Dunes and Dreams: A History of White Sands National Monument

Dunes and Dreams: A History of White Sands National Monument
by Michael Welsh
Administrative History White Sands National Monument
National Park Service
Division of History
Intermountain Cultural Resources Center
Santa Fe, New Mexico
Professional Paper No. 55

Table of ContentsEdit

List of IllustrationsEdit

Figure 1. Dune Pedestal

Figure 2. Selenite crystal formation at Lake Lucero

Figure 3. Cave formation, Lake Lucero

Figure 4. Cactus growth

Figure 5. Desert lizard

Figure 6. Visitors to White Sands Dunes (1904)

Figure 7. Frank and Hazel Ridinger's White Sands Motel (1930s)

Figure 8. Roadside sign for White Sands west of Alamogordo (1930)

Figure 9. Early registration booth (restroom in background) (1930s)

Figure 10. Grinding stone unearthed at Blazer's Mill on Mescalero Apache Reservation (1930s)

Figure 11. Nineteenth-Century Spanish carreta and replica in Visitors Center Courtyard (1930s)

Figure 12. Pouring gypsum for road shoulder construction (1930s)

Figure 13. Blading gypsum road into the heart of the sands (1930s)

Figure 14. Hazards of road grading (1930s)

Figure 15. Adobe style of construction by New Deal Agency Work Crews (1930s)

Figure 16. Hispanic woodcarvers making corbels for Visitor Center (1930s)

Figure 17. Patrolling the dunes (1930s)

Figure 18. Rock Island railroad window display, Michigan Avenue, Chicago, IL (1938)

Figure 19. High School girls' softball game (1930s)

Figure 20. Skiers at dunes (1930s)

Figure 21. Woman "Skiing" on Alkali Flats Lake Bed (1930s)

Figure 22. Interior Department vehicle on inspection tour (1930s)

Figure 23. Alamogordo High School Marching Band at "Play Day" Festivities (1930s)

Figure 24. Tom Charles' touring car for The White Sands Service Company (1930s)

Figure 25. Oliver Lee ranch house, Dog Canyon (1930s)

Figure 26. Drilling for water at Garton Lake (1930s)

Figure 27. L.L. Garton Ranch House (1930s)

Figure 28. White Sands, New Mexico. Laura Gilpin (1945)

Figure 29. White Sands, Laura Gilpin (1943)

Figure 30. U.S. Army Engineer Battalion marching across dunes (1943)

Figure 31. World War II—Era troops at picnic in the dunes (1940s)

Figure 32. Bomb crater in dunes (1940s)

Figure 33. Clay-plated road washed out by heavy rains (1940s)

Figure 34. Medical Corps officers and wives on vacation in World War II at White Sands (1940s)

Figure 35. Army Officers' wives at United Service Organization (USO) picnic in World War II (1940s)

Figure 36. Play day picnic (1946)

Figure 37. McDonald Ranch (1945)

Figure 38. Activity at base of Trinity Site Tower (1945)

Figure 39. Jumbo moving to Trinity Test Site (1945)

Figure 40. Gadget tower prior to detonation at Trinity Site (1945)

Figure 41. General view of McDonald Ranch Headquarters from top of old well derrick (April 1945)

Figure 42. Special tank out-fitted for soil sample collection (1945)

Figure 43. Jumbo being loaded on freight car near Socorro with trailer frame in background (1945)

Figure 44. New Mexico atomic jewelry (1945)

Figure 45. Blueprint for Atomic Bomb National Monument (1946)

Figure 46. Children playing on V-2 German rocket on display in dune (1940s)

Figure 47. Summer picnickers (1930s)

Figure 48. Women golfers (1950s)

Figure 49. Crumbling adobe at Visitors Center in need of repair (1950s)

Figure 50. Ranger checking stream gauge in Dog Canyon (1950s)

Figure 51. Scarcity of water in dunes required use of aging tanker trucks (1950s)

Figure 52. Boy School Jamboree in the dunes (1950s)

Figure 53. Greeting visitors at old portal entrance at Visitors Center (1960)

Figure 54. Desert maneuvers by the U.S. Army (1960s)

Figure 55. Visitors preparing for nature trail hike (1970s)

Figure 56. Expanded museum displays in Visitors Center (1970s)

Figure 57. Science class participant in Environmental Study Area (ESA) Program (1970s)

Figure 58. Opening reception for White Sands Juried Art Exhibit (1970s)

Figure 59. Indian dancers prepare for performance (1970s)

Figure 60. Dunes wedding (1970s)

Figure 61. Horseback patrol (1970s)

