This poster was presented at A Century of Design in the Parks Symposium, Santa Fe, New Mexico, June 21-23, 2016.
By J.J. Lamb and Robin Pinto
Colossal Cave in Vail Arizona is a dry, naturally formed, limestone underground system that contains about two miles of passages and rooms. It has been utilized by prehistoric tribes as a sacred site and in the 1800s by adventurers and bank robbers to stash stolen gold.
German immigrant Frank Schmidt took control of the site under a mining claim in 1922 and began to develop the cave for early spelunkers under a lease from the Arizona State Land Department. With the advent of the Great Depression, Civilian Conservation Corps labor and National Park Service design and planning expertise offered an opportunity to improve accessibility to the cave to the public through expansion of infrastructure and visitor resources. Schmidt relinquished his lease on the cave and surrounding lands creating an arrangement under which Colossal Cave would be eligible for a New Deal funded Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) project. The CCC and Park Service built a magnificent stone entrance to the cave, numerous stone and adobe buildings, an extensive trail and lighting system within the Cave, and a large adjacent campground.
Since that early development, the Cave’s management has been led by two local families. That direction has been to preserve the surrounding natural resources and the cultural heritage within the Park. However, under that management style, the Park lost significant visitorship and income following the changes in travel after 9-11 and the recent recession; resources and structures have fallen into disrepair.
The Park is on the cusp of significant change in focus and direction under a new arrangement with Ortega Enterprises, a concession company with numerous operations in national parks throughout the US. The stated goal of Ortega is to create an attractive and financially sustainable adventure park. Numerous new activities in the landscape and reuses of historic buildings are planned. The major challenge for Pima County and Ortega is to make local history and its associated resources relevant to a modern, high-energy society and to protect and rehabilitate those resources. At the same time, they must entice a new and broader visitorship in order to create long-term financial stability while re-establishing its importance to the local residents.
Under new partnerships with the local historical organization, The Vail Preservation Society (VPS), and the History Department at the University of Arizona plan to be part of that successful outcome. Focusing on the preservation of the Park’s New Deal resources and story, we propose that the New Deal designed landscape will attract heritage tourists, make it financially advantageous to preserve not only the buildings at the Cave entrance, but the adobe CCC HQ building that housed a CCC exhibit, camp sites, culverts, roads and promote this New Deal story and provide experiences relevant to that history. The local partnership will strengthen a connection to the community of Vail. Working with Ortega Enterprises, VPS will provide internship opportunities for U of A graduate students to curate the CCC collection, create exhibits and programs for Park guests.