Leavenworth – First City in Kansas

In 1897, the reservation for the U.S. Penitentiary was deeded by the War Department to the Justice Department to build a new Federal Penitentiary in Leavenworth County. The decision was made, in part, based on the labor available from the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth. Prisoners were used in the first phase of construction and were also the first to be incarcerated in the new prison in 1903. In 1906, the first cell house in the United States Federal Penitentiary was opened, but it would not be entirely completed until the mid-1920’s.The walls are 40 feet high and 40 feet below ground. It was the largest maximum security prison in the United States until 2005, when it was downgraded to medium security facility.  Housing more than 2,000 male inmates, the prison serves to carry out the judgments of the Federal Courts.  Famous inmates over the years included Al Capone, Machine Gun Kelly, and Robert Stroud – the famous “Birdman of Alcatraz.” Actually, Stroud’s bird work began at Leavenworth, where he served 28 years before being transferred to Alcatraz.

Over the years, the population of the Leavenworth fluctuated, dropping like many other U.S. cities during the Depression years. However, it revived again and grew steadily to its peak of about 38,500 in 1990. Today, Leavenworth is a community of about 35,000 people. Situated just on the outskirts of the Kansas City metropolitan area, it continues to provide a small town flavor with quick access to the amenities of a larger city. The city continues to thrive with several large employers including Hallmark Cards, as well as Federal institutions including Fort Leavenworth, the Dwight D. Eisenhower Veterans Affairs Medical Center, and the Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary. Saint Mary College continues operation after more than 140 years, and numerous small businesses and family-owned venues welcome visitors to Leavenworth.

Leavenworth, Kansas Depot

Leavenworth, Kansas Depot

Leavenworth offers many historical attractions including the Parker Carousel Museum, the Carroll Mansion, the Fred Harvey Museum, a Black History Museum, Frontier Army Museum, and much more. The city is home to eight National Register Historic Districts and twelve National Register properties associated with the early development of the city. These historic districts reflect the eclectic nature of commercial development throughout the years and beautiful old homes are scattered throughout the community.

A historic wayside walking and driving tour commemorates many of the notable events, people, and locations in the community. The interactive displays feature local artwork depicting images of significant historical people, structures or events associated with each site and includes recorded narratives.

There are 13 Waysides located in the riverfront downtown area that can be experienced as a walking tour as well as eight Waysides as a driving tour. Another Wayside tour is also available at Fort Leavenworth. In Leavenworth, Wayside brochures and maps can be obtained from the Leavenworth Convention & Visitors Bureau, at 518 Shawnee Street or at the Welcome Center located at the north entrance to town on North Highway 7/73.

Leavenworth, Kansas Today

Leavenworth, Kansas Today

These interactive panels tell visitors of Leavenworth’s rich Native American history, its Bleeding Kansas days, the Wild West, Prohibition, and more. They also provide information on some of the city’s historic buildings, and interesting residents and people who spent time in the community. In its early years, the city was marked by such visitors and residents as Lewis and Clark, Buffalo Bill Cody, Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane, George and Tom Custer, General William T. Sherman, Abraham Lincoln, Susan B. Anthony, and dozens of others.

Many who visit Leavenworth are interested in the prisons of the area, which have been widely publicized throughout the years. Leavenworth and Fort Leavenworth have four prisons located in the area, none of which allow public tours. In fact, the U.S. Penitentiary can only be photographed from across the street. The First City Museum at 742 Delaware Street has a number of jail and prison displays for those who want to learn more.


More Information:

Leavenworth Convention and Visitor’s Bureau
518 Shawnee
P.O. Box 44
Leavenworth, Kansas  66048
© Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated June, 2017.

Leavenworth, Kansas Penitentiary

Leavenworth, Kansas Penitentiary

Also See:

Fort Leavenworth – History & Hauntings

Weston Missouri – The Town that Refused to Die

Underground Railroad – Flight to Freedom

Great American Desert (from our website Legends of Kansas)

General James H. Lane – Grim Leader in the Free-State Fight

Kansas (main page)

Kansas Photo Print Galleries


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