The Spirit of Fort Douglas

Nestled at the base of the Wasatch Mountains is Fort Douglas, a place that has reflected the history of our nation while it has forever changed the landscape of the Intermountain West. First a federal camp overlooking the valley settled by Mormon pioneers, Fort Douglas has served as a vital Union stronghold; a place where thousands of military heroes were recruited and trained; a prison for people who were feared as a threat to national security; and as a resting place for enemies and brothers alike.

Weakened after years of neglect and military downsizing, Fort Douglas has been revitalized by the University of Utah. Nearly 150 years after its founding, the fort hosted atheletes from around the world during the 2002 Olympic Winter Games and Paralympic Games.

A Long History

On the ground where musket and cannon thundered 140 years earlier, across the pathways where men marched off to five wars, stands a place transformed today to meet the needs of tomorrow. Once strategically set apart from Salt Lake City and viewed with dread, Fort Douglas was a global community - the place where athletes from around the world stayed as they competed in the 2002 Olympic Winter Games and Paralympic Games.

Putting the story of Fort Douglas into a national context, the program demonstrates how the post was important to the Union effort when it was established at the outbreak of the Civil War. Later, while America grappled with the struggle of race, stereotypes played out on the Salt Lake City stage when the fort hosted an African-American infantry unit.

After war broke out in Europe in 1914, the American public came to fear alien enemies, and Fort Douglas became the primary internment camp for suspicious German and Austro-Hungarian immigrants west of the Mississippi. As the nation banded together for the cause in the next world war, the fort would be a central place for military recruitment and induction, sending young men and women off to fight on the islands of the Pacific to the beaches at Normandy.

Rocky Relationship

Throughout its many incarnations, Fort Douglas endured a tenuous relationship with the local civilian community. "The Spirit of Fort Douglas" documents the tension between members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who settled the Utah territory following years of religious persecution and the "gentile" federal troops. The program explores how the fort's founder, an Irish Catholic immigrant named Colonel Patrick Edward Connor, was suspicious of Mormons and questioned their loyalty to the Union. The Mormons, in turn, distrusted the intentions of his federal troops, greeting them when with "neither cheers nor jeers" as they marched down the Salt Lake City streets before establishing a camp overlooking the valley.

The documentary captures the spirit of Fort Douglas through the people who called it home. It features colorful interviews with the "army brats" who grew up playing on the parade grounds, along with the men and women who recall the hustle and bustle of the fort during World War II.

"Well, there was something going on all the time. The band used to set up on Soldier's Field and play concerts at noon for all the people who worked in the offices around," says Margaret Montgomery, who met her husband George, a Chief Warrant Officer and director of the 364th Army Band, at Fort Douglas. "They just provided so much entertainment. The best there was - like Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, everybody all thrown together."

Handover to the University of Utah

In 1991, the military career of Fort Douglas officially came to an end as the flag was lowered and the University of Utah took possession of 62 historic buildings and 51 acres of land. Taking care to preserve the fort's heritage, the university created the Heritage Commons student residence area that will also serve as the official Athletes' Village during the 2002 Olympic Winter Games and Paralympic Games. In both capacities, the residential area will be a place of community, allowing people from different places to come together and create the next chapter of history.

"Now we have this vitality of youth and an opportunity for education and collaboration that will continue to go on here for years, and will still serve the community as a place where they can come and visit, learn the history of the Fort and experience this unique environment," said Anne Racer, University of Utah facilities planning director.

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An Interview with the Producer

Joe Prokop is a producer at KUED. A native of Connecticut, Prokop settled in Utah for the powdery snow-skiing and red-rock desert and has since become fascinated with local history. "The Spirit of Fort Douglas" was his first documentary.

Q. Why is Fort Douglas the subject of your first documentary?
A. The history of Fort Douglas is not just the story of a place near the University of Utah, nor the simple tale of an abandoned fort. Fort Douglas is stationed at the crossroads of several major historical events-the federal surveillance of early Mormon pioneers; the joining of the transcontinental railroad; the internment of aliens during WWI and WWII; and the lodging of Olympic athletes from around the world. The Fort has always had a way of redefining itself and adapting to the modern world. It's a historic landmark that has remained vital to the community and to the country.

Q. Why should viewers care about Fort Douglas?
A. The history and development of Fort Douglas mirrors that of the nation. When it comes to Native American issues, military training and war internment, the fort's past plays an integral role in understanding U.S. history. Few people know that it was a training ground for African-American soldiers leaving for the Spanish-American War. Additionally, it served as the central base of operations for soldiers leaving to fight in the most significant battles with Native Americans. Prisoners of war and aliens from Germany, Italy, Japan and other countries that inspired xenophobic response after WWI were interred there at different times during the two World Wars.

Q. What about soldiers who fought in World Wars?
A. After WWI, the fort was garrisoned with the 38th infantry, an outfit whose efforts to stop the Germans at the Second battle of the Marne became the turning point in the war. It was quite an honor to have such a celebrated regiment stationed at the fort. During WWII the fort became an important base of operations-and an induction center for the western U.S.-as the military installations were moved inland from the coast. Thousands of men passed through the fort as they went off to fight in that war, many of whom are buried in the Fort Douglas Cemetery.

Q. How is the fort relevant today?
A. Thanks to renovation and reconstruction, Heritage Commons at Fort Douglas is now home to diverse students from around the world who come to study at the University of Utah. And, of course, the fort is playing host to the international athletes gathering for the 2002 Olympic Winter Games. A portion of the Fort still operates as a recruitment center for all branches of the military.

Q. What do you hope viewers will take away from this film?
A. I hope viewers have an "a-ha" moment, when they learn something interesting they didn't know before. This collection of buildings has a rich past and a bright future. While the events that have unfolded at Fort Douglas over the last century live on in the hearts of veterans, I hope my film will bring these details to light for generations to come. With the renovations and recent changes in ownership, new life has been breathed into the fort. My film is a reminder of the rich and colorful stories that comprise its foundation.

The program was made possible by the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Foundation and the C. Comstock Clayton Foundation.