Figure 62. Ranger patrol (1980s)

Figure 63. Filming a car commercial (1980s)

Figure 64. Proposed Trinity National Historic Site (1969)


The author would like to thank the many individuals and organizations that expedited the research and writing of this manuscript. These include Dennis Ditmanson, superintendent of White Sands National Monument, and staff members Bill Fuchs, John Mangimeli, Paul Menard, and Jerry Yarbrough (now superintendent of Fort Davis National Historic Site). In the Southwest Region of the NPS, Santa Fe, the author wishes to thank Neil Mangum, Regional Historian, his assistant Art Gomez, his secretary Jo Ann Ortiz, Stella Moya, and Amalin Ferguson, Regional Librarian. At the New Mexico State Records Center and Archives, Santa Fe, thanks go to Richard Salazar and Alvin Regensberg. Austin Hoover, director of the Rio Grande Collections at the New Mexico State University Library, also provided valuable assistance. The National Archives and Records Administration staff in Denver is to be thanked, including Joel Barker, Eileen Bolger, and Joan Howard of the Archives, and Robert Svenningsen of the Federal Records Center. Valuable assistance also came from staffers at the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, DC, especially Robert Kvasnicka. Finally, thanks go to my wife, Cynthia, and daughter, Jacquie, whose patience and good cheer made research and writing much more enjoyable.

Michael Welsh

Greeley, Colorado

April 1995


"Why on earth would you want to go there, it's nothing but sand," my friends said when they called in response to the news of my assignment to White Sands National Monument, "you'll be bored silly in six months." Well that was six years ago and I'm still waiting for the break in the action. The Great White Sands as they were called by Tom Charles, the "father" of the park, can be very deceptive. What appears, at first glance at least, to be a virtual wasteland actually supports a very diverse ecosystem. Cultural resources abound with both a National Register Historic District at park headquarters, and perhaps thousands of archeological sites scattered throughout the backcountry. Dispersed visitation allows travelers the opportunity to experience the park in a unhurried fashion, but total annual numbers rival the nearby, and better-known, Carlsbad Caverns National Park.

By most measures, White Sands should be viewed as a major park operation. It's the largest National Park Service unit in New Mexico. The annual visitation averages just under 600,000. The array of natural and cultural resources is comparable to that found in many areas that carry the "national park" designation. External affairs, due to the required interaction with our military neighbors are exceedingly complex. Yet the park has long-suffered from an "identity crisis," which is reflected in a lack of both the human and fiscal resources commensurate with the need.

Like many, if not most, units of the National Park System, White Sands National Monument was established through the combination of a wide recognition of the unique characteristics of the resources, which exist here, along with the unabashed "boosterism" of the local community. That local support served the monument well in its early days, as evidenced by fact that virtually all of the present infrastructure was in place within six years of the site's establishment. Very soon, however, the region experienced a fundamental shift in its economic base, a change, which had a profound impact on the fortunes of the fledgling park.

In this scholarly study, Dr. Michael Welsh examines the forces that led to the establishment of the monument as well as the extraordinary combination of circumstances, which threatened its very existence during the "War Years," severely hampered development for more than half of its history, and continue significantly to influence park operations.

Dr. Welsh's work is based on his own familiarity with public history in New Mexico as well as his careful review of the documents specific to the White Sands story. Early on in the process it became obvious that we at the park were going to enjoy working with Mike because he shared our enthusiasm for this project. In our opening interviews, for example, he asked what our goals were for this document and I responded that I hoped that he would not only record the history of the site, i.e., capture the names and dates and places, but also help us understand how the present circumstances came to exist. It was a charge that he took very seriously and frequently he would call with a "guess what I found" message. His interest went far beyond that of a typical contractor and was very much appreciated.

Overall, I think Dr. Welsh has captured the essence of the White Sands story. It's a tale of a park born out of seemingly incompatible interests; preservation of a very special place while also securing an important economic boost for the community. It's interesting, and frustrating, to speculate on what the park might have become had that local enthusiasm not been diverted by the overwhelming military development which began in the early 1940s. In the absence of the high energy support provided by Tom Charles and the other early boosters, the park became a strange sort of hybrid whose unique resources were recognized nationally, and even internationally, but which was used mainly for its recreational values locally. The tension between those points of view has shaped, and will continue to influence, the park's management process. Perhaps the future will bring a wider recognition of the resource values represented at White Sands National Monument.

On behalf of the park staff, I wish to extend our thanks to Dr. Welsh for his dedicated pursuit of this story. He truly went above and beyond to insure that the project would be complete.

Dennis L. Ditmanson



This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).