A Virtual Tour, And Vault of Information, of Fort Laramie National Historic Site Now Online

A video and archival production brings to life Fort Laramie National Historic Site in Wyoming and offers educators and researchers documents, images, and narratives tied to the mid-19th-century military outpost. NPS screenshot.

A tool handy for national park visitors, educators, and researchers is blossoming under a collaboration between the National Park Service and a non-profit organization focused on preserving cultural sites, one that showcases the power, depth, and usefulness of the Internet.

If you don't like surprises, then this virtual multi-media library being built of National Park System units in the Park Service's expansive Intermountain Region will help take much of the guesswork out of contemplating what you'll find when you reach a park in the region.

But this endeavor is more than just a slide show of park units. It promises to offer a treasure-trove of documents, tours, narratives, and images from various parks that you can quickly access with a few strokes of your keyboard. While it's hard to beat the value of actually walking through a park or historical site, this new tool not only helps you better prepare for your visits, but also is a handy and valuable educational and research extension of the Park Service.

Part of this interpretive engine is a "virtual" tour of Fort Laramie National Historic Site, a site that preserves and interprets a Western toehold for the U.S. cavalry and an oasis for Oregon Trail emigrants. The video tour leads you across the grounds of this frontier outpost in eastern Wyoming and into some of its buildings to show you the life of the soldiers assigned to the fort. At various points narrators, using material from mid-19th-century journals, recount key points in Fort Laramie's history.

The virtual tour was created in a partnership between the Intermountain Region and CyArk, a non-profit enterprise dedicated to preserving cultural heritage sites around the world through laser scanning, digital modeling and other state-of-the-art technologies.

But this production goes beyond merely scratching the surface of Fort Laramie and what you can find there.

With the help of the “Google Earth” computer application, visitors to the website “zoom” down from space to Fort Laramie, on the North Platte River. There, 3-D digital reconstructions show buildings and facilities at different periods in the fort’s history. Other features include a self-guided and narrated virtual tour, with 360-degree photo panoramas from numerous points on the fort grounds. The site also has extensive park archives, an interpretive history, historic and modern-day photos, Historic American Buildings Survey drawings and other records.

“This takes documentation to a different level,” said Greg Kendrick, the Intermountain Region’s assistant regional director for External Affairs and Partnerships. “At Fort Laramie, we are going from two-dimensional, black-and-white photos and ink-on-Mylar drawings to a 3-D digital format. This is high definition and in color, and you can access it online. It’s kind of like going from The Andy Griffith Show of the 1960s to the movie Avatar.”

Under the collaboration with CyArk, Fort Laramie and other NPS units in the eight-state Intermountain Region are being surveyed, or mapped, with portable laser scanners to help preserve their architectural and engineering legacies. The resulting information, which includes high-resolution digital photographs, 3-D models and “point clouds” comprised of thousands of laser-beam dots, will become part of a permanent, secure public archive maintained by CyArk, according to a Park Service release.

You can find a link to the virtual tour on Fort Laramie's home page, or you can go to a CyArk web page and delve into the digital vault that contains not only the video tour but also documents, photos, narratives, and photo-supported GIS layouts of the fort, its grounds, and its buildings. So you cyberally can stroll from the post surgeon's office to Old Bedlam, where the officers were housed.

On the video tour, you can either set back and let the program roll out as it was designed, or you can take shortcuts to various locations at the fort and listen to narrations specific to those locations.

John Wessels, Intermountain Region director for the Park Service, said an important aim of the virtual tour element is to allow park-goers to “visit” areas or features of a park that they cannot get to easily in person or that may be off-limits to the public because their resources are fragile.

“We are excited by this application of the power of technology for two great goals: Preserving our park resources better, and providing park visitors at home and around the world a richer understanding and experience of America’s historic and scenic heritage,” Mr. Wessels said.

CyArk, based in Oakland, Calif., began its park work with an initial pilot project at Mesa Verde National Park in southwestern Colorado. A CyArk team visited three of the park’s world-famous ancestral Pueblo cliff dwellings and recorded every square centimeter with a laser scanner. It is doing similar laser work at Mount Rushmore National Monument in South Dakota and San Antonio Missions National Historical Park in Texas. The wealth of digital content, including 3-D models of historic time periods of the fort, is being produced in a second partnership between CyArk and the University of Colorado Denver’s Center of Preservation Research.

“We are very excited about our partnership with the Park Service to better tell the story of an important site like Fort Laramie,” said Ben Kacyra, founder and director of CyArk. “This project has been a great experience, with the Intermountain Region helping us develop new ways to use digital 3-D to serve the public in an interesting, engaging way. The Fort Laramie project is truly a milestone for us. We look forward to applying this approach at many more sites to come.”

The Intermountain Region of NPS aims to develop the CyArk partnership into a long-term digital documentation program at parks in the region’s eight states: Arizona, Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah and Wyoming. Besides making parks more accessible and relevant to visitors and new audiences, the program goal is for parks and partner organizations to preserve precise digital images and records of nationally significant park resources, the Park Service explained.

With the partnership’s 21st-century applications, data about historic structures and features can be gathered in a fraction of the time and effort that conventional surveys take with hand measurements and handwritten logging of data. Point clouds, for example, convert thousands to billions of laser-beam light points on the surface of structures or geographical features into richly detailed 3-D images. In this case, the structures are the historic buildings and ruins at Fort Laramie, which was founded in 1834 as an outpost of the frontier fur trade. It went on to become a resupply stop for emigrant wagon trains and a Plains military post until it closed in 1890.

CyArk has used an array of state-of-the-art technology to digitally record significant sites of human history, from the ancient biblical capital of Nineveh in Iraq to the 12th-century temple of Angkor Wat in Cambodia. It aims to help preserve such sites by making as much information as possible about them available universally via the Internet.