Exile - the Heart Mountain Relocation Center
The site of Heart Mountain  
Relocation Center – 1992  

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Heart Mountain  
by Paul Gullixson   

Heart Mountain

Railroad tracks pass Heart Mountain

Door at hospital building

Inside hospital building

Signs

Archeological resources sign

Power plant

Power plant door

Smokestack

Memorial

Residents in the Heart Mountain camp
Photo: U.S. National Archives
Relocation center residents walk along F Street, with Heart Mountain rising in the background.

Return to Heart Mountain
1992

by Paul Gullixson

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Barbed wire still abounds. A red brick chimney remains as the highest man-made object for miles around. And Heart Mountain still towers over this treeless section of Northern Wyoming between the towns of Cody and Powell.

But the barbed wire now is used only to contain horses and acres of barley and feed corn. The smokestack that once helped to heat a 150-bed hospital is dormant. And Heart Mountain looks down on a desert area that has all but swept clean the memories of a half century ago.

In a state that prides itself on the heritage of the old West, little can be found of what 50 years ago was the third largest city in Wyoming.

In August of 1942, this area became the site of one of 10 relocation camps set up for Japanese-Americans throughout the West.

For the three years, three months and three days of its existence, the Heart Mountain Relocation Center was home to nearly 11,000 Japanese-Americans, most of whom were from Northern California.

Less well known than such camps as Santa Anita and Manzanar in California and Topaz in Utah, Heart Mountain also attracts fewer visitors.

Because of the Wyoming winters, it was known as having provided one of the harshest living environments.

“It was the most desolate place that I ever saw,” said Rose Kimura, who had just finished a year at San Jose State College when she was sent to Heart Mountain by way of Santa Anita.

“I had friends who had been to Topaz in Utah and it was much the same except Topaz didn’t have as much snow. And it never snowed down in Wyoming. It always snowed diagonally.”
Howard Hisayasu and his family
Photo: U.S. National Archives
Internees made the best of limited resources. Howard Hisayasu and his family built the furniture for their small apartment.

Built in 60 days, Heart Mountain was a community of 465 barracks — each divided into family-size apartments — mess halls, baths and toilet facilities. It also had its own water system, infirmary, post office, court system, fire department and a miniature zoo complete with rattlesnakes, rabbits, kangaroo rats, bats and other creatures native to their arid environment.

But today a person driving along Highway 14 would see just the chimney and find only a small plaque by the side of the Burlington Northern right of way indicating an area a quarter mile off the highway that once was a relocation camp.

“It’s been pretty much picked over,” said John Collins, a resident of Powell, who is leading an effort to preserve the area as a historical site.

But there is still much that should be preserved, including a wing from the hospital, an underground sewage system that remains almost entirely intact, the site of a swimming hole and foundations from several buildings.

Over the years, few of the camp’s internees have returned. But as the 50th anniversary of the camp approaches, more have taken an interest, locals say.

“There’s never been so much interest as there has been in the past two years,” said Mike Andrews, archaeologist for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which now owns the land where the camp was located. “When they come back they are amazed at how there is nothing left.”

“They are amazed at the fact that we think it is history. They overlook that,” said Collins. “They think people would want to cover it up.”

Little documentation of the camp was available because internees were not allowed to have cameras. But cameras still found their way inside the barbed-wire fences of the compound and photos have survived.

Life for the internees — two-thirds of whom were U.S. citizens — involved much agricultural work and farming including the production of pork, poultry and eggs. The internees raised and harvested more than 6 million pounds of crops and supplied much seasonal labor to farmers outside of the camp.

But perhaps the camp’s greatest legacy to the area is the internees’ contribution to the construction of the Shoshone Irrigation Project. Camp workers helped build 1,600 feet of the canal, bringing water to what was once arid desert area. Because of the canal, barley now grows where the camp’s barracks were once located.

The canal “is absolutely critical” to the local economy, said Collins. “It is the life blood.”

But many of the internees were hated and feared by locals. “We did go into town once,” said Kimura, who now lives in California. “But we sure got some stares, because people out there had never seen an Oriental. We weren’t welcome, that was for sure.”

The most difficult part of life was the elements.

“A week after our arrival we had a snowstorm,” wrote a young man named John Kitasako, an internee who sent dispatches back to the Palo Alto Times, his hometown daily, in 1942. “The novelty of the snow was ruined with the temperature skidding down to 15 degrees, and did we sun-spoiled Californians shiver!

“At present, this camp is not a pretty picture. Food is substandard, housing problems are numerous, school buildings have not been erected, recreational facilities are congested.”

The camp also had its own cemetery. When the camp was closed in 1945, the grave sites were moved to Powell.

Although many had little to go home to, the state tried to discourage Japanese-American internees from remaining in Wyoming.

In 1943, Wyoming passed a law that barred evacuees from voting and owning property in the state.

All but 74 acres of the camp was sold to homesteaders. The remaining space was sold to the U.S. Department of the Interior, which continued to house an office there until the land was turned over to the Bureau of Reclamation.

Buildings were auctioned off to locals. Ironically, the Veterans of Foreign Wars hall in Powell is housed in one of the camp’s barracks.

But much debate has remained about what to do with the camp.

“It was clear there was a wide variety of opinion. There were people who wanted the whole thing torn down,” said Andrews. “We couldn’t do that.”

Today, a memorial remains at Heart Mountain to the more than 900 men from the camp who fought in the U.S. Army. Of those, 20 were killed in action.

Both Andrews and Collins are doing what they can to preserve the area from vandals. They are trying to raise funds for a memorial to be built this year.

“We will entertain all proposals,” said Andrews. “Right now the Bureau (of Reclamation) is managing it and doing the best we can with no money.”

Ideas include rebuilding some of the buildings and opening a small museum where people will be able to see the history and then come out to the area.

Internees from Heart Mountain still get together at reunions every two years. The group is planning a large reunion in Seattle this fall.

Rose Kimura said she has not been back in 50 years and has mixed feelings about efforts to preserve the site and show what life was like for them.

“You to have to have lived it to know what it was like,” she said.

Paul Gullixson is assistant editorial director and columnist at the Santa Rosa (Calif.) Press Democrat.

Article copyright © 1992 Paul Gullixson

For an update on the Heart Mountain center, see the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation Web site.

To learn more about the World War II internment of Japanese-Americans, see the resources list at the Conscience and the Constitution Web site. San Francisco State University has links to many photographs of the relocation centers and resources for teaching about the internment.

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