Like many U.S. Army posts established for monitoring the frontiers, Fort Douglas has seen its share of American history. The fort was founded on the east bench of the Salt Lake Valley in October 1862 by a regiment of California Volunteers under Colonel Patrick Connor to guard the overland mail (and, legend has it, to keep an eye on the Mormons). Fort Douglas this year is celebrating its 150th anniversary, and that history has entwined with the University of Utah’s own.
The post has sent Army units marching off to the Indian Wars, the Spanish-American War, and World Wars I and II. In the late 1800s, a unit of African- American soldiers, the 24th Infantry (one of the Buffalo Soldier regiments), was stationed at Fort Douglas. During World Wars I and II, Fort Douglas served as a training and recruitment depot, with thousands of troops passing through its gates on their way to far-flung battlefields. The fort also housed prisoners of war during both conflicts: German sailors captured in the Pacific in the first World War, and German and Italian POWs in the second. The present University soccer field, in fact, is the location of the World War II POW camp, and several prisoners from both wars are buried in the Fort Douglas Cemetery.
The land that the University and Fort Douglas presently share originally was declared “University Square” by an act of the Territorial Legislature in 1855, but with the coming of Connor’s Volunteers, it was absorbed into the Fort Douglas military reservation. Then, in 1894, shortly before Utah became a state, the University was granted 60 acres of the Fort Douglas Military Reservation for expansion. That acreage formed the core of the present University of Utah campus: Presidents Circle and associated buildings on the west side of the campus.
During World War I, the large red brick barracks currently occupied by the 96th Army Reserve Command were built, and during World War II, Fort Douglas became a major U.S. Army base and headquarters for the network of camps where Japanese-American citizens were interned. The end of the war saw the 9th Service Command moved back to the West Coast, and the Army announced that Fort Douglas would be closed.
Finally, in 1989, the fort was officially closed, and by 1993, the buildings and grounds, except for those still in use by the U.S. Army Reserve, had been transferred to the U. In anticipation of the 2002 Winter Games, the grounds of Fort Douglas were chosen as the site of the Olympic Village, and new dormitories were built. Today, Fort Douglas remains a treasured part of the University of Utah.
—Roy Webb BA’84 MS’91 is a multimedia archivist with the J. Willard Marriott Library.