Originally Published May 26, 2014
Just over the border of Colorado into Wyoming is the Wyoming Territorial Prison Museum. Once, territorial prisons were a must have in the West, used to hold prisoners that small town jails and even big city prisons couldn’t hold. The Wyoming Territorial prison held convicts not only from Wyoming, but also from Colorado, Utah and Nebraska. One of only three federally constructed territorial prisons left in the Western U.S., it is a formidable sight to see, with its wooden stockades and large brick structure rising out of the prairie grasses.
Built in 1872, it was a territorial prison until Wyoming achieved statehood in 1890, then becoming the Wyoming state Penitentiary. In operation for 30 years; during that time it held over 100 men and 12 women (housed in a different part of the prison). Such famous criminals as Butch Cassidy and Ellijah Canary were housed there. In 1903 the abandoned buildings were turned over the University of Wyoming and were used as a Experimental farm until 1989. In 1990 renovation was started, and in 1991, the museum opened to all.
On the grounds of the prison itself within the stockade is the prison and the work building, fully renovated as a large working broom shop, with exihibits of the other things that used to be produced there; from intricately carved wooden furniture, candles, shoes, even leatherworks and bridles. The grounds also used to hold a blacksmith and other shops, buildings long gone. Outside the stockade are the warden’s house, the sheep judging pavillion that was built in 1920 for the university, the boxcar house- build of boxcars and used as an outbuilding within the stockades, moved outside and used and ranch hand housing later. Two preserved and restored buildings – a ranch and church – have been moved grounds to preserve them and have become part of the exhibits, and an early town street with boardwalk is also on the grounds. The buildings are replicas and not currently open, but you can walk past them and get the feel of an early territorial town.
Within the prison itself, you can see large photos of the various prisoners and read about them, see the kitchen, the dining area, the infirmary, the baths, the womens area, and of course all the cells – all three stories of them. You can stand in a guard cage that overlooked the cells. You can walk into a cell that was set up to hold two prisoners, marveling at how tiny the space is. You can read the history of the various wardens, the history of the women held there, see the guard’s quarters, look out the windows at the vast prairie lands that surrounded the prison and still do today.
The museum folk says the tour can take an hour; however, if you are reading and absorbing all the information, seeing brooms being made, touring all the sites, expect to take a couple hours. The museum is always looking for volunteers as guides, docents and living historians – please see their wesit for details.
The museum is open May 1st through October 31st, seven days a week, from 8 am to 7 pm daily. The fee is $5 for adults, $2.50 for those aged 12-17, and 11 and under are welcome free. Guided tours are available onFridays and Saturdays at 11 am and again at 2 pm, also on Sundays and Mondays at 2 pm. If you’re not into the guided tour route, there is a self guided tour brochure that is very detailed. School tours are also available.
It’s exit 311 off of Highway 80- just follow the signs; it’s not very far off the highway. Camping, restaurants, hotels and gas are all nearby – as is the University of Wyoming – and it is only about 45 minutes out from Cheyenne. It is also very close to Highway 287 (exit 313, which is a lovely scenic route that extends all the way to Denver, going through several towns along the way. The parking lot is large and modern, able to handle all sorts of vehicles. facilities are also modern for those who need them, and they have a great gift shop as well.
This is a worthwhile trip for the whole family