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History of Fort Douglas

Jami Balls

With the onset of the Civil War, President Lincoln called all regular troops from frontier duty to fight against the South, leaving the Overland Mail Route vulnerable to Indian attacks. Accordingly, he appointed Colonel Patrick E. Connor to the Third California Volunteer Infantry and directed him to establish a post near Salt Lake City in order to protect the mail route while keeping an eye on the Mormons. He established Camp Douglas in October 1862, naming it after the late Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois. Connor felt that it was his duty to bring non-Mormons into the territory and so actively encouraged his men to prospect for precious metals. Connor and his men subsequently played a significant role in the beginning of mining in Utah. They also participated in several punitive missions against American Indians including the Bear River Massacre in 1863.

In 1866, the volunteers were discharged and the regulars of the 18th Infantry replaced them. Competent stone barracks, chapel, and administrative buildings were constructed and the post became one of the most picturesque and sought after assignments on the frontier. Three years later, the completion of the transcontinental railroad perpetuated rapid deployment of the local troops. Fort Douglas units participated in the northern plains campaigns of the 1870s and in the Sioux War of 1890. One of the most notable Fort Douglas units was the 24th Infantry, composed of African-American soldiers and white officers. They fought courageously in Cuba, charging up San Juan Hill during the Spanish-American War in 1898.

In 1902, the 12th Infantry completed three years of duty in the Philippines and returned to Fort Douglas. For entertainment, the men filled dance halls, breweries, parks, and often paid visits to the gambling halls, shooting galleries, saloons, and houses of prostitution in the red light district. The regimental band performed Sunday afternoon concerts, bringing civilians to the fort. Consequently, many of the officers married Salt Lake girls and either took them away to other posts or settled in the city to raise their families.

Fort Douglas expanded quickly during World War I, training thousands of recruits and establishing a German prisoner of war camp. Throughout the war, it’s prison held almost nine hundred dissidents. Also, the 38th Infantry, nicknamed “Rock of the Marne” for stopping a German offensive, arrived in 1922.

In January of 1942 as a result of the Japanese attack of Pearl Harbor, the Ninth Service Command headquarters, which directed military operations west of the Rockies, was transferred from Presidio in San Francisco to Fort Douglas.  Salt Lake City scrambled in order to house the 150 families of the Ninth Service Command’s incoming troops. Also during this time Fort Douglas coordinated all material to be sent to the Pacific war. Following World War II, the army announced that Fort Douglas was surplus and some of its land was turned over to the University of Utah as well as other agencies. The Korean War briefly delayed dismantlement, but the flag was finally lowered on June 25, 1967. The army retained only some historic buildings and water rights in Red Butte Canyon.

Fort Douglas was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1970 and earned the designation of a National Historic Landmark in 1975. Congress closed Fort Douglas as a military facility in 1989. Transfer of Fort Douglas to the University of Utah started two years later and was completed in 1993, leaving only the memories of the more than 50,000 military personnel that had been stationed in Salt Lake City.

Sources: Linda Sillitoe, The History of Salt Lake County; O. W. Hoop, “Recollections of Fort Douglas at the Turn of the Century” Utah Historical Quarterly XXI; Jeffrey D. Nichols, History Blazer May 1995; Charles G. Hibbard, “Fort Douglas” Utah History Encyclopedia