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Heartbreak at Heart Mountain, a World War Two Japanese American Confinement Site

During World War II, more than 14,000 Japanese Americans ended up behind barbed wire at Heart Mountain Relocation Center. Discover what life was like for them at Heart Mountain Relocation Center in Powell, Wyo.

 

Heart Mountain WWII Japanese Relocation Center
Japanese Americans travel between housing barracks with Heart Mountain on the horizon.Public Domain, Department of the Interior. War Relocation Authority.

When President Franklin Roosevelt ordered all people with Japanese ancestry to be removed from the West Coast during World War II, more than 14,000 Japanese Americans ended up behind barbed wire at Heart Mountain Relocation Center.

The first incarcerees arrived via train on Aug. 12, 1942. The last left the center in November 1945.

Today, you can stop by the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center to learn more about the Japanese and Japanese Americans who were forcibly moved from Washington, Oregon and California. There’s a museum, gallery and theater where visitors can learn more about the incarceration. After touring the museum,  head outdoors to the walking trail to see a war memorial and original camp structures, including a barrack, an administration building and the hospital complex.

“This is a relatively unknown and incredibly important piece of American history,” says Krist Jessup of Heart Mountain Interpretive Center. “Though this happened 80 years ago, the history and the lessons it contains remain intensely relevant today.”

Visiting Heart Mountain

Exhibit at Heart Mountain
ExhibitPhoto by Kevin J Miyazaki courtesy of Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation

In various parts of the country, there were 10 confinement sites like Heart Mountain located in California, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Idaho and Utah.

What makes Heart Mountain Interpretive Center different from some others is that its stories are told from the perspective of those who experienced it. The center is led by a foundation founded by and comprised of mostly former incarcerees.

“It is ultimately a dichotomous site,” Jessup says. “It is surrounded by the natural beauty of Wyoming but tells the stories of those who were unjustly incarcerated on it.”

Interestingly enough, no original barracks were left on site after the war. They were torn down or sold to homesteaders and one, an administration building, even made it to Greybull, Wyo., where it was used for veteran’s barracks and then to Shell, Wyo., where it was used by Iowa State University as a geology studies field station. The barrack recently returned to Heart Mountain Interpretive Center where it is being restored and readied for public access.

Heart Mountain Relocation Center
Echoing the design of the exterior of the original barrack is the Heart  Mountain Interpretive CenterPhoto by Kevin J Miyazaki courtesy of Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation

Farming at Heart Mountain

In the spring of 1943, the agriculture program launched at the camp, eventually leading to 1,805 acres being cultivated within the Heart Mountain project and 20,000 total, including Wyoming farms where incarcerees received temporary permits to work.

Incarcerees worked on the Heart Mountain Canal System, which was part of the larger Shoshone Project. The work they did helped bring water to the camp to help irrigate the crops they would grow. In the first five months of 1944, the internees excavated 2,816 cubic yards of canal, and 815 cubic yards of borrow pit, laid almost 3,000 cubic yards of lining, laid over 4,000 cubic yards of rock paving, graded 340 cubic yards of road, and placed 1640 cubic yards of gravel on roads, according to a U.S Bureau of Reclamation report.

Then they cleared acres of sagebrush to plant 52 types of produce from cabbage to cantaloupe, even introducing daikons and radishes to the area. Their farming efforts proved so successful that they stored excess produce in root cellars on site. Some of their produce was even shipped to other internment camps.

For instance, during that first year, those at Heart Mountain grew 2.1 million pounds of produce. One year later in 1944, that number grew to 5.1 million pounds of produce and 32,000 pounds of poultry, 93,000 eggs and 371,000 pounds of dressed pork.

Farming at Heart Mountain
Farming at Heart MountainHeart Mountain Wyoming Foundation Okumoto Collection

Heart Mountain Hours

Between May 15-Oct. 1, summer hours  are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Winter hours are followed between Oct. 2 through May 14. During these months, the center is open Wednesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

More Information:
Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation
(307) 754-8000
Located 15 minutes east of Cody on Hwy. 14A between Cody and Powell, Wyoming.
Heart Mountain, WY
heartmountain.org