Listed on National Register of Historic Places, the Wyoming Territorial Prison incarcerated vicious thieves and murderers (including the notorious outlaw “Butch Cassidy”) during the dramatic times of Wyoming’s Territorial days and early Statehood. The “Big House across the river” was dedicated to “evil doers of all classes and kinds.” This Prison is significant as one of only three federally constructed territorial penitentiaries still existing in the western United States and the only one in which most of the original structure is preserved. The Prison’s establishment and operation had a vital impact on the social development of Wyoming during its early years.
Now a museum, located on 197 acres, visitors can walk into the strap iron cells where convicts were locked up, worked and lived during the 30 years the prison operated. The buildings now house convict photographs; displays relating to their confinement and working “volunteer” convicts manufacturing brooms just like they did in the 1890s.
Site offers Visitor Center, restored historic buildings, museum exhibits as well as diverse natural and cultural landscape features.
CONVICTS, CRIMES AND CONFINEMENT
Convicts: Cuffed, Chained and Confined
Confinement….Wyoming Territory was created in July 1869. Outlaws, violent and desperate men (as well as women), plagued the territory, and as more settlers moved into the area they demanded law and order. In 1872, the new Wyoming Territorial Prison prepared for prisoners. The Auburn Prison System was adopted by Wyoming Territorial Prison (WTP). This system required convicts to be silent at all times, wear black and white striped uniforms, replace names with numbers, and move about the prison in “lockstep”.
WTP was both a federal (1872 – 1890) and later state (1891 – 1903) penitentiary. During these years, 1,063 malicious convicts, both men and women, walked through the iron doors and occupied the cells. When Wyoming became a state in 1890, construction began on a new, larger prison in Rawlins, WY and the last of WTP’s convicts were transferred to the new state penitentiary by 1903.
Crimes….Horse thieves, cattle rustlers, train robbers, murderers, con artists, forgers, rapists cheaters and liars were just a few of the convicts incarcerated behind the massive stone walls.
Convicts….Work for the convicts was mandatory. Besides growing potatoes and cutting ice blocks for the Prison and Union Pacific Railroad, they quarried stone, manufactured bricks, brooms and candles. Convicts became skilled artisans working in the prison industries building creating hand carved furniture, horse-hair braided bridles, taxidermy and hand rolled cigars.
PRISON CELLS TO STOCK PENS
Although no longer used as a prison after 1903, the prison grounds still played an important role for Wyoming. WTP was turned over to the University of Wyoming for use as an Agricultural Experiment Station. It was as an experiment station that the abandoned prison had its most use (from 1903 until 1989), using science to improve farming and ranching in Wyoming and around the world.
Today, Wyoming Territorial Prison site’s rich history not only focuses on convicts but also the quest for agriculture knowledge using science. The “Science on the Range” exhibit, located in the historic 1910 Horse Barn, delves into the different experiments conducted on the old prison grounds where existing prison buildings were repurposed for livestock and scientific studies.
The history of ranching in Territorial Wyoming is a story all to itself. Romanticized by Hollywood, yet oftentimes, stark and full of daily drudgery, the westward bound pioneers carved out their living in meek and meager ways. The ranch exhibit pays tribute to these pioneers through a display of historic log structures move from the Chimney Rock Ranch, Albany County, Wyoming.