Recalling the past at Heart Mountain Interpretive Center

POWELL, Wyo. — It sprang up almost overnight on arid, sagebrush-covered prairie and became Wyoming’s third-largest city, a community of more than 10,000 Japanese-Americans imprisoned after the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

Creation of the Heart Mountain Relocation Center, situated on 46,000 acres owned by the Bureau of Reclamation, was a boon to the local construction industry, which built many of the 650 buildings and structures at the camp.

Today, little remains.The boiler-house chimney and three weathered buildings on a bluff above the highway mark where a 150-bed, 17-wing hospital complex served internees.

They are the only structures still standing at the camp, which had two recreation halls, two mess halls and two buildings for laundries and public latrines. Internees lived in hundreds of hastily-built barracks, arranged in 20 blocks made up of 24 barracks buildings in each.

Trainloads of internees, allowed to bring only a suitcase of belongings and the clothes on their back, arrived at the camp disoriented and uncertain what would happen to them. Families — children, parents and grandparents — often found themselves housed in one-room quarters.

A new building, the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center, opened in 2011 through the efforts of The Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation. That organization formed in the 1990s to preserve the site.

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The Interpretive Center features photographs, paintings, artifacts, oral histories, interactive exhibits and a theater that help tell the stories of the Japanese-Americans confined there.

Outside the center, walking trails and military memorials offer more information about the camp, which was the first of 10 to open in 1942, months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Three years later, on the night of Nov. 10, 1945, passengers boarded the final train taking internees from the relocation center, and it closed.

The population of the camp peaked at 10,767 on Jan. 1, 1943. In the 1,187 days it was in operation, more than 14,000 incarcerees passed through its gates.

Photo exhibit

The Interpretive Center is featuring a temporary exhibit “Incarceration in Focus: A Comparative Look at the Photographs of Ansel Adams and Yoshio Okumoto.”

The exhibit features the photography of Adams and Okumoto, a former Heart Mountain incarceree.

Adams, the noted photographer, visited California’s Manzanar concentration camp in 1943. Manzanar was one of 10 sites where Japanese-Americans were held. Okumoto was Japanese-American internee sent to the Heart Mountain Relocation Center. There he developed an interest in photography.

Several photos of Okumoto and Adams are displayed side-by-side in a small gallery at the Interpretive Center. They provide interesting perspectives—one from Ansel, who was hired to document camp life for the government, and the other from Okumoto, who was imprisoned at Heart Mountain.

“Incarceration in Focus” runs through August and is included with museum admision.

The Interpretive Center is 14 miles northeast of Cody and 11 miles southwest of Powell on Highway 14A. Museum admission is $7 for adults and $5 for students and seniors. Children under 12 and members of the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation are free.

For more information, call 307-754-8000 or visit heartmountain.org.

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