World War II’s Japanese-American Relocation Camp at Heart Mountain, Wyoming
The Heart Mountain camp’s power plant.
Early 20th Century Model-T tourists dubbed it the “Old Yellowstone Highway.” And for me, as with them, this solitary yet starkly beautiful route through the Rockies to Old Faithful has always promised untethered adventure.
But while threading the historic road’s snow-dusted canyons and solitary towns one bright October weekend, anticipation of Yellowstone National Park’s spiritually liberating grandeur seemed strangely ironic when nearing Heart Mountain, Wyoming.
As one would expect from the highway’s name, it was built for enjoyment, for fun, for road trips. However, as my engine hummed 80 years after tin lizzies rattled across the nearby park’s Absoroka Mountain Plateau, I realized that during World War II my favorite path to freedom had accessed what some historians call a concentration camp.
The Heart Mountain Relocation Center located half-way between Cody and Powell near the park’s east entrance performed this sinister function between August 1942 and December 1945. And according to historical accounts the complex qualified as Wyoming’s second-largest community when 10,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry arrived for life behind its barbed wire perimeter.
Nearly 1,000 buildings, mostly 120 x 20 ft. (37 x 6meters) cheaply constructed tarpaper barracks, accommodated the camp which now rests silently with only five vacant structures standing. Nevertheless, as I walked the site’s vast agricultural bench lands that now lie beneath Heart Mountain’s gaze, the relocation center’s painful role arose as each forgotten cement foundation passed.
Abandoned 1920s-era bridge along the “Old Yellowstone Highway.”
Of course, the bench lands are silent now, with only an occasional combine whirring in the distance. However, if nearby ruins spoke they would testify to what historians know: That when the Empire of Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, war hysteria prompted President Franklin Roosevelt to forcibly uproot and transport nearly 110,000 Japanese-Americans to remote internment camps throughout the West.
The Heart Mountain Relocation Center, as the government called it, was one of 10 such sites that primarily housed west coast internees for what U.S. government considered a “military necessity.” That’s according to Powell historian Mike Mackey who adds, however that, “…the bombing of Pearl Harbor became the excuse to rid the West Coast of its Japanese residents.”
In “A Brief History of the Heart Mountain Relocation Center and the Japanese American Experience,” Mackey explains that rising Japanese-American prosperity scared California’s business establishment. So, when World War II arrived, organizations like the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce and “racially oriented special interest groups” lobbied the federal government to forcibly remove the perceived threat, he says.
An old 55-gal. drum rack rests near the vacant Heart Mountain administration buildings.
“As a result, on February 19, 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. This order allowed civilian and military authorities to designate restricted zones [such as the entire west coast] and determine what people, if any, should be removed from those zones. Though the order mentioned no specific race or ethnic group it came to focus on people of Japanese descent,” Mackey says.
With this Heart Mountain awoke and in short order hastily-built barracks, mess halls, hospitals and a high school were constructed below it’s 7,600-ft. (2,316-m) crest. Mackey tells us the first internees to occupy these facilities arrived August 11, 1942, via train on still-existing track near the camp’s now decaying root cellar.
But even with these structural amenities, many of which improved in time, Mackey indicates that an internee’s life was often harsh and degrading. For example, he says authorities suppressed Buddhist’s religious liberties among practicing camp members and, “since the constitutional rights of internees had already been violated through their forced removal from the West Coast, administrators had no problem with ignoring their freedom of religion.”
Further degradations such as personal property loss, restricted movement outside camp, sub-zero winters, summer dust storms and outright boredom also dogged internees. However, Mackey adds that many inhabitants fought back and in December 1944 won a crucial U.S. Supreme Court decision over these injustices.
At that time Mackey says the court determined “it was illegal for the government to hold loyal American citizens in concentration camps against their will.” Nevertheless, it was a hollow victory since “the majority of the internees at Heart Mountain and other camps no longer had a home on the West Coast.”
Naturally, the decision caused nagging uncertainties when camp authorities attempted to vacate the facility in January 1945. Accordingly, Mackey adds that “by June of that year only 2,000 people had left Heart Mountain and its population was still nearly 7,000…. Many of those with no place to go ended up in WRA [War Relocation Authority] trailer parks where small camp trailers were rented for $15 per month.”
Heart Mountain rail stop. Internees accessed the camp on the bench lands up the road.
In the end, Mackey says the last westbound internee train left on November 10, 1945. Shortly thereafter, returning military personnel and prospective farmers began homesteading the site which had greatly benefited from Japanese-American agricultural construction projects, he explains.
Today, not much remains there, but compared to its nine sister camps the facility is probably the best-preserved. So much so that local interests and former internees have formed a consortium to restore the camp as a museum.
For now however, the site remains vacant, its weathered buildings staring from the bench lands at lonely rails that disappear westward toward the “Old Yellowstone Highway” at Cody.
From the camp, my freedom road is 14 miles (4 m) distant. But as the engine hummed back towards it under crystal autumn skies recently cleared of contrails, I wondered if Heart Mountain’s lessons would last.
Only time will tell if current events will allow us to continue untethered under the mountain’s shadow.
To find the relocation center copy and paste “UTM 12 662605E 4948220N” (without quote marks) into Topozone.com. That’ll put you in the middle of it: administration buildings and foundations, to the east. Directly on the UTM site there’s an internee-constructed memorial to camp members who fought in World War II. It was built in 1944 and overlooks an area map placed there in 1977. The railroad siding is listed as “Vocation” on the topo map. Unfortunately, I don’t know that name’s origin.
As for the “Old Yellowstone Highway,” its original path is fluid depending on who’s talking. Originally it ran from Denver through Casper, Wyoming to the park. However, it branched out as more Wyoming towns recruited tourists. The route I took runs Riverton, Shoshone, Thermopolis, Cody; with the camp east of Cody on Alternate Route 14. Along the Riverton path you’ll see old Model-T tracks on the roadside at some points.
The former provides Mackey’s full text. Each site has extensive links.
If you want more information about this area you can email the author or check out our North America Insiders page.