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, it’s the characteristic of change.

“What we really know about history is that it’s constant change,” says Thomas Carter, University of Utah professor of architecture. “And if you look at the fort, you see that it’s 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 Utah’s 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 Young’s 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 canyons—not 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 fort’s 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 Infantry’s 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 residents—both black and white—lined 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. Army’s 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 BA’70 MA’72 PhD’76 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 buildings.

“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 possibilities—that we would somehow get out of this Depression and there would be light at the end of the tunnel.”

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 Women’s Army Corps. Several female officers were added to the Fort Douglas headquarters staff, and two
enlisted WACs were assigned to the 9th Service Command’s public relations office.

“There was something going on all the time. The band played over on what is called Soldier’s 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 band’s 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 connections—even 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 world—the Far East, the islands of the Pacific, the beaches at Normandy, in other wars—and ended up in that one spot in Utah makes it a very hallowed place for me.”

The 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 Douglas—but time was running out. The fort’s proximity to Salt Lake City made it unfit for modern army purposes. It endured only as an Army reserve and recruitment center.

“Things deteriorated quite a bit,” says Carter. “If an army post is on the periphery and people aren’t really paying much attention to it, you’re 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 fort’s 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 fort’s 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 we’ll still serve the community as a place where they can come and visit, learn the history of the fort, and experience this unique environment.”

“It’s an important part of the University of Utah’s 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 BS’96 is a producer at KUED Media Solutions. His documentary on Fort Douglas will air on KUED-Channel 7 in January, 2002.