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Digging into our sordid history

UI professor brought the Kooskia internment camp back into the public eye

by Kaylee Brewster - February 20, 2022

The Kooskia Internment Camp is a hidden historical site along U.S. Highway 12, and those who are hoping to share its stories have Priscilla Wegars to thank.

Wegars is a historian and curator of the University of Idaho’s Asian American Comparative Collection and a professor at UI. She was attending a lecture on Japanese internment and incarceration camps when a woman asked the lecturer about the site at Kooskia, remembering a train full of Japanese internees coming into town. The lecturer didn’t know of any camp at Kooskia. Wegars began to research the site, digging into the national archives, newspaper articles and interviews with people at the site and their descendants. In 2010, she turned her findings into a book, “Imprisoned in Paradise: Japanese Internee Road Workers at the World War II Kooskia Internment Camp.”

“It’s original research nobody has ever done before,” Wegars said, including finding the location of the Kooskia Internment Camp near milepost 104.

Before the site was an internment camp, it was the location of a Civilian Conservation Corps camp in the 1930s. Then it became the Canyon Creek Prison Camp. When the prison camp was closed, it opened the door for the Kooskia Internment Camp, established in 1943.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese people living in the U.S., who were noncitizens because they weren’t allowed to become naturalized U.S. citizens at the time, were taken by the FBI. Later, their families living in parts of Washington, Oregon, California and Arizona were taken to incarceration camps after President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 on Feb. 19, 1942.

Wegars said the term “internment” best describes the Kooskia camp and the detention of so-called “enemy aliens” during World War II. However, the War Relocation Authority camps, like Minidoka near Twin Falls, which detained Japanese Americans who were U.S. citizens, are best described as incarceration camps because the people there were denied their constitutional rights.

The Kooskia Internment Camp was unique, being the only work camp exclusively for Japanese men in the U.S., with the purpose of building the Lewis-Clark Highway. It was also run by the Immigration and Naturalization Service because it was for noncitizens, some of whom also were Japanese men sent from South America, according to “Imprisoned in Paradise.”

According to Wegars’ book, the designation of internees at the Kooskia Internment Camp as “enemy aliens” meant they were held as prisoners of war, granting them the rights of the Geneva Convention. Those rights afforded them living conditions that were better than those of their families in the incarceration camps. The Geneva Convention stated that prisoners of war were to be granted the same treatment as soldiers of the country they were imprisoned in, which meant access to health care, better food and recreational opportunities, as well as elected representatives. They also received pay for their work on the highway — between $55 and $65 a month.

Even though the Japanese internees at Kooskia were treated better, Wegars said, it doesn’t justify that they were taken away from their families and had their civil rights violated.

“They were using the internment camps as making lemonade from lemons,” she said. “Kooskia became a place where they could recover some of their self-respect in the sense of, yes, they volunteered to go there, they received wages for their work. Then they were making the best of a bad situation.”

In 2010 and ‘13, Stacey Camp, who was then an archeology professor at University of Idaho, did an excavation dig at the Kooskia site after she visited it with Wegars. She left UI in 2017 to go to Michigan State University and is currently cataloging, identifying and digitizing the artifacts found at the Kooskia site. The artifacts will then be returned to UI to be stored there.

During the dig, Camp found a carving of an otter or dog that was etched into sandstone by a Japanese internee. A geologist told Camp the stone breaks apart easily, so whoever carved it was either very skilled or had lots of practice.

“(The artifacts) speak to the fact that these men were so isolated and removed from their families and loved ones and really had to find a way to pass the time,” Camp said.

A second example of artwork the team discovered was a piece of concrete in which pieces of rock and stone tools from the Nez Perce Indians were embedded. That type of artwork also was found at Fort Missoula, Mont., where Japanese internees were held. Camp said it appears men from Fort Missoula continued their craft at Kooskia when they arrived to build the highway.

During the dig, Camp said local residents were supportive of the excavation. Kooskia-area citizens came to watch the work, and middle school students also came to visit, all wanting to know more about the site.

“I do think people want to learn their history and be stewards of it,” Camp said. “It’s a part of who they are. It’s part of their community.”

In 1945, the Kooskia Internment Camp was closed and the internees were transferred to New Mexico. After the camp was closed, the buildings eventually were removed and the site was used for gold mining, according to Wegars’ book.

On Aug. 19, 1962, the highway was completed and dedicated at Packers Meadow near Lolo Pass at the Idaho-Montana border. Tennessee Sen. Albert Gore, father of former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, was the featured speaker.

When the work on the highway was finished, the Kooskia Internment Camp faded into memory. No marker or sign exists at the site sharing the history of the location (see related story).

“It’s important to bring these things forward so it won’t happen again,” Wegars said. “There was not a single act of sabotage proved against any Japanese American living in the United States. Not one.”

Brewster may be contacted at or at (208) 848-2297.


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