Looking out the large windows in the meditation room at the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center, the landscape looks as empty as it is rugged. Here in northern Wyoming's Bighorn Basin, hayfields and sagebrush steppe stretch for miles, until Heart Mountain breaks the horizon with its 2,000-foot rise from the surrounding flats.
While it's peaceful here today, between August 1942 and November 1945 this desolate area was home to Wyoming's third-largest community, with a population of about 10,000. But Heart Mountain wasn't a city, it was one of 10 relocation centers established in the West by the federal government's War Relocation Administration. After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the government forced more than 120,000 people of Japanese descent — about two-thirds of them U.S. citizens — from their homes in California, Oregon, Washington and southern Arizona and into camps such as Heart Mountain.
Today several of the former camps have museums and/or interpretive centers and are open to the public, including the Manzanar National Historic Site in California.
This Wyoming museum is unique, however, because people once forced to live there helped create it. “At Manzanar, the government listened to former incarcerees and took their input, but the former incarcerees understood that the story told would ultimately be the story the government wanted to tell,” says Dakota Russell, executive director of the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation. “At Heart Mountain, the stories from the incarcerees aren't filtered. A museum in the middle of nowhere like this can seem like a detour, but it's a detour so worth your while.”
Plan your trip
Location: 1539 Road 19, off U.S. Highway 14A between Cody and Powell
Getting there: You have to drive to the interpretive center, which is almost equidistant from Cody (13 miles) and Powell (11 miles). There's no public transportation; on-site parking is free.
Visit: Daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., May 15-Oct. 1; Wednesday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Oct. 2-May 14; other visits by appointment.
Admission: $9 ($7 for seniors 62 and older)
Tours: The center is currently self-guided, but in September it will offer tours of the barrack and the hospital grounds that will be free with admission to the center.
Best season to visit: Annually, the last full weekend in July, the center hosts the Heart Mountain Pilgrimage, a gathering of former internees and their families that's open to the public. It includes public events at the center and in and around Cody and Powell. Former internees volunteer as docents at the center in the week leading up to the pilgrimage.
Accessibility: “Almost everything at the center is ADA accessible, including the barrack and the walking trail,” Russell says.
Heart Mountain history
Following the Pearl Harbor attack in December 1941, the U.S. government ordered people of Japanese descent from their homes and moved them to makeshift “assembly centers,” established at places such as the Santa Anita racetrack and Los Angeles County Fairgrounds in California while the government built the 10 camps. It took 2,000 workers six months to construct 650 buildings at Heart Mountain, including 467 20-by-120-foot uninsulated, tar paper barracks furnished with military cots and potbelly coal stoves for heating (but no running water); a 150-bed hospital; workshops; churches; communal bathrooms; and mess halls. A barbed wire fence and nine guard towers surrounded the camp, on 740 arid acres between Cody and Powell. The first of the incarcerated people arrived in August 1942.
When the war ended in September 1945, all 10 internment camps disappeared as quickly as they appeared. The last trainload of residents left Heart Mountain in November 1945 — each given $25 and a train ticket to anywhere in the U.S.
Almost immediately, the government opened the detention camp land to World War II veterans to homestead, and sold off the barracks for $1 each.
Unlike the nine other internment camps, not all of Heart Mountain was razed or moved. A staff housing building and three hospital-related buildings — a boiler house, warehouse and mess hall — remained. In 1996, locals from Powell partnered with former internees to establish the foundation to preserve these four buildings, share the stories of residents and educate the public about their history. Over the following decade, the group gained nonprofit status, worked with the Bureau of Reclamation to better stabilize the remaining hospital buildings, and purchased 50 acres of the former camp.
The site was designated a national historic landmark by the National Park Service in 2006, and after several years of planning and construction, the 11,000-square-foot interpretive center — designed to resemble a row of three barracks — opened in 2011.
Due to continuing structural instability, visitors can't go inside the four original buildings, but the foundation hopes to restore and open them someday.
"Even though most of the camp is gone, there's something visceral about being on the site and feeling the wind and, in winter, the cold,” says Aura Newlin, a member of the foundation board of directors and a descendant of Heart Mountain internees. “My hope is that visitors see how fragile democracy can be. Heart Mountain is a sobering reminder that, even when things get scary, we need to make sure we're not reacting in ways that harm people on the basis of their status, race or ethnicity."
A different point of view
The exhibits and artifacts at Heart Mountain are presented and described in the first person. “Instead of a detached author voice, this is narrated from the perspective of ‘we,'” says Russell. Newlin adds, “It's subtle but really shapes the visitor experience. Instead of saying, ‘This happened to them,’ displays are written, ‘This happened to us. We were living here.’ It makes for a more powerful and empathetic visitor experience."
