Old Prison Museum in Deer Lodge
Like other fledgling territories in the 19th century
become wild when the gold rush attracted not only those wishing to find
their fortunes, but also thieves, gamblers, and murderers. For
several years following the gold discoveries of 1862, the Montana Vigilantes
took it upon themselves to punish these many offenders in
the lawless land of Montana. Finally, seeing a need for more organized forms of law enforcement, the
Territorial Legislature requested funds for a prison during its winter
session of 1866-67. The United States Congress agreed that the
territory needed a prison, approved the request for funding, and Deer
Lodge was chosen for the site of the new Territorial Prison.
However, they soon found that the funding was inadequate causing revisions
to the plans and many delays. Construction finally began in the spring of
1870 with convict labor, and the prison finally received its first convict
on July 2, 1871.
Almost from the
beginning, the prison was deemed inadequate and overcrowded, a
condition that would result in slow, but continual construction at the
prison for the next fifty years. When Montana
became the forty-first state on November 8, 1889, the prison became
responsibility. Finding it expensive to operate, the Board of
Prison Commissioners contracted out the entire Prison operation in
1890. Colonel Thomas McTague and Frank Conley of Deer Lodge
received the contract, which paid them seventy cents per prisoner per
Old Montana Prison Museum, July, 2008, Kathy Weiser.
Frank Conley became
the new warden, a post that he would continue to hold until 1921. Over the next thirty years, Conley shaped the philosophy and
appearance of the prison. Believing the prisoners should work,
Conley began to update the prison by first replacing its twelve-foot
wooden fence with the massive sandstone wall in 1893. Four and a
half feet thick, the wall formed a solid perimeter for the prison. He also began to build a new log cell house to reduce the prison
As a further measure
to reduce crowding, put the prisoners to work, and generate income
from the prison, outside prison camps were established where prisoners
would live and be "hired out” for both public and private work. This worked so well that by the late 1890’s approximately one-third of
the prisoners worked outside the prison. At these camps, which
housed about 75 prisoners each, inmates enjoyed a relatively high
degree of freedom with neither chains nor cells restricting them.
However, "outside work” was a privilege, and the slightest infraction
of the rules would immediately send a prisoner back behind prison
By the second decade of the twentieth
century, about fifty percent of the inmates were working outside the
penitentiary, traveling throughout Montana
erecting numerous state buildings, paving more than five hundred miles
of roads, and working on eleven different ranches that provided food
for state-owned institutions.
In 1908, the prison witnessed one of
its most tragic events when two prisoners by the names of George Rock and
William Hayes attempted to escape. Fleeing from the Federal Building,
their failed attempt resulted in the death of Deputy Warden John Robinson
and Warden Frank Conley was required to get 103 stitches in his back and
neck from stab wounds he received from the inmates. As a result, George
Rock was hanged inside the prison yard that very year, and William Hayes
met a similar fate the following year. They were the only inmates to
be executed in the prison.
Not all the inmates were
so violent however, and one was down right liked by the guards and
prisoners. At the age of 40, Pete Eitner was convicted of murder and
sentenced to life in 1918.
Turkey Pete's Cell #1 was retired after his death.
A model prisoner, he was
assigned to tend to the prison turkeys and soon garnered the nickname of
"Turkey Pete." As he aged, he began to lose some of his mental facilities
and when a man stopped one day to admire his turkeys, Eitner sold him the
entire flock for 25 cents each. This ended his turkey tending days, but
that was ok, because he soon fantasized a new "job" as the owner and
administrator of the prison. Prison officials humored him, "allowing"
Eitner to "run" the prison from his cell. Fake checks were printed for
him, with which he paid the prison expenses and payroll. He would also
tell anyone who would listen that he had the coffee crop in Brazil one
year, sold pink alligators, ships to the navy, and grasshopper legs to
When Turkey Pete died in
1967 at age 89, his cell (#1) was retired. His funeral was the only one
ever held within the walls of the prison. Today, Cell #1 displays photos of
Turkey Pete, as well as his few belongings.
Inside the prison walls, construction also continued with the building of
a women’s prison, additional dormitories for the men, a store building,
laundry, and dining room. In 1919, a 1,000 seat prison theater was built
with funding donated by Senator William A. Clark, Jr.
Protests from labor unions and security concerns put an end to outside
work in the 1920s; however, food production continued at the
thirty-thousand-acre prison-owned ranch. Work inside the prison continued
in various industries including cobbler and upholstery shops, and a
garment industry that made clothes for state wards. A state license plate
factory began production in the late 1920’s.
administration made drastic improvements to the prison, it continually
suffered from overcrowding through the decades.
On April 16, 1959, the prison suffered
a major riot when two inmates by the
names of Jerry Myles and Lee Smart, Jr. led some 12 inmates in an escape
attempt. In the melee, Deputy Warden Theodore Rothe was shot and
killed, and Warden Powell was temporarily held hostage.
The hostages were held
for three days while the riot raged on. After the National Guard was
brought in, the two ringleaders died in a murder-suicide, When Myles shot
Smart and then turned the gun on himself.
Finally, the old and overcrowded prison was closed In 1979, and its
prisoners moved to a
new facility, five miles west of Deer Lodge.
Empty of prisoners and
standing as a silent sentinel to justice, the Powell County Museum and
Arts Foundation obtained the building's lease for use as a museum. After some restoration and the construction of a visitor’s center, the
complex reopened in 1980, providing tours to more than 40,000 visitors
Tiered cells inside the prison, July, 2008, Kathy Weiser.
Photo available for photo prints & editorial downloads
Listed on the National Registry of Historic
Places, visitors to the museum can take guided or self-guided tours
through several of the prison’s buildings, glimpsing the daily life of
prison routines. As visitors walk through the intimidating cell
houses, Informational signs provide details of prison life where
tourists will continue to see original schedules, rules, prisoner
artwork, and even moldering blankets on many of the iron cots in its
prison cells. More lurid displays show a "Prison Life” photo exhibit,
contraband items and homemade weapons; and guns, shackles and
restraints utilized on the convicts.
Evidence of a 1959 riot can be seen in the shattered bricks of the
west tower, cramped blackout cells can be toured, and the gallows that
once hanged capital offenders remain for those of us with a morbid
Though guards no longer occupy the turrets in each corner of "The
Wall,” nor do the sounds of heavy cell doors sliding shut echo through
the buildings, the tour can make even the most hardened visitor
welcome their "release” into the grassy center yard.
Prison Museum is just one of several museums sponsored by the Powell
County Museum and Arts Foundation. In fact, Deer Lodge,
home to more museums and historical collections than any other town in the
Northwest. You can also see the Frontier Museum,
Desert John's Saloon Museum and the Powell County Museum, all of which
will transport you back to the era of cowboys and the Old West. The
Montana Auto Museum features over 120 vintage vehicles, and Yesterday's
Playthings is Montana's foremost doll and toy museum. Cottonwood City displays the
Snowshoe Creek School and the Blood Cabin.
Old Prison Museums
1106 Main St
Deer Lodge, Montana 59722
of America, updated March, 2017.
Desert John's Saloon Museum
of Jerry’s Riot: The True Story of Montana’s 1959 Prison Disturbance
History of Alcatraz Island (California)
Montana Photo Print
Two prisoners were hanged in this side yard
inside the prison.
July, 2008, Kathy Weiser.
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