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The changing face of Fort Douglas

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Adaptation was one of the defining characteristics of the settlement of the West.

Pioneers from a variety of lands and cultures arrived in a new place and had to make do with what was at hand. Indigenous peoples had to adjust to loss of land and to accept new neighbors. Soldiers, miners, cowboys and homesteaders all had to come to terms with the place before they could tap into the promise it offered.

Out of that ability to adapt has sprung a legacy of accommodation that has carried through the decades — change that is rooted in the past, that builds on what came before; change that keeps intrinsic values while meeting ever-fluctuating needs.

Fort Douglas is a prime example.

Founded in 1862 for the purpose of guarding the Overland Mail route during the Civil War — as well as to keep an eye on Mormon settlers — Fort Douglas has changed with the times. What was intended to be a temporary proposition became a lasting enterprise.

In the early days, this site on Salt Lake City's east bench was the quintessential frontier outpost. "It was involved in every part of the development of the West," says Scott Mietchen, director of major gifts in the University of Utah Development Office, which is now playing an important part in the fort's latest incarnation.

Fort Douglas and its personnel were involved in everything from the growth of communications and transportation to development of mining and industry, says Mietchen.

The military history of the state can also be traced there — from conflicts with native cultures, through world wars and into peacetime defense. And the significance has extended beyond local borders. From the soldiers who fought the Battle of Bear River to the Buffalo Soldiers who rode up San Juan Hill with Teddy Roosevelt, to the troops that made the final assault on Paris during World War II, there has been a Fort Douglas connection.

Over the years, as needs have changed, the post has changed with them. As original land was deemed unneeded for military purposes, it was given to others.

In 1988, Fort Douglas was closed as an official Army base. The southern portion of the old fort remains the headquarters of the 96th Army Reserve Command and serves as a base of operation for U.S. Navy and Marine Reserves.

But the rest of the post, now known as Fort Douglas Heritage Commons, is being developed into a unique student village, which will not only accommodate the world during the 2002 Olympics but will serve needs of students for generations to come.

"We've worked hard to integrate old with new," says Mietchen, "to make the history accessible. Fort Douglas is too important to be lost or forgotten."

It is a classic example, he says, of beating swords into plowshares. What was once an important military site will now be at the forefront of education. Fort Douglas will continue to be a viable, dynamic place, once more adapting to fit a new vision.

Col. Patrick E. Connor, head of the 3rd California Infantry, was not much impressed with the Mormons, considering them "a community of traitors, murderers, fanatics." So, while ensuring the safety of the Overland Mail route was a prime concern of the government, Connor wanted to make sure the Mormons didn't rise up in rebellion.

Camp Floyd (then known as Fort Crittenden) had been established south of Salt Lake City following the clash known as the Utah War. But the pressing needs of Civil War had led the government to pull troops from there in 1861.

Late in the fall of 1862, Connor and 700 men of the infantry and part of the 2nd California Cavalry, moved into the Utah Territory. He visited Camp Floyd and found it in disrepair. He decided something closer to the Mormon capital would better serve their needs.

On Sept. 20, he chose a plateau about three miles east of Salt Lake City "in the vicinity of good timber and sawmills, and at a point where hay, grain and other produce can be purchased cheaper than at Fort Crittenden" and where "1,000 troops would be more efficient than 3,000 on the other side of the Jordan."

In October 1862, the camp was formally established as Fort Douglas, named at the suggestion of President Abraham Lincoln, in honor of his former political foe, Sen. Stephen A. Douglas, a champion of the West.

The first winter was spent mostly in tents and dugouts. A few log and adobe buildings were constructed but nothing with an eye to permanence. This was considered a temporary outpost.

Connor immediately turned his attention to "control and discipline" of the American Indians, whom he believed had been harassing the Overland Mail route.

On Jan. 29, 1863, his troops wiped out a settlement of 200 Shoshoni men, women and children on the Bear River in what is now Idaho. (Looked on now with considerable historic angst, this Bear River Massacre was considered de rigueur at the time and earned Connor the rank of brigadier general.) Other skirmishes and forays took the troops to Cache, Skull, Cedar and Utah valleys.

In September of 1863 mineral-laden ore from Bingham Canyon was brought to Connor to assay. Under his direction, the first mining claim in the territory was filed. Connor saw development of the mining industry in Utah as a "peaceful solution to the Mormon problem." In hopes that mining would attract enough outsiders to dilute Mormon influence, he led a number of prospecting patrols into nearby canyons.

Eventually, Connor accepted the fact that the Mormons weren't a threat to national security, and an amiable interaction between fort and city developed. The general was known to attend performances at the Salt Lake Theater, and girls from the city were often invited to dances held at the camp.

By the 1870s, Fort Douglas had proved its worth. A campaign was launched to replace older buildings with stone structures made of sandstone from nearby Red Butte Canyon.

Today, these are the buildings, in the Gothic Revival style, that are so treasured. The lovely buildings that grace Officers' Circle and those that line Stilwell Field were mostly built between 1872 and 1876. (Only one structure from the 1860s remains — the one-time post commander's headquarters.) The post chapel was added in 1884.

Another period of building and expansion occurred during the 1920s and '30s, often considered the post's "Golden Age." Buildings were remodeled and upgraded, new quarters for officers and non-commissioned officers were added. And recreational facilities, such as a golf course, swimming pool and post theater, were completed.

Fort Douglas saw increased activity during World War II, when the 9th Service Command Center was moved there from San Francisco and a sub-post was established in Wendover.

