Getting the Lay of the Land

The Tule Lake WRA prison Camp was placed in the middle of a dry lake bed, on land reclaimed and owned by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.  It was a desolate place, bitterly cold in the winter and hot in the summer. The wind could make it “snow horizontally.”  Approximately seven miles south of the town of Tulelake, CA, the prison camp was located in an uninhabited area, and was soon larger than any town or city in the area, including nearby Klamath Falls, Oregon.

Tule Lake Historic 02

This photo captures well the basic layout of the Camp.  It was taken in the early days of the Camp, before the construction of additional barracks that expanded the Camp capacity to 16,000. The view of the photo is from the ridge running down from Castle Rock, looking from West to East across the Camp.   I will include the photo again in subsequent posts, when writing about different aspects of the Camp.

[Source: The California Military Museum]

There is some disagreement about the physical size of the Camp.  Most sources agree that the so-called residential and administrative part of the Camp totaled 1,100 acres. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation puts the actual size of the full Camp (including residential, administrative, and agricultural areas) at 5,804 acres.  The initial 3,502 acres were owned by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and turned over to the War Relocation Authority (WRA) in June of 1942.  In 1943, 352 acres were “acquired” from the private owners of surrounding properties. At some point, a further 1,950 acres (mostly in the agricultural area but also in the Camp Reception Area) were somehow added.  There is no record of the previous ownership of the final 1,950 acres.  [Source:  U.S. Bureau of Reclamation]

The current use of the former Camp land is quickly apparent. There are presently two residential neighborhoods on the site of the former Camp; the Tulelake Airport takes up a portion of the former Camp site (with the runway running northwest to southeast on what was the main fire break in the middle of the Camp); there are several commercial and agricultural buildings; 31 acres are owned by the National Park Service (including the Jail, the Stockade, the Motor Pool, and the Carpentry and Paint Shop); there is a Caltrans Maintenance Yard; and, the remainder of the land is in private agricultural ownership.

When you first look at the former camp site, it appears that nothing remains of this Tule Lake Camp that housed nearly 20,000 prisoners, guards, and administrators.  In future posts, I’ll show how false this first impression is.

I’ve tried to give an idea of the expansiveness of the 1,100 acre residential/prison compound of the Camp with the following three photos…

Vista 01

This photo was taken on the northern end of the Camp compound (not far from the spot labeled “Main Entrance” in the first photo), looking south.  The white farm building on the right of the picture is about one mile away.  Everything to the left would have been Barracks (and the associated Mess Halls, Latrines, Wash Rooms, and Recreation Buildings).

Vista 03

This photo was taken at the back of the Camp (near the point in the first photo labeled “Water Tower”), looking North. The tree line in the distance is about one mile away.  Everything to the left of the fence would have been Barracks and the associated buildings.

Vista 02

This photo was taken in almost the same spot at the back of the Camp, looking from East to West toward Castle Rock.  The tree line is about 1/2 mile away. Everything from where the photo was taken up to to the tree line would have been Barracks, etc.

The following historic photo was taken from a different angle at the back of the Camp…

Tule Lake HIstoric 01

This photo shows the physical layout of the barracks.  It looks back West toward Castle Rock.  The vehicle in the picture was probably from the Camp administration.

[Source: Densho Encyclopedia]

(Interviewer) What did you think when you first saw Tule Lake?
Well, I thought, gee, I said, “Jesus, God, what’s this?” Because it was more uniform. You could see it wasn’t slapped together. The guard towers, gee, it wasn’t just a makeshift affair. It had a searchlight on top, and it had a chain link fence, and it had a barbed wire fence, then they had that overhang so you can’t get out, things like that on top. I knew right then, I said, “Oh, boy.” It was eye-opening, I’ll put it that way. You picture it as like a prison.

Taketora Jim Tanaka, aged 16 upon entering Tule Lake

[Source: Densho Repository]

So, what happened to all those barracks and other buildings that occupied the Tule Lake Camp in 1942-46?  That, is a mystery to be solved.  In subsequent posts, I’ll try to show more of what the Camp was like and what exists of it in the present.  Thanks for joining me on this journey. I hope you will find the trip worthwhile.

Grace and peace to you,



2 Comments on “Getting the Lay of the Land

  1. Was part of Tule Lake with ancient petroglyphs just deeded to an Indian tribe that had very historic tribal roots in the land there? Hasn’t one of the Japanese relocation centers been set aside for restoration? Which one is it?
    It doesn’t seem possible to restore all the different WW2 camps.


    • The one which has the most attention is Manzanar, down in the Owens Valley. If you have not visited, it is well worth the trip. There is an annual pilgrimage each year, the last weekend in April.


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