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Old Montana Prison

Old Montana Prison

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The Montana Territorial Prison, built in 1891, resembles a medieval castle and is a fascinating piece of Montana history that anchors the south end of Main Street in Deer Lodge.

The towering gray sandstone walls of the first Territorial Prison in the western United States are 24 feet high and buried four feet deep to prevent escape by tunneling.  The walls and guard towers were built in 1893 by convict labor using locally quarried stone.  Under the direction of Warden Frank Conley, convicts also built the brick cell house in 1912, the maximum security building and the W.A. Clark Theatre. 

In 1979, the last prisoners were moved to the new prison west of town. Today the nine-acre Old Prison museum complex is managed by Powell County Museum & Arts Foundation. 

Passing through a large wooden door in the Visitor Center, you enter the enclosed courtyard where convicts once exercised, and two were hanged; visit the austere 1912 cellblock where this year’s featured exhibit will tell you about inmates who lived here during the era of 1912-1920, Montana Law Enforcement Memorial Hall of Honor, and across the yard feel spine tingling chills in the former Women’s Prison that became Maximum Security, see where prisoners worked, received medical care, and enjoyed entertainment at the W.A. Clark Theatre until it was gutted by fire in 1975.

You can tour on your own using an informative guide book, or take a guided tour.  Either way, you will learn about prison life, interesting characters like Turkey Pete, and what guards experienced during the 1959 riot. The Administration building has been given a facelift inside since a grant received last year allowed them to replace the leaky roof.  The Secretary Pool and Medical room have been redone and new artifacts are on display.

Are you intrigued by the paranormal? Throughout the summer and fall, the brave-of-heart can join a nighttime Ghost Tour, or even spend the night in prison! You may hear the eerie sound of footsteps, voices, steel cell doors clanging in the cellblock and spirit orbs have been seen. Tickets sell out months in advance, so call early for dates and reservations.

Reentering the gift shop, proceed to the Montana Auto Museum, listed by USA Today as one of the top 10 car museums in the country. You will find a magnificent collection of nearly 170 cars and trucks that showcase automotive history from the 1886 Benz Motor Wagon replica and Schacht high wheeler, through the 1960s and early 1970s muscle cars. Recall memories of Grandpa’s, Dad’s or your first car or truck and it is a great opportunity to share stories with the younger generation. 

A special exhibit highlights completion of the Yellowstone Trail in 1916 - the first transcontinental road from Plymouth Rock to Puget Sound (now part of Interstate 90 or closely parallels it.) To celebrate, on September 11, 1916 a relay from Plymouth Rock to Seattle took 121 hours, the fastest time ever clocked across the nation, coming through Deer Lodge about 10 a.m. on September 15.

Across Main Street, at Yesterday’s Playthings dolls, toys and trains of the past are on display. A marvelous model railroad exhibit features a large diorama with two or three trains running through a setting that replicates the local area. 

Frontier Montana houses the largest collection of guns and Western memorabilia, between Cody, Wyoming and Calgary, Alberta, Canada that was used between 1829 and 1900; and replica of a frontier Sheriff’s office.  See also a display of World War II memorabilia with posters, personal letters, uniforms and more; and F.J. Haynes’ photographs of Yellowstone Park from 1883 to 1962.

The Powell County Museum features local exhibits including the fantastic Huntoon woodcarving exhibit, handcrafted Civil War dioramas, mining equipment (kids will love the glowing rocks) and family life displays. New this year is an educational trapping exhibit with information boards, traps, skulls furs and photographs.

Take a break, relax and enjoy an ice cream treat at the “Prison Cow” or have a picnic in the park area.

Other points of interest in the two-block complex are the replica frontier town of Cottonwood City (once the name of Deer Lodge), Milwaukee Railroad display, and the PEN Art Gallery.

From June 1 to Sept. 30, the Gallery will host a Western Montana Photography exhibit featuring works by four area photographers.

Not part of the museums, but worth visiting are the Prison Hobby Shop, nationally recognized for its beautiful hand-hitched horse hair belts, bridles, hat bands, arts and crafts made by prisoners and Territorial Antiques in the former Warden’s house.

Getting There and Information

Located just off I-90; 38 miles West of Butte at Exit 187 or 81 miles East of Missoula at Exit 184

The Old Prison is open 7 days a week, except closed Thanksgiving Day and from mid Dec. to early Jan.

Hours: Jan. 10 to May 31: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; June 1 to Oct. 1: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; winter hours 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.      

One admission price allows visitors to enjoy the Prison and four other museums

For information: call 406-846-3111, www.oldprisonmuseums.com, or email info@pcmaf.org

Guided tours of the prison are at 11 a.m. or 2 p.m. daily during June through August.

Restrooms are in visitor Center/gift shop

There is quite a bit of walking, so wear comfortable shoes; a wheelchair and scooter are available. The prison is over 125 years old and some of the walkways are a bit uneven.

To fully enjoy the entire complex plan at least two to four hours; but if time is limited your pass is good for another visit within the year.

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