Saving WWII History: Preserving an Original Structure from an American Concentration Camp

Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation
Powell, WY

In 2015, the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation (HMWF) rescued a structure used to incarcerate Japanese Americans during World War II. The 120 by 20 foot wooden barrack was originally built for the “Heart Mountain Relocation Center,” where more than 14,000 people of Japanese ancestry were unjustly confined from 1942–45. Of the more than 450 barracks built to house them at Heart Mountain, none remained on the historic site—until this barrack was returned.

HMWF approached the barrack-saving effort much like communities approach a barn raising, devising a grassroots fundraising campaign with a crowd-funding component. They inspired local and national support to save this structure by framing the project as an opportunity to claim a role in the process. More than 200 people contributed to the effort, which provided a sense of ownership that continues even after the successful move. HMWF designed an archeological survey, involving the Park County Historic Preservation Commission and Northwest College students, to confirm the correct, historical location of a barrack near the museum. Finally, they executed the move gracefully, with much fanfare and news coverage—and without damage to the fragile 73-year-old building.

Every visitor to the Heart Mountain site will be impacted by the barrack. It is prominently located near the entrance gate for the Interpretive Center, serving as a visual icon of the National Historic Landmark site, which received approximately 20,000 visitors in 2015. Furthermore, because the site today is similar in terms of the weather, landscape, and its isolation, a visit to the barrack allows for a greater empathic understanding of life at Heart Mountain during WWII.  The barrack is also a catalyst for unlocking stories from former incarcerees. As crucial primary sources, they have been instrumental in informing the HMWF’s efforts from the start. That will extend to the preservation and interpretation of the barrack. A series of oral histories have already been conducted inside the building and will continue for as long as the internees are living.

After housing incarcerees at Heart Mountain, the barrack housed WWII veterans and later geology students at an Iowa State University field station. It has taken a circuitous route back to Heart Mountain with a richer narrative in tow. It speaks not only to the Japanese-American experience but also, because of its path of reuse, to the ongoing development and culture of Wyoming. In addition, the project adds significantly to historic preservation scholarship—especially as it relates to preserving Sites of Conscience, as well as other WWII confinement sites. HMWF harnesses the “power of place” to educate people about the history of Heart Mountain, and their exhibits have been designed to allow visitors to walk a few steps in the incarcerees’ shoes. The opportunity to feature an actual barrack from the camp may rival or surpass any single structure or exhibit they possess in its potential to engage visitors in relating to and emotionally appreciating the realities of day-to-day life at Heart Mountain, as it was experienced by those forcibly confined there.