Fort Cameron, located just east of Beaver City in southwestern Utah, had a life span of eleven years, serving the military from 1872 to 1883.
Although the Black Hawk War of 1865-68 had been settled, citizens of southern Utah were still concerned about Indian hostilities. Their concerns were sent to Washington, D.C., by the territorial governor, George L. Wood, and by Cyrus M. Hawley, an associate justice of the territorial supreme court. In Washington, the U.S. House Committee on Territories recommended in 1872 that a large military force be sent to Utah to protect the citizens living there. Hawley also believed that the establishment of such a fort would be the only possible way to finally bring the infamous Mountain Meadows Massacre case to trial because it would afford those witnesses testifying against the perpetrators of the massacre the protection of the United States government. Secretary of War William W. Belknap recommended to the House of Representatives in 1872 that the government appropriate $120,000 to build a post near Beaver.
The townspeople of Beaver undoubtedly greeted this news as a mixed blessing. By that time, the town was only sixteen years old. Its citizens were beginning to make the transition from their log cabin and dugout homes to more permanent dwellings of brick and–thanks to newly arriving Scots immigrants with stonemasonry skills–stone houses. Their dilemma came about because, since the Utah War, federal troops were hated and feared; Utah citizens believed they could interfere with the region’s sovereignty. Yet there also would certainly be protection from Indians as well as significant economic gains for those local people involved the construction and supplying of the fort. Further, such a major installation could only enhance Beaver’s status as a noteworthy town in an era when boosters vied for the prestige of having a county seat, a prison, college, or a railroad terminal located in their town.
After Congress authorized the expenditure for the fort, Lieutenant General Philip H. Sheridan (of Civil War fame) sent four companies of troops (some 181 men) under the command of John D. Wilkens to open the post in mid-1872. It was at first called a post but was authorized by President Ulysses S. Grant on 12 May 1873 as a fort, and its name was changed to Fort Cameron in honor of Colonel James Cameron, who was killed in the Battle of Bull Run during the Civil War.
A good site was found 1.5 miles east of Beaver City, on the north side of the river, about half a mile from Beaver River Canyon. The fort was nearly rectangular in plan, with a large parade ground in the center, and was surrounded by trees and irrigation systems. On both the east and west sides, black basaltic rock barracks were built, one for each of the four companies. To the south, commanding officer’s quarters and five duplexes for officers were also built. The rectangle was bordered on the north by the hospital, the headquarters building, and the commissary store. Next to the east barracks stood a bakery, and about 300 yards west of the post were the stables. All buildings, except the stables, were built of the local black rock, which was quarried from the plentiful outcroppings readily available in the nearby foothills.
Both the construction of the fort and its later provisioning employed a great number of local Beaver citizens. Teamsters were hired to haul supplies, and masons, carpenters, plasterers, lime burners, lumbermen, and painters all found work at the construction site. Once the fort was completed, Beaver residents were hired to work in the laundry, the blacksmith shop, and the carpenter shop. Also, several boarding houses sprang up in town, a brewery was begun, and many townspeople provided meats, vegetables, and fruit to the soldiers. The army even rented milk cows from the local residents.
Those supplies that couldn’t be purchased locally had to be freighted from York Station in Juab County, which was the nearest railroad terminal. The distance was 137 miles and freight rates were $1.50 per 100 pounds. However, by 1880 the railroad came to the town of Milford, a mere thirty-six miles away, and freight rates dropped to $.59 per 100 pounds. Two years after the railroad reached Milford, General Sheridan recommended closure for Fort Cameron. Indian hostilities had ceased and John D. Lee had been successfully brought to trial and convicted in Beaver City for his role in the Mountain Meadows Massacre. The fort was deemed unnecessary, was disbanded, and by May 1883 all the remaining troops had been removed to Fort Douglas in Salt Lake City.
During its eleven-year history, the fort had accommodated anywhere from a high of 215 soldiers in 1873 to a low of 43 in 1877. Its hospital was the only one within a 150-mile radius, and while its purpose was to treat soldiers, it also provided care for many local townspeople as well. There was some inevitable friction, but relations were frequently cordial between soldiers and civilians. Many officers had their own families in residence at the fort, and some soldiers married local women and settled in the community. A collaborative Fourth of July celebration in 1876 for the centennial of America’s independence was jointly enjoyed by all, with special performances by actors and musicians.
The decommissioned fort and land were purchased for $15,000 by two local Mormons, John R. Murdock and Philo T. Farnsworth. After much negotiation, in 1898 was the fort converted into an academic institution, the Beaver Branch of the Brigham Young Academy (now BYU). The structure was modified and, in 1913, expanded, with the addition of a new pink rock (tufa) building at a cost of $100,000. After twenty-four years as a school, the academy (by then known as Murdock Academy) was disbanded by the LDS Church because the state legislature passed a law requiring that each county operate tuition-free schools.
The property was sold and the buildings razed, except one (which now serves as a private residence). The grounds are now a golf course and race track, yet a close observer can find the remains of foundations of the buildings that once comprised Fort Cameron.
Linda L. Bonar