After the war, however, the 9th moved back to California and military activity was scaled down. After 1946, Fort Douglas served mainly as a support unit for the United States Army Reserve. It would never be the full-scale base it once was.

Kay Winston Lipman lived at Fort Douglas from the time she was 12 until she was a sophomore in high school, while her father, a master sergeant in the Army, was stationed there.

"It was like our own little community," she said. She remembers being bused to school in the old brown Army bus. "We could go see movies at the theater for a quarter. My mom was in a bowling league, and my sis and I would have to set the pins; they were all done by hand. We had our own swimming pool, but the water came from Red Butte Canyon and it was always freezing."

She learned to drive there, along the shaded streets, and remembers the time that she backed into a tree. "Once I was pulled over for driving with my radio blaring during Taps, while the flag was taken down. You didn't do that. You pulled over and stopped, out of respect for the flag. By the time I got home, my dad knew all about it, and I was grounded for two weeks."

Army life was good, Lipman says. "Although, I had to learn to be a good packer and to make friends fast." (She lived in 29 different homes.) But Fort Douglas always held a special place in her heart, maybe because after his assignment there, her father retired, and the family stayed in Salt Lake City.

"It was so alive back then."

In some ways it has been hard, she says, to watch the post slowly decline. "But I'm so excited now that we have a chance to restore it for our youth."

Kay and her husband, Allan, are co-chairmen of the campaign to raise money to restore the old post buildings as part of the university's development of the area. Their goal is $30 million.

"People say, 'Oh, you're doing it for the Olympics.' But we're not. The Olympics will be here for two weeks. This will be a lasting legacy for the university and for the people of the community and the state," she says.

The Olympics caused it to happen sooner than it might have otherwise, says Mietchen, and the $28 million contributed by the Olympics helped put new construction on the fast track. "But this has been a long-range plan."

Fort Douglas Heritage Commons will house 2,500 students (twice that many athletes will stay there). "That will allow us to double our on-campus population," says Coralie Alder, director of public relations at the U. It will help with recruitment, she says, but more importantly, the design and layout will provide a quality college experience for students who live there.

New buildings have been built in "neighborhoods" east of the historic section of Fort Douglas, organized according to grade level. The centerpiece is the new Heritage Center, which has dining and meeting rooms and will function as the union area of this upper campus.

The second phase of the development involves restoration of the historic buildings along the Officers' Circle. These will be turned into honors housing with one for each of the colleges. Ten or 11 of the top students will be able to live there and enjoy special privileges, such as regular dinners with the dean and visits from touring artists.

Other historic buildings will be turned into faculty housing. The post chapel is being restored as an interdenominational site for weddings, receptions and other meetings. The post theater is being brought back to its art-deco glory. The bandstand in front of the officers' quarters is being rebuilt as it originally appeared. Stilwell Field will forever remain an open space.

Target date for completion of the chapel, theater and bandstand is Veterans Day this fall. They hope to have the honors housing up and going by the fall of 2002, says Mietchen.

And what is especially appealing is how they have been able to take the old buildings and wrap the new ones around them to retain the original feel and flavor the the fort, he says. You look at the new buildings, and you see the shape of the windows or the design of the roof is just the same as the old ones. The colors of brick were chosen to blend in with the native sandstone. "It's just a neat project."

The Fort Douglas Cemetery is a place for quiet reflection. Rows of sandstone and marble mark the graves of soldiers, stretching back to 1863 and the Battle of Bear River. Gen. Connor is buried here; as is James Doty, territorial governor from 1863-65.

There are POWs: 21 Germans from WWI; 20 Germans, 12 Italians and one Japanese from WWII. There are soldiers from those wars, from the Korean conflict, from Vietnam. Mixed in are a few that simply say "Unknown," their names and records lost in time.

A sign at the entrance helps put the place in perspective. "A soldier is required to practice the greatest act of his religious training — sacrifice," it reminds. And it admonishes, "only the dead have seen the end of war."

Reflection and perspective are also offered at the Fort Douglas Military Museum, now housed in two 1875 barracks buildings along Stilwell Field.

Through a wide range of exhibits, including everything from tanks and helicopters to dioramas and photographs and a large array of artifacts — weapons, equipment, uniforms — the museum tells the story of the base and its people, says museum director Robert Voyles.

The museum, operated and maintained by the Utah National Guard and supported by the nonprofit Fort Douglas Museum Association, has also recently completed a master plan and is looking forward to upgrading and expanding. It is a tremendous historic resource, says Voyles.

But more than that, he hopes that "visitors will take away a deep feeling of appreciation for the service and sacrifice many Utah citizens have made in serving their country. That sacrifice deserves to be preserved."

So much more than a collection of old buildings, Fort Douglas has a heart and soul that those involved in this latest adaptation hope will never be lost.

"It's a marvelous project," says Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, "one of the most significant preservation projects in America. You have this marvelous Civil War-era fort, combined with the new construction, which fits in so well. It's really a unique place."

Moe was out here six years ago. "And back then it was all dream, all vision. Now it's really happening. I admire the way the state and the community and the Olympics and the university have all come together. It's been a lot of fun to see it progress."

We owe a lot to the Army for its stewardship over the years, he says, "and now we are preserving an important part of the past for the future — for future use. Adaptive restoration is what we call it. And this is a breathtaking example."

But then, adapt, protect and serve have been watchwords at Fort Douglas from the very beginning.


E-mail: carma@desnews.com