Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Weekend Assignment #310: Legend of the Prison Camp

For Weekend Assignment #310: Create An Urban Legend!, we're supposed to, well, you can tell from the title, can't you? All right, I'll give it my best shot. Some of the following is true:

The Legend of the Prison Camp Ghost

Back in 1986 when we first moved to Tucson, I used to go up into the mountains all the time. I was heavily into birdwatching that year, and working on a book about Southern Arizona wildlife, to be called Critters: Animals of the Arizona Sonoran Desert. Or something. I never got too far in writing that book.

Anyway, along with other major birding areas such as Madera Canyon, Patagonia and Sabino Canyon, I frequently went up Mount Lemmon Highway, also called Catalina Highway or General Hitchcock Highway. A little way past the Molino Basin campground on the left was a dirt road leading to a set of ruins, basically just the road and some stone foundations. Eventually I found out that the site was once a prison camp. Really, the name "Prison Camp Road" should have been a vital clue.

I remember being out there once in 1986 or 1987, looking for birds and other critters, and listening to some odd, unidentifiable noise out there. Was it insects? Or something else? It sounded almost human, but I swear I was the only one in the area that day. I also thought I heard the sound of falling rocks, but there was nothing nearby that so much as wobbled, aside from the stones under my feet.

All these years later, I've been wanting to check out that prison camp ruin again, and see whether it's as I remember it. Funny thing, though - there's no longer a sign for a Prison Camp Road. I was watching for it last April when I took the dogs into the mountains, and I was looking for it again this weekend. I thought I must have just been unobservant and missed it. Now I know better.

You see, the prison camp in the Catalinas was never a standard prison. It was meant to provide prison labor to build the Catalina Highway. Originally the prisoners were tax dodgers and violators of immigration laws, but during During World War II many of the prisoners at the Honor Camp were draft resisters and conscientious objectors. One of these was Gordon Hirabayishi, a college student who challenged the constitutionality of internment camps for Japanese American citizens, but lost his case. He asked to serve his sentence at an outdoor prison camp, and actually hitchhiked to Tucson to be incarcerated. From what I read online tonight, he had to convince officials he was supposed to be imprisoned there. While he was waiting for the paperwork to be be straightened out, he rode back into town to see a movie.

Work on the Catalina Highway was difficult and dangerous, and took 17 years to complete. Originally the prisoners had only picks, shovels and wheelbarrows with which to build the twisty mountain road up to what is now Summerhaven. Eventually they got jackhammers and bulldozers, but it was too late for Gordon Hirabayishi. He was only supposed to serve a 90 day sentence, but he never got that far. A week before his scheduled release, he fell off a cliff when his overloaded wheelbarrow overturned near Molino Basin. He broke his neck and died instantly.

In 1958, the site became a youth rehabilitation camp. The young prisoners there, whose labor was considerably less strenuous than their adult predecessors, sometimes spoke of a young man who was sometimes seen in the area, shouting a warning when kids strayed too close to the ridge. The camp closed in 1973, and the buildings were razed.

In 1999, Prison Camp Road was renamed the Gordon Hirabayishi recreation area, with a trailhead similarly renamed for him. That's why I didn't find the turnoff - it has a different name now. The last reported sighting of the Prison Camp Ghost was also in 1999. The hiker who saw him, according to a blog I read tonight, said that he smiled and waved, and then faded into the desert scrub.


Okay, pop quiz: what was true in the story above, and what wasn't?


Molino Basin

Yes, I did spend a lot of time birdwatching in 1986, in hope of writing that book. And I did visit the site of the prison camp, and I did hear noises. There was nothing spooky about them, though. I just heard a few birds and a swarm of katydids.

The prison camp has roughly the history I've given here, except that Gordon Hirabayishi did not die in the Catalinas in a tragic accident, and there is no ghost. The "Catalina Federal Honor Camp" was established in 1939 in belated response to the suggestion of former Postmaster General Frank Hitchcock (who had died in 1935). It was meant to conveniently house the prisoners who provided labor to build the Catalina Highway, construction on which had begun in 1933. The pre-war prisoners included tax dodgers and people who had run afoul of immigration laws, but during During World War II they were mostly draft resisters and conscientious objectors. Gordon Hirabayishi was a real prisoner during this period. Having refused to go into an internment camp like the one that already held his family, he turned himself into the FBI instead. Reportedly he really did hitchhike to Tucson when the government refused to pay his way there, and he supposedly did go to a movie while he waited for officials to get their paperwork in order. The U.S. government apologized to him in 1987, after his 1942 conviction was overturned and government malfeasance in the case came to light. Gordon Hirabayishi's Wikipedia entry lists him as a retired sociologist, still alive today. And yes, the site of the prison camp was renamed in his honor in 1999, which explains why I haven't found the turnoff in recent trips up the mountain.

I had a vague idea that there was some World War II connection to the prison camp, and that maybe it was for POWs. That would have been the simple version of my urban legend. Wikipedia says it was an internment camp at one point for Japanese Americans, but this seems to be a misread of Gordon's story. See, urban legend surrounds the place even without my help!

More on Gordon Hirabayishi and the Prison Camp can be found here:

Sky Island Parkway (Catalina Highway) by Leo W. Banks

Desert Lavender: Sabino Canyon to Prison Camp


1 comment:

Carly said...

Hi Karen

Well done. The pictures to go with the story makes for a fun read! What a fascinating place! I dunno, I might still be inclined to believe there might be a ghostie up there... yep... I am pretty sure if I ever visit, I will go looking for the ghost! LOL. :)