More background info: For general background and history of these camps please refer to this separate chapter:
Manzanar was the first of the ten camps to be set up, starting in March 1942. Initially it was one of the many “assembly” or “reception centers” but from June 1942 was taken over by the War Relocation Authority (WRA) and became one of the ten proper “relocation centers”, de facto concentration camps for Americans of Japanese descent.
The one square mile (2.6 square kilometres) main camp consisted of 36 blocks of residential barracks that were quickly assembled and made out of light-weight materials. There was no plumbing or running water. Each residential block had communal latrines, a laundry and communal mess hall. In addition the camp had schools, including a high-school auditorium that also served as a theatre, as well as a hospital, a library, a post office, a barbershop and a fire brigade. It was like a full-blown town. In total over 10,000 people were incarcerated here. The climate at the foot of the Sierra Nevada mountains was harsh, especially in summer, as the simple barracks provided little shelter from the often over 40 degree centigrade midday heat or the cold at night.
The whole camp was surrounded by a barbed-wire fence and eight watchtowers with armed guards. At the entrance there was a dual sentry point, the larger one for the armed military police guards and the smaller one for the camp-internal police.
The work inmates had to do was not only in agriculture in the surrounding land (cf. Amache
), but there was also a factory in the camp for the production of camouflage netting that was supplied to the US military.
In their free time inmates engaged in recreation and sports, some created little gardens to beautify the camp. And there was camp newspaper.
But the running of the camp did not always go smoothly. Discontent amongst different groups of inmates about pay level differences and alleged “collaborators” and “informers” led to anger that erupted in the December 1942 Manzanar Riot. The military police used tear gas and gunfire and two inmates were shot dead and about ten wounded. After that the camp administration quietly removed those inmates suspected to be “collaborators” to other camps (for their own safety).
Manzanar camp finally closed in November 1945 after the last inmates had left or were forcibly removed (see here
). Like at the other camps the buildings were then removed, except for the sentry points and the high-school auditorium, which found other uses.
From 1969 there were annual pilgrimages organized by a dedicated Manzanar Committee. As early as 1972, the former camp was declared a California Historic Landmark, upgraded to a National Historic Landmark in 1985 and it became a National Historic Site in 1992.
At the same time the National Park Service took over and began restoration work. In the former high-school auditorium a visitor centre was set up. An old mess hall was brought back to the camp and replicas of a couple of barracks were reconstructed. A replica watchtower was rebuilt too.
Given all this infrastructure, Manzanar became one of the most visited of the ten former “relocation centers” or concentration camps
– although the explicit use of the latter term at the site by the NPS caused controversy.
What there is to see:
more than at other former relocation centers
. A good and natural starting point is the visitor centre.
But before you go in en route from the car park take a look at the general historic marker stone’s plaque and note the missing <c> on “concentration camps”; this letter was chiselled away by some disgruntled person who objected to the use of that term in this context!
Inside the visitor centre is a comprehensive exhibition about Manzanar and the whole relocation programme. It features a large scale model of the entire camp as it would have looked like at its peak. The largest exhibits are a life-size replica of a camp watchtower and parts of the barbed-wire fence, partial barrack reconstructions, as well a large canvas with inmates’ names. Many text-and-photo panels explain different aspects of the camps, artefacts on display include various personal belongings as well as jewellery and furniture made in the camp. The exhibition also touches upon the history of the place before the camp. A film “Remembering Manzanar” is also shown every half hour and there is a museum shop.
Back outside head to the north-west of the visitor centre where two reconstructed barracks of former Block 14 can be seen. Inside the barracks are furnished in a way that illustrates the living conditions in the camp well. One section deals with the controversial “loyalty questionnaires”.
A short distance further west is a reconstructed women’s latrine and a communal bathroom, which give a good indication of the lack of privacy that characterized these camps.
Another building is the Block 14 Mess Hall. This is actually an original structure but from an airbase and moved here later. But a sign says it’s identical in design to the mess halls of Manzanar. Inside is a replica kitchen as well as rows of simple tables and benches. And there’s also a mock-up schoolroom.
Dotted around these buildings are yet more info panels, screens and various audio stations. So it’s quite modern and state of the art.
You can also go on a longer (3.2 mile /5 km) loop drive (you can pick up a map at the visitor center) that goes past parts of the camp, some of which are further away. This includes the fire station, complete with an old fire engine, the two original sentry points, parts of Japanese gardens created by the inmates, sports fields, as well as the old camp cemetery with its white stone monument. Along the way are more text-and-photo information panels by various points of interest.
Strictly speaking outside the camp, just outside its perimeter fence is also a reconstructed guard tower by the roadside ca. a quarter of a mile (400 m) north of the visitor centre.
All in all, it must be said that this is quite possibly the best commodified of the ten former relocation center sites. It’s a good mix of the authentic and the faithfully reconstructed and the information provided is copious. A really well laid-out site.
just west of Highway 395 in Owens Valley between the small towns of Independence and Lone Pine, ca. 230 miles (380 km) north of Los Angeles
, California, USA
Google Maps locators:
Access and costs: a bit remote but easy to get to by car; free
Details: Manzanar lies right by Highway 395, which branches off Interstate 15 just north of Los Angeles, so it’s an easy straight drive that takes roughly four hours.
The open-air parts of the former camp are open daily from sunrise to sunset; the visitor centre is open only Fridays to Mondays from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., closed Tuesday to Thursday and on a few public holidays; Block 14 exhibits are open daily from 7:30 a.m. until 3 p.m. except on Christmas Day.
If you want to stay in the area overnight before driving on, accommodation options can be found in both Independence and Lone Pine just a few miles along Highway 395 to the north or south.
Time required: a good few hours if you want to see everything.
Combinations with other dark destinations: Nothing in the immediate vicinity, but Death Valley National Park isn’t too far, less than two hours’ drive from Manzanar.
More proper dark commodified sites can be found in Los Angeles
See also under USA
Combinations with non-dark destinations: Other than Death Valley National Park, the nearest attraction to Manzanar as the crow flies would be Sequoia National Park to the west and south-west of Manzanar, however, since that is on the other side of the mountain range, it’s a long drive (ca. five hours or more).
Much further away but quicker to reach (in ca. 2 to 3 hours) is Yosemite National Park to the north-west of Manzanar.
All photos are taken from the National Park Service website where they are marked as being in the public domain.
- Manzamar 1 - contemporary photo of the visitor centre
- Manzamar 2 - historic photo of the entrance and sentry point
- Manzamar 3 - historic photo of the camp
- Manzamar 4 - historic photo of a camp barrack under construction
- Manzamar 5 - historic photo of armed military police guards at Manzamar
- Manzamar 6 - historic photo from when the camp was in operation