I was surprised when the ranger at the Sabino Canyon Visitor Center recommended the “Prison Camp” campground for our stay in the Coronado National Forest. Despite the unappealing name, we headed there because of its location on the trail we planned to hike.
An interpretive sign at the campground explains why the campground is called the Gordon Hirabayashi Prison Camp. A “Federal Honor Camp”, which is apparently a euphemism for prison labor camp, was built on Tucson’s Mt. Lemmon in 1939. Prisoners, who were convicted of non-violent crimes such as tax evasion and draft-dodging, were held in this remote camp without fences and used as labor to build the Mt. Lemmon Scenic Byway. One former prisoner is quoted as saying “Before I went to the Honor Camp, I thought prisoners only broke rock with picks in cartoons.” At some point the prisoners were given power tools and the 27 mile road rising 6300 feet from Tucson through five vegetation communities was completed.
So there really was a prison camp at this location (a part of our history that seems so medieval that I was not aware of the fact), but who is Gordon Hirabayashi? He was a Japanese student who was a senior at my alma mater (University of Washington) in 1942 when all people with any Japanese ancestry living on the west coast were ordered to abandon their property and businesses and report for “relocation”, i.e. being held in internment camps for the duration of the war. Rather than quietly submit to the forced relocation and abide by the curfew imposed on Japanese people, Hirabayashi turned himself into the FBI as a dissenter, challenging the constitutionality of the relocation and curfew. He requested to be imprisoned at an outdoor prison work camp. The FBI would not pay to transport him to a work camp, so he hitchhiked to Tucson and turned himself in to a Federal Marshall! In 1987, his case was reopened and his conviction overturned. Shortly after, Reagon signed the Civil Liberties Act into law, which acknowledged injustice and apologized for the Japanese internment. Hirabayashi is quoted to say that the Civil Liberties Act demonstrates the resilience of the US Constitution: “This is a great Constitution, but if it doesn’t serve you during a crisis, what good is it? We faltered once, but to show how good our Constitution is, we were able to apologize and acknowledge an error, and we’re going to be stronger for it”. What a story! I certainly did not expect the US history lesson at the National Forest, where the lessons are usually on natural history.
We camped at the former location of the prison camp for three nights all together – two nights before a backpacking hike and one night afterwards.
The trip report for our backpacking trip will come soon, but in the meantime I will leave you with the highlight.