rio Rancho, spoke about the history of the park and how Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal projects transformed the ruins.

While today visitors can pass through the elaborate rooms and step inside a reconstruction of the Great Kiva, when the park was founded in 1923, weathering and excavation threatened the structures.

Van West said the initial excavations began in 1916, the same year the National Park Service was founded. NPS made a deal with the land owner and contracted Aztec native Earl Morris to excavate the ruins. Morris in turn hired local men and boys to help him.

The amount of work locals put into the excavations made the community of Aztec feel as if it were their own, Van West said.

But, Van West said, as the "rocky rind" was removed from the structures, they began to deteriorate. Irrigation water from nearby orchards began to seep into the ancient walls, causing them to crack and bulge.

Then, in 1929, the stock market crashed. Van West said that when Roosevelt was elected, 25 percent of everyone who could work was unemployed. Roosevelt promised to get people back to work with his New Deal programs.

Civilian Conservation Corps camps began to pop up around the Four Corners area. Van West said one was located in Durango where Fort Lewis College currently is.


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Another was located in Bloomfield and another near Chaco Canyon. Both Farmington and Aztec benefited from small, one-season camps.

Van West said boys from the Chaco camp and the Durango camp would travel to Aztec to work on the ruins.

In 1934, the Great Kiva was a skeleton of what it had been when Morris first uncovered it. Van West said Morris returned from South America, where he'd been excavating for the Carnegie Institute. He gathered the same men who had helped him with the early excavations and together they began to reconstruct the Great Kiva.

Van West called the reconstruction "one of the most successful reconstruction projects ever accomplished at an archaelogical site."

But, despite Morris' work, the structures continued to deteriorate. Van West said the Durango Conservation Corps workers came down every day to clear out piles of dirt left from reconstruction. As they worked, they built trenches and drainage ditches to try to divert the irrigation water from the structures. Van West said the ditches were ultimately a failure and the water continued to destroy rooms.

Van West said the Corps' Indian Division, which later became known as the Mobile Unit experimented with stablization techniques at Aztec and was able to turn the fate of the ruins around.

The unit started by stablizing walls and rebuilding the parts that had collapsed. Later, Van West said, the unit took photos of the walls and then took the walls apart to put drainage pipes in. Once the pipes were installed, the workers used the photos to be able to place each rock where it had came from.

Van West said the techniques the Mobile Unit developed back in the 1930s are still used today around the world.

And 90 years after being uncovered, the Aztec Ruins are still standing.