Grim, foreboding, but fascinating, the state’s newest museum

It housed the worst of the worst in Nevada for decades. Now, people pay to go there.
Updated: Jun. 4, 2021 at 7:01 PM PDT
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CARSON CITY, Nev. (KOLO) - For 150 years it housed only the worst of the worst. To be here, you had to be convicted and sentenced for a serious crime. Today people are lining up and paying to get in.

Decommissioned in 2012 after it was deemed too expensive to operate, the old state prison has since been in the hands of the non-profit Nevada State Prison Preservation Society. They’ve been working to put it to new uses.

It’s been used as a training ground for law enforcement, a movie and television set, but the aim has always been to preserve its history and there’s a lot of it here. In fact, there may not be a single location in the state that holds more of its history.

”The first territorial legislature met in a building behind this,” notes Jim Wells, a former state budget director who’s now part of the Preservation Society. “Many of the rocks from the quarry were used to build some of the buildings around town including the state capitol. There is a ton of history here that isn’t just related to the prison and incarceration.”

That may be, but it’s likely most visitors will come in search of that side of its history.

It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to ponder what that was like in its tiny cells. Or to sense that violence was an ever-present danger.

Some locations were especially dangerous. A tunnel between two cell blocks--a blind spot for tower guards--and--of course--the mess hall.

On the west side of the yard, there’s still a rough rock wall, a remnant of the quarry that built the place and so many of Carson City’s historic buildings. At its base one of the old prison’s most chilling sites.

An iron door opens to a tunnel in the sandstone. Prisoners elsewhere often referred to solitary confinement as ‘the hole.” Here it was literally that. In a less enlightened era one inmate spent years in there.

The climax of the tour is a grim room behind glass walls. Inside, a table with extensions for arms and leather straps for restraints.

It was here in 1921 that the first execution by lethal gas in the U-S took place. It was converted for lethal injection in 1985. The last execution took place here in 2006. The condemned men spent their last night across the hall in one of a pair of special cells.

With sights like this, a visit here promises to be a sobering, but apparently fascinating experience.

Wells says the reaction has been positive. Tickets for regular 90-minute tours--scheduled at the moment for a couple of Saturdays a month--go fast.

There’s more information on the Nevada State Prison Preservation Society website .

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