of the Fort
From frontier post to Olympic Village, Fort Douglas
has seen 140 years of history unfold during its many iterations.
by Joe Prokop
Its soldiers have traveled the world to brave five wars. Its quarters
and barracks run the gamut from gothic to colonial revival. It once became
nearly a ghost town and now will host athletes from around the world who
will compete in the 2002 Olympic Winter Games and Paralympic Games. If
one thing is more permanent than the sandstone buildings at Fort Douglas,
its the characteristic of change.
What we really know about history is that its constant change,
says Thomas Carter, University of Utah professor of architecture. And
if you look at the fort, you see that its always changed.
At the onset of the Civil War in 1861, federal troops stationed in the
Utah Territory 45 miles southwest of Salt Lake City were called east for
active duty. This defensive vacuum left the overland stage and the telegraph
lines vulnerable to attacks by the indigenous peoples of the region.
When the call for volunteers to protect the Overland Trail came, Patrick
Edward Conner answered it. In 1862, the 41-year-old hero of the Mexican-American
war led 800 volunteers from Sacramento across the desert to Utah Territory.
Connor, an Irish Catholic, was suspicious of the LDS Church; he disagreed
with their practice of polygamy and questioned their loyalty to the Union.
Though charged with the task of protecting the Overland Trail, he felt
a responsibility to keep in check what he perceived as the Mormon threat.
Mormon leader Brigham Young had volunteered to protect the trails with
his own forces to avoid the occupation of armed federal troops. In a telegram
to Utahs representatives in Washington, Young suggested, The
militia of Utah are ready and able, as they have ever been, to take care
of all the Indians, and willing to protect the mail line if called upon
to do so.
But Youngs plans failed. On October 26, 1862, Connor marched his
California Volunteers down Salt Lake City streets lined with curious onlookers.
They stopped before the mansion of the territorial governor, Stephen S.
Harding, who advised Connor and his men, saying, I believe the people
you have come amongst will not disturb you if you do not disturb them
in their public life and in the honor and peace of their homes; and to
disturb them you must violate the strict discipline of the United States
Army, which you must observe and which you have no right to violate.
The troops, sufficiently warned, marched two-and-a-half miles to the slope
between Emigration and Red Butte canyonsnot far from where Brigham
Young, viewing the valley for the first time, had said, This is
the right place. They activated Camp Douglas, naming it after recently
deceased Sen. Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, who had lost the presidential
race to Abraham Lincoln the previous year.
Connor soon began to send parties out against the Native Americans. His
first target was the Northwestern Shoshoni tribe, led by Chief Bear Hunter,
which had reportedly been harassing Mormon settlers for food.
In January 1863, Connor launched a 300-man assault on the winter camp
of the Northwestern Shoshoni on the confluence of Battle Creek and Bear
River, just north of Franklin, Idaho. This offensive would become known
as the Bear River Massacre.
The California Volunteers suffered 22 deaths, while the Northwestern Shoshoni
casualties numbered between 200 and 300. Boasting of their victory, the
troops returned to Fort Douglas and prominently displayed the scalp of
Bear Hunter. For his efforts at Bear River, Connor was promoted to Brigadier
General. Seasoned troops from Fort Douglas went on to participate in the
Sioux War of 1876 and later in the battle of Wounded Knee.
Connor established the Union Vedette, a newspaper that gave voice
to the so-called Gentile population of Salt Lake City and countered the
LDS Church-owned Deseret News. The paper became the first daily newspaper
in the territory.
The 1870s marked
the transformation from Camp Douglas to Fort Douglas. Under the command
of Col. John E. Smith, the camp was completely rebuilt. The forts
signature Officers Circle was built, with its ten red sandstone quarters
forming an ellipse at the top of the parade ground.
In 1896, the year Utah achieved statehood, the U.S. Army stationed the
24th Infantry Regiment at Fort Douglas. Nearly 600 African-American men,
women, and children came to Salt Lake with the unit. The men were typically
stationed in remote posts throughout the West. Sending the 24th Infantry
unit to Fort Douglas was a reward for past service, according to Ronald
Coleman, U of U professor of history.
The setting itself was within the midst of an existing African-American
community which had churches and fraternal organizations, says Coleman.
There was a sense of wholeness to their lives which obviously they
had not experienced in some of the more isolated stations.
The infantry helped break down stereotypes and earlier opposition to its
Fort Douglas assignment. Prior to the 24th Infantrys arrival, the
Salt Lake Tribune featured an editorial citing the presence of black soldiers
as an unfortunate change. But a year later the paper issued
an apology, publicly regretting its earlier prejudice.
In 1898, the 24th Infantry was ordered to fight in Cuba and the Philippines
as part of the Spanish-American War. On the day of their departure, local
residentsboth black and whitelined the streets of South Temple
to bid them farewell.
Members of the regiment participated
in the charge up San Juan Hill with Theodore Roosevelt and his Rough
Riders. After the war, several members of the 24th Infantry returned
to Salt Lake City, and some of their descendents are members of the community
today, according to Coleman.
