New floor in place as Ewing-Snell project proceeds

The long hoped for reconstruction of the historic Ewing-Snell Ranch main house took a huge step forward last week with the installation of a floor that accomplishes two things: preserving the historic footprint of the house and starting a process that many hope will lead to a rebuilt structure.

The venerable ranch house southwest of Barry’s Landing in the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area burned to the ground in December of 2015, and various ways have been tried since then to obtain funding for the reconstruction, including an unsuccessful ArtPlace America grant Bighorn Canyon applied for in 2016.

David Peck photo
Chris Finley hands Richard Olsen a hammer as Olsen and Ted Preator place a board against a structurally insulated panel at the Ewing-Snell Ranch Thursday morning. Assisting (right) is Bill Pickett.

In recent months the park sought cultural resources money to clean up the site and construct the floor, funding obtained through the National Park Service.

A four-man crew of Natural Resources Program Manager Bill Pickett, Historic Preservationist Ted Preator, Park Archaeologist Richard Olsen and retired former Park Archaeologist Chris Finley were hard at work last week putting in the floor using structurally insulated panels.

Supt. Mike Tranel said it’s all about protecting the cultural landscape of the park. He said the floor protects the foundation and preserves the site.

“Besides the building we have a cultural landscape to protect,” Tranel said, “buildings, the site, corrals, the whole setting. The idea is to protect what was there before, even if it was introduced, like the orchard. It goes back to the historical scene from the early 1900s. In doing that, even if the fire happened from other causes or before it became a national park, you still protect the cultural landscape. Putting on the floor is a way to do that, and the goal is to make it available for public use.”

Two things will allow the project to compete effectively for Park Service funding: public use and restoring the house to its original condition. There would be no additions or enlargement, he said. The exterior would appear as it did in the 1935-45 era, the “period of significance” for the ranch, and the interior would be built for adaptive re-use.

“The National Park Service has about 25,000 historic buildings,” Tranel said. “With a lot of them the exterior looks the way it was, but the inside is made available for office space or public use.”

The source of the funding for the floor is cyclic maintenance funds, Tranel said, a recurring funding source for maintaining cultural resources.

Floor project

Pickett and Preator said one of the main justifications for the cyclic maintenance funds was public safety, cleaning up the remains from the 2015 fire that gutted the structure. That first step was accomplished last summer with the help of the local Youth Conservation Corps summertime staff and by contracting with a company that used a track hoe to dig out the debris in the crawl space.

Next, the crew last fall repaired the foundation that had been installed in 2002 and damaged in the fire. Workers filled in the beam pockets and elevated the foundation 18 inches to replace two courses of logs on the west side that had shattered in the fire, Pickett said.

Step three was the floor itself. The structurally insulated panels were ordered from a company in Belgrade, Mont., and arrived the third week in February, Pickett and Preator said. The panels save time and labor, Pickett said, and are “incredibly efficient,” he noted, adding, “We plan to use them on the roof, too, if we get to that point.”

The SIPs are sliced together with 2-by-6 boards, which are glued and nailed. The panels are four feet wide and vary in length.

After the panels were in place, the team coated the floor with a rubber membrane “to keep the weather off it,” Pickett said, noting that with the new floor the crawl space should be rodent proof.

Next step

Bighorn Canyon will now apply for so-called 20 percent fee money available to all parks through the regional office for the project to rebuild the ranch house.

Tranel said the Ewing-Snell project must compete with projects throughout the National Park Service system for funding, starting at the regional level. The park had prepared a presentation for January, but the meeting was postponed due to the partial government shutdown in place at the time.

“We’ll do it in May now, and we’ll get a better sense of how it will compete,” Tranel said, noting that Bighorn Canyon staff members will meet via conference call with the acting regional director and her support staff, along with staff members from the Denver Service Center for planning, design and maintenance. The project could then be boosted to the national level, Tranel said.

In the worst case, the project could be deemed not a viable project and would not be recommended for the director’s approval. In the best case, the project could receive full support and expect funding within the next year or two.

“The reality is probably somewhere in between,” Tranel said, “where it goes into the cue for funding.” He said the project could also obtain grant funding, but the project would still require director’s approval.

Tranel said the Bighorn Canyon staff will make the argument that the ranch house is a key piece of the park’s cultural resource and an iconic place with a remarkable setting, making the case that the project would restore the cultural resource and provide a public use. Public support is also a significant factor, he said.

Preator said one of the angles Bighorn Canyon hopes to use is the Vanishing Treasurers Program based out of Grand Teton National Park, a historic preservation training center that teaches Park Service employees how to work on historic structures such as the construction with logs necessary at the Ewing-Snell. Pickett said the staff will also try to get the building certified as a green building.

“The interior can be whatever we make it, but the outside must be historically accurate,” Pickett said, noting that the building must be a true log building and not just have a log façade. It must also meet the standards for public use.

Preator said the building would be used as a research center and educational center, as well as a place for artists in residence, archaeology field schools and other uses.

By David Peck