More background info: For general historical background please refer to this separate chapter:
Topaz was originally called the Central Utah Relocation Center but was soon renamed after a nearby mountain. Construction started in July 1942 and the camp became operational in September of that year. Early internees found construction still incomplete and were involved in finishing the work.
The harsh Utah climate on a semi-arid plain with hot summers and bitter cold winters must have been quite a shock for the inmates, most of whom came from coastal California.
The one square mile (2.6 square kilometres) site consisted of 42 blocks of 12 barracks each for internees’ living space (cf. also Amache
) and each block also had communal baths, latrines, laundry facilities and a mess/canteen. The camp also had its own hospital and schools.
In total over 11,000 internees passed through the camp, which at its peak held more than 8000 inmates plus guard staff, making it the fifth largest town in Utah back then.
Although Topaz was generally considered a “quiet” camp, meaning there wasn’t much in terms of protest, there was one incident in which an inmate was shot by a guard. After that the use of weapons was reviewed and restricted and the regime for leave relaxed.
Two Topaz inmates’ cases were of legal significance. The first was that of Fred Korematsu, who initially defied the relocation order and stayed in California. When he was arrested and eventually brought to Topaz he sued, arguing that his “relocation” was unconstitutional. In the Korematsu v. United States case the court still ruled against the plaintiff. But a similar case went differently: Topaz inmate Mitsuye Endo agreed to be a test case for the lawyer James Purcell who was convinced the relocations were unconstitutional. So he submitted the case of Endo arguing that she was a law-abiding US citizen and that her relocation violated her Fifth Amendments rights. When Endo refused the offer of release on the condition that she would not return to California, the case went to the Supreme Court in 1944. This eventually ruled in her favour, thus effectively admitting that the relocation programme was essentially unconstitutional.
After that Topaz inmates were allowed to move more freely outside the camp, but it wasn’t closed until after the war ended in August 1945, when former internees started returning home. Topaz closed for good in October that year.
As at the other sites of the camps the buildings were all removed or demolished. Several were sold and re-erected in the town of Delta, so that some structures survive away from the original site.
A first monument near the site of the camp was erected in 1976, which was replaced by a new one in 2002 and a second was added in 2005. In 2007 the site was declared a National Historic Landmark.
A local High School teacher in Delta studied the Topaz story and for decades campaigned for a museum. In 2013 a purpose-built museum was begun and it opened to the public in 2015.
What there is to see: At the authentic historical site almost nothing remains other than the concrete foundations of buildings and parts of the barbed-wire fence around the perimeter. There are a couple of small monuments with a plaque providing basic information. But overall it’s a rather forlorn sight.
However, in the nearby town of Delta, the Topaz Museum
is one of the best of its kind. Displays include a life-size reconstruction of part of a camp barrack and a mess hall furnished with realistic army cots (one mattress bears the “WRA
” stamp on it!), wardrobes, tables and chairs as well as a typical pot-bellied iron stove. This serves to give a realistic impression of what the conditions in these camps were like. There’s also a plan of the camp and displays of various personal belongings of internees, augmented with additional photos and video footage on screens. The exhibition also features a collection of works of art produced at the camp’s art school. The museum is not yet quite complete, and one room looks more like a storage facility. But work is ongoing to expand and further design the exhibition.
The museum also organizes guided tours (and self-guide plans) of the original buildings moved to Delta from Topaz after the camp’s closure, mostly parts of the former hospital, but also a couple of remodelled former living barracks. By advance appointment the museum can also organize guided tours of the historical site itself.
Location: in rural west central Utah, USA, 15 miles (24 km) north-west of the small town of Delta and 140 miles (225 km) south-west of the state’s capital Salt Lake City.
The Topaz Museum in Delta is right in the centre at 55 West Main Street.
Google Maps locators:
Access and costs: remote but not too difficult to get to by car; free
Details: To get to Topaz and Delta you have to drive. Coming from Salt Lake City first take Interstate 15 south and get off at exit 228 on to state route 41/28. In Nephi turn right on to state route 132 and proceed west to Lynndyl and there turn left on to highway 6 which goes straight to Delta, where the road joins highway 50/E Main St. The museum is a bit further west along the same street.
The museum is open Mondays to Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., admission free.
To get to the former camp leave Delta on highway 50 westbound and just after the edge of town turn sharp right on to N1500W. Stay on this road until you come to a T-junction where you should turn right on to N7000W and a bit further on turn left on to N4500W. This takes you straight along the northern edge of the Topaz Camp; the main monument and car park are at the western end of the site.
When exploring the Topaz site on foot take good care – and by no means remove any artefacts you may find.
If you want to stay overnight in the area, Delta has a couple of motels and eateries.
Time required: The Museum can probably keep you engrossed for about an hour or so. The actual site can take anything from a just few moments if you only want to make a brief stop by the main monument to hours of in-depth exploring of the empty site. Tours organized by the museum are said to last about two hours.
Combinations with other dark destinations: none nearby that I’d know of, unless you count the desolate desert scenery to the west.
But see also under USA
Combinations with non-dark destinations: right next door is the Great Basin Museum, which has fossils, minerals and relics of early settlers and explorers. The actual Great Basin National Park is a good 90 miles (150 km) further west of Delta.