The first-person perspective starts as soon as you enter the center. In All We Could Carry — a 15-minute documentary by the son of a former Heart Mountain internee — 12 former residents share stories from their lives at the camp. Other exhibits tell how the camp's high school football team (1,500 teens graduated from Heart Mountain High School) lost only one game to nearby high schools over three years. Mothers tell stories of giving birth at the camp's hospital (550 babies were born at Heart Mountain). Individual items on display include ice skates belonging to Newlin's great-aunt and her grandfather's military uniform, dog tags, mess kit and military ribbons. (About 33,000 Japanese Americans were drafted into or volunteered to serve in the U.S. military in World War II, including about 900 from Heart Mountain. Look for an Honor Roll bearing the names of those Heart Mountain internees up the hill from the center, near a quarter-mile paved interpretive walking trail.)
"The skates get you into the mind of the youth here,” Newlin says. “They were in prison with barbed wire surrounding them and found ways to be teenagers.”
Throughout the center, life-size cutouts of prisoners from archival black-and-white photos put you next to them — on a train platform waiting to be taken from California to Wyoming, in a pottery class at camp, and doing projects alongside fellow Boy Scouts from Cody and Powell. “We try and display the collection in a way that shows the prisoners were all individuals, not a monolith,” Russell says. “Because we only have space to display a small portion of our collection, we keep it in rotation. People who come back see something different than they saw before. We have so many stories we can tell."
There will be more to see soon. The government sold all 457 barracks when the camp closed, but the foundation bought back one of them in 2015 and shipped it back to Heart Mountain. With a recent grant from the National Park Service, the foundation has been restoring it and hopes to open it to visitors in September. “In the museum, we already have recreated rooms made to look like barracks, but they're generic,” Russell says. “We wanted to make the real barrack more personal, so we picked three former incarcerees and are recreating their actual childhood rooms. These spaces will be narrated by them."
"The barrack is very important,” says Sam Mihara, a member of the foundaton board of directors who was brought to the camp as a 9-year-old with his family. (He's not one of the three former residents whose narrations will become part of the center.) “When they brought that back, it made a huge difference in my remembering what life there was like. When I set foot in it, I was immediately back 80 years to when I lived in a single small room for three years. Visitors will feel that.”
More to explore in the area
Head 4.5 miles west from the museum to the Heart Mountain Ranch Preserve, owned by the Nature Conservancy, to tackle a challenging eight-mile (round-trip) hiking trail that climbs 2,000 feet to Heart Mountain's 8,123-foot-tall summit. “The mountain was not part of the camp, but incarcerees were allowed to get passes to leave the camp and hike up the mountain,” Russell says. If you're not up for a strenuous hike, do stop at the interpretative cabin at the trailhead to learn about the geology, cultural significance and ecology of Heart Mountain.
Much farther afield
Among the incarcerated at Heart Mountain were father and son Seiichi and Roy Kito, who were brought to Wyoming along with other family members from their Los Angeles home. In 1903, Seiichi had founded Fugetsu-Do, a mochi and manju confectionary in L.A.'s Little Tokyo. When he was old enough, Roy worked there and learned how to make the traditional Japanese sweets. The bakery closed when the government sent the Kitos to Heart Mountain, but Roy continued to make mochi at the camp, using sugar donated by other camp families from their monthly rations. When the Kitos — including Roy's new wife, Kazuko, whom he met and married at the camp — returned to Los Angeles in 1945, Roy reopened Fugetsu-Do in the same spot on East First Street it had been previously (after paying the landlord four years of back rent). Roy's son, Brian, now operates the business, and Brian's son also works there.
Where to stay
Splurge: One block off Cody's Main Street, the 21-room Chamberlin Inn opened in 1903 as a small boardinghouse. It was remodeled between 2005 and 2007, and most rooms now feature antique clawfoot tubs and brick walls. Rooms from $299
Save: The family-owned and -run Lamplighter Inn and Restaurant in downtown Powell is dated, but its 17 rooms are clean and cozy, and its restaurant serves delicious steaks. It also has an on-site liquor store. Rooms from $89
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Where to dine
Splurge: Open for lunch, dinner and weekend brunch, Trailhead serves American bistro food alongside wood-fired pizzas in Cody. Its 8-ounce tenderloin comes topped with an espresso bourbon sauce.
Save: WYOld West Brewing Company in Powell uses locally grown barley to brew the 12 beers it has on tap, including the Heart Mountain Hefeweizen. Its menu features pub staples and a half-dozen burger options.
Dina Mishev's work has appeared in Outside, Travel + Leisure and The Washington Post. A resident of Jackson, Wyoming, she is the editor-in-chief of Jackson Hole magazine and the author of three books about Wyoming and Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks.