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Beehive Archive: Boom and bust: Topaz Concentration Camp

By Staff | Apr 3, 2024

Welcome to the Beehive Archive — your weekly bite-sized look at some of the most pivotal — and peculiar — events in Utah history. With all of the history and none of the dust, the Beehive Archive is a fun way to catch up on Utah’s past. Beehive Archive is a production of Utah Humanities, provided to local papers as a weekly feature article focusing on Utah history topics drawn from our award-winning radio series, which can be heard each week on Utah Public Radio.

During World War II, a city of more than 8,000 people rose out of Utah’s desert for three years, and then returned to dust.

After the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt ordered the relocation and imprisonment of more than 125,000 people of Japanese ancestry, moving them away from the West Coast. In this violation of civil rights, some who were displaced came to Utah voluntarily to avoid incarceration.

Others were forcibly moved to remote concentration camps, such as Topaz, near the town of Delta in Utah’s West Desert. Residents of Topaz were largely from San Francisco’s Bay Area and were initially held there at a horse racetrack while Topaz was built.

The camp was not finished when they arrived in Utah, beginning on Sept. 11, 1942, and they had to complete construction of their own barracks and community buildings. It was difficult work, and as winter crept closer, they were still without stoves, and a delayed coal shipment forced residents to burn leftover lumber to stay warm.

When the camp was finally completed, Topaz became one of rural Utah’s largest population centers with a peak residency of around 8,100 people. Its total area was 19,000 acres and included agricultural areas, a hospital, post office, fire station, churches, schools, libraries, and community gym. With 623 buildings, Topaz dwarfed the nearby town of Delta, which had a population of just 1,500 people.

Topaz transformed the face of Millard County, both economically and socially. A decade earlier during the Great Depression, the town of Delta struggled with drought and unemployment. But the construction of Topaz brought in new jobs and boosted the local economy.

Some people at Topaz received permission to shop in Delta and work off-site on farms and in businesses and homes. Incarcerees could also leave the camp and resettle to the East for work or college, but they could not return to the West Coast until 1945.

By the end of the war, most of those left at Topaz moved back to California to try to rebuild their lives. After transforming the rural Utah desert into one of the largest cities in the state – then back to dust again – the wartime Topaz installation would be considered another of rural Utah’s boom-and-bust towns.

Beehive Archive is a production of Utah Humanities and its partners. This episode of the Beehive Archive was contributed by the Topaz Museum. Sources consulted in the creation of the Beehive Archive and past episodes may be found at www.utahhumanities.org/stories. 


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