War Heroes, War Prisoners
In May 1917, the Fort Douglas War Prison Barracks III were founded by
the U.S. Armys War Department. The 15-acre compound became the primary
internment camp west of the Mississippi to house German prisoners of war
captured in Guam and Hawaii. Outnumbering the naval prisoners were 784
interned enemy aliens. Fear of sabotage prompted the U.S. Justice Department
to gather and imprison civilian males of German and Austro-Hungarian descent,
along with conscientious objectors to the war.
The practice was to
house the prisoners of war in facilities that American soldiers would
be housed in, says Allan Kent Powell BA70 MA72 PhD76
of the Utah State Historical Society. It was a priority to make
sure that they had food at least equal to what we were providing our own
servicemen. There were chores to be done around the barracks, but essentially
they were left to care for themselves in the camp. In 1918, German
naval POWs were discharged from Fort Douglas, while enemy aliens were
detained for two more years.
Fort Douglas once again became a full-fledged training center in 1922
when the 38th Infantry Regiment was assigned to the post. Nicknamed the
Rock of the Marne for its heroic defense of the Marne River
Valley in France during World War I, the 38th Infantry enjoyed the longest
tenure of any other Fort Douglas regiment.
From 1922 to 1940, the era of the 38th was a time when well-known amenities
of the post were added. The Fort Douglas golf course was built, along
with the theater and other new buildings.
New construction at the fort gave rise to hope in the midst of the Great
Depression. Members of the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress
Administration built more officers quarters and other colonial revival
During the Depression,
the fort became a model of the American dream, says Carter. The
government had money to spend, and they were putting it into public works
projects. It became a model of possibilitiesthat we would somehow
get out of this Depression and there would be light at the end of the
After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, the army feared another coastal
attack. The 9th Service Command was reassigned from the Presidio in San
Francisco to Fort Douglas. The move required quickly constructing hundreds
of wooden buildings to meet the needs of the war effort.
At its peak in the fall of
1943, the fort housed 1,000 officers and enlisted men, and twice that
number of non-military personnel. For the first time, women were allowed
to enlist in the regular army as WACs, or recruits to the Womens
Army Corps. Several female officers were added to the Fort Douglas headquarters
staff, and two
enlisted WACs were assigned to the 9th Service Commands public relations
There was something
going on all the time. The band played over on what is called Soldiers
Field, giving concerts every noon for all the people who worked in the
offices around the field, says Margaret Montgomery, who served as
a WAC lieutenant and married George Montgomery, the bands leader.
As in the First World War, European prisoners were interned at Fort Douglas.
But because housing for these German and Italian POWs was scarce, many
worked in agricultural camps throughout the area. Some of these men, who
were captured in Europe and North Africa and interned at Fort Douglas,
are now buried in the Fort Douglas cemetery.
For me, the cemetery
really speaks to the experience of our human connectionseven though
war tears us apart, in the end we find enemy and friend buried there together,
says Powell. To realize that people buried there fought all over
the worldthe Far East, the islands of the Pacific, the beaches at
Normandy, in other warsand ended up in that one spot in Utah makes
it a very hallowed place for me.
National Trust for Historic Preservation honored the University
of Utah in October with a 2001 National Preservation Honor Award
for Fort Douglas. A walking tour guidebook as well as a virtual
tour of the fort are available at
A Village Made from Rubble
The years following World War II were marked by a contraction in the size
of Fort Douglas. U President A. Ray Olpin asked President Eisenhower for
298 acres of Fort Douglas land to support a campus bulging with veterans
studying on the G.I. Bill. Throughout the 50s and 60s, the
military tradition was still strong at Fort Douglasbut time was
running out. The forts proximity to Salt Lake City made it unfit
for modern army purposes. It endured only as an Army reserve and recruitment
quite a bit, says Carter. If an army post is on the periphery
and people arent really paying much attention to it, youre
going to get that kind of deterioration.
Fort Douglas was consolidated
into the Stephen A. Douglas Armed Forces Reserve Center in 1991. The remaining
active troops were transferred to another base of operation, and the University
took possession of 62 buildings and 51 acres of land. In 1998, the U took
possession of an additional 12 acres of land.
Most recently, the University
launched a fund-raising campaign for the renovation of the forts
historic buildings, along with a restoration plan to revitalize the fort
with new occupants, new programs, and the construction of new student
residence halls on the grounds. Athletes from around the world will stay
in Heritage Commons, the residential living complex, during the 2002 Olympic
and Paralympic Winter Games, marking the forts next transformation
into an Olympic Village.
The programmatic function of the fort has changed over decades but
was always related to military and to war, says Anne Racer, University
facilities planning director. Now we have this vitality of youth
and an opportunity for education and collaboration that will continue
for years. And well still serve the community as a place where they
can come and visit, learn the history of the fort, and experience this
Its an important
part of the University of Utahs mission to create an on-campus atmosphere
for its students, says Carter. I feel that we kind of got
the best of both things [with Heritage Commons]. We really were able to
preserve so much of what was here, and these different layers of the past
are visible on the landscape.
Joe Prokop BS96
is a producer at KUED Media Solutions. His documentary on Fort Douglas
will air on KUED-Channel 7 in January, 2002.