Fort Douglas-University of Utah Relations

Jami Balls

On February 28, 1850, the General Assembly of the provisional state of Deseret declared their intention to establish a university and appointed members to a Board of Regents to select a site. They chose an area of about 560 acres on the bench east of the city, including what is now the main campus, a portion of Federal Heights, most of Fort Douglas, and additional property to the south and west. Although title to and plans for the campus were drawn up, the operations of the university had been suspended for ten years due to a lack of funds.  This provided the opportunity for Colonel Patrick E. Connor, to claim 2,560 acres on the east bench for Camp Douglas in October 1862. As a result, more than 530 acres of the original 560-acre campus were enclosed within the claimed boundaries of the military reservation. In 1894, Congress passed an act granting the university sixty acres of the land. Thirty-two more acres were granted in 1906 and another sixty-one in 1934.

Following World War II, the GI Bill of Rights was passed, giving money for tuition, books, and other expenses to war veterans so that they could attend school rather than compete in the job market. This resulted in a rapid growth of colleges and universities. At the University of Utah, the enrollment number had almost doubled between fall 1945 and winter 1946, plus the men and their families needed places to live. The president of the university, A. Ray Olpin, worked strenuously to ease the overcrowding on campus by using some of the unused facilities at Fort Douglas.

The Ninth Service Command was dissolved in 1946, and in 1947 the army announced that Fort Douglas was surplus. The location of the university in regards to the fort put it in excellent position to use the vacated facilities.  Housing was the university’s primary concern and the Federal Public Housing Authority allowed the use of military facilities for the temporary housing of veterans. Later, Senate Bill 2085 passed making military facilities available for the education of veterans.

However, the demand on the university continued to be a burden. Throughout the spring of 1946, the regents considered either limiting enrollment or expanding. Finally the governor, responding to Utah residents, expressed that the University of Utah would expand so they would not have to turn away anyone that wanted to attain an education. The only feasible direction for expansion was to move east. During the late 1940s university officials working to obtain surplus military equipment and through the Surplus Properties Act acquired many buildings from Fort Douglas as well as 299 acres of land. By 1947, President Olpin thanked the federal government for all of its help, giving it credit for keeping the university running. He acknowledged that without the generosity of the federal government, one-third of all the enrolled students at the University of Utah would be denied the opportunity of completing their education. Upon the announcement that Fort Douglas would be declared surplus, the state allocated nearly one million dollars for the University of Utah to acquire the property.

The University of Utah received land in 1962 for the medical center and again in 1967 for a research park. The Korean War briefly delayed the dismantlement of Fort Douglas, which served as an induction center and administrative headquarters for the Utah Military District. In 1989 Congress finally approved closure of Fort Douglas as a military facility. Final transfer of the fort to the University of Utah began in 1991 and was completed in two years. The transfer of Fort Douglas and its facilities gave back to Utah what should have been its all along, ending the extensive history between the state and federal agencies.

Sources: Linda Sillitoe, The History of Salt Lake County; Charles G. Hibbard, “Fort Douglas” Utah History Encyclopedia; Elinore H. Partridge “A. Ray Olpin and the Postwar Emergency at the University of Utah” Utah Historical Quarterly XLVIII; Yvette D. Ison, History Blazer, January 1995.