The early half of the 1940s were turbulent but exciting times for America, and Tooele was far from exempt from the forces sculpting new economic success across the nation. After years of dredging through the Great Depression, the county’s mining and smelting were once again in full swing with several large-scale, highly anticipated projects either in the works or nearing completion.
But these developments were soon trumped by a new prospect, one that promised to stabilize Tooele’s economy to a greater degree than the already established mining and smelting companies. At first, available information amounted to little more than whispered rumors. Then, in March of 1942, the speculation was officially confirmed by the federal government purchase of 26,000 acres just a few miles outside of Tooele City. The United States Army had need of a new, inland munitions storage depot, and had chosen Tooele County for its location.
The Tooele Ordnance Depot, which later came to be known as the Tooele Army Depot, officially opened a few weeks later on April 14, 1942, making this weekend the depot’s 70th anniversary. The depot’s role in various war efforts and in the community has changed over the years, but it continues to play a key role in the county’s economy.
At the time the depot opened, WWII was in full swing, with the U.S. ramping up its military efforts in hope of a swift victory. A similar munitions facility located outside Ogden could no longer keep up with demand, and expansion there was out of the question because the city had surrounded the old facility and left little room for growth. For the war effort to be successful, the new depot in Tooele would have to begin operations as soon as possible.
Less than two months after the land acquisition, four contractors broke ground and began the frenzied construction. Together these four contractors, who were each from a different state, formed a temporary Intermountain Contractors group that won the largest portion of the construction contract for more than $26 million, equivalent to more than $300 million today. Other contractors took on smaller contracts for an additional $3 million, according to an article by historians Leonard Arrington and Thomas Alexander.
Construction raced forward in the early months, with energized laborers vowing to break every record set by similar construction projects. A minimum of 800 concrete “igloos,” designed to store munitions and measuring 60 to 80 feet in length, had to be completed before the depot could begin operating. The goal was set at 30 finished igloos per day. According to a report on the contractor’s methods, a gauge was placed at the site’s entrance that displayed the number of igloos completed during the previous day’s two 10-hour shifts, and the concrete crews were quick to report any inaccuracy in the tally.
Environmental complications soon delayed the construction’s breakneck pace. The same sandy loam which had been identified as especially suitable for munitions storage was also especially prone to forming dust storms so intense that work ground to a halt in light of safety concerns. Conditions continued to deteriorate as 80 mile per hour winds damaged newly completed structures.
Once the summer winds began to die down for fall, the new Tooele Army Depot administrators took precautions against future losses, awarding one V. W. Lawrence of Grantsville an $11,000 contract for soil stabilization on Oct. 30, 1942.
The depot also received its first shipment of munitions on Oct. 30, 1942, and thus officially commenced operations. It would receive its first mission — to store vehicles, small arms and fire control equipment, to overhaul and modify tanks and their armaments, and to serve as a back-up for other depots in the western U.S. — on Dec. 8, 1942, in the midst of continuing construction.
By the end of WWII, the Tooele Army Depot would consist of 902 storage igloos, 31 warehouses, a tank repair shop valued at $1 million, and artillery and automotive equipment repair shops. It employed 1,800 civilians and 1,900 military personnel, and when additional employees such as these could not be found, it continued to hire 800 prisoners of war, 200 foreign soldiers and a number of teenage laborers, who worked on weekends or during the summer months. At its peak just before the war ended, the Tooele Army Depot employed nearly 5,000 individuals, and the influx of laborers swelled Tooele’s population to 14,000, up from just 4,000 in 1940.
Activity at the depot decreased significantly after the war, and the focus turned from munitions shipping and repairs to storage and salvage. Munitions were stripped down and their components resold, but soon a nation-wide surplus of metals diminished the price of metal to such an extent that the depot could no longer find interested buyers and instead chose to store the materials in whatever space was available. This same surplus ultimately proved the final death knell for major mining and smelting in Tooele County.
Employment at the Tooele Army Depot continued to swell and decline with each U.S. military campaign — especially during the Korean and Vietnam wars. Demand for labor during the 1960s once again drew young families to Tooele.
“It was a nice place to work, for someone who didn’t go to college,” said Merlyn Perry, 71, who found work at the depot in 1963 and retired 30 years later. Perry’s brother, who was already working at the depot, brought him an application during a hiring rush, and Perry soon found a job as a laborer. He worked through the ranks to become a driver, and later a mechanic.
Clarence Allred, 65, also found work at the depot during the Vietnam era, taking his first position as a packager in 1965. His parents had moved to Tooele to help construct the depot and remained there as government employees, so even though Allred had work in Salt Lake City, taking a stable job at home was a natural move.
Allred continued working at the depot for almost 28 years. Promotions came slowly at first. After working as a packager, he became a steam cleaner, and then a mechanic’s helper, but by 1977, he had a position as a supervisor, and seven years later he became a logistics specialist.
After Vietnam, Depot Systems Command began restructuring the missions of similar depots across the nation. As these changes occurred, The Tooele Army Depot’s mission changed during the mid-70s from a focus on combat vehicles, tanks, armored personal carriers and artillery to one on transportation, construction and troop support equipment.
“There wasn’t too much of a reaction from employees,” Allred said. “I think we were just happy that we were still employed.”
More recently, in 1994 and 1995, further base realignments cost the Tooele Army Depot its maintenance mission, and many long-time employees—including Perry and Allred, who now owns his own contracting business, All Tech-Electric—chose to retire, rather than transferring with the old mission to other bases.
The future of the Tooele Army Depot remains uncertain in the face of continued base realignments, consolidations and closures, but the impact it has had on Tooele’s history will remain for years to come.
The Tooele Army Depot will celebrate its 70th birthday with a community celebration and open house this summer from August 20 to 23.