The summer exhibit series at the AHC celebrating Laramie’s 150th anniversary continues with a new theme this week: the Wyoming Territorial Prison.
As buildings sprung up in the former “Hell on Wheels” town, a new imposing stone structure shadowed the landscape. With construction starting in 1872, the Territorial Prison opened its doors to inmates in January 1873, while construction still continued.
This prison was one of few federal prisons at the time, and the only one in Wyoming. Soon-to-be-famous outlaw Butch Cassidy was incarcerated at the prison from 1894 to 1896. For more than a decade, the prison served as a federal prison, and upon Wyoming’s statehood, served as the Wyoming State Penitentiary until 1903.
Prisoners served out their sentences under a strict Auburn Prison System, which required convicts to be silent at all times, participate in gang work, leave cells only on command when going to work and other activities, wear black and white striped uniforms, replace names with numbers, and move about the prison in lock step.
When the prison’s inmates were moved to the new State Penitentiary in Rawlins in 1903, the property was given to the University of Wyoming to serve as a stock farm and experiment station. During this time, the interior of the stone prison structure was changed, with brick cells being removed to make room for structures that would soon house animals. At points, construction stopped on buildings for animals due to the lack of funds, which was remedied by selling materials from the former cells.
For nearly nine decades, the Territorial Prison site served as the University’s stock farm. When the University left the property in the late 1980s, other groups took up the charge of caring for the prison grounds, not only restoring it to the bygone era when it served as a prison, but adding and interpreting the property into a historic site and museum. The Wyoming Territorial Prison now stands as a living testament to Laramie’s early days while also being listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The AHC holds many collections that depict the various stages of the prison’s history. Over the next two weeks, two collections will highlight some of these stages through a variety of documents. These two collections are the T.A. Larson papers (Coll. 400029) and the Gladys B. Beery papers (Coll. 12556).
T.A. Larson was a professor of history at UW for many years, publishing many books on the topic of Wyoming history. The collection contains subject files, manuscripts, and notes from his books as well as his materials from teaching Wyoming history.
Gladys Beery was a Laramie, Wyoming, author and historian. Known for her writing on historic homes in Laramie, her collection contains her research files for her books and newspaper column on various points of Laramie History.
The Wyoming Territorial Prison exhibit will run from May 29 to June 11. The American Heritage Center is closed to observe Memorial Day on May 28. The exhibit can be viewed in the 4th floor Reading Room of the AHC. Reading Room hours are 10:00 AM to 7:00 PM on Monday and 8:00 AM to 5:00 PM Tuesday through Friday. Closed Saturday and Sunday.
For more details about Laramie’s 150th anniversary celebration, see https://visitlaramie.org/laramie150. Celebratory events are planned all summer and into the fall.
– Post submitted by Katey Parris, AHC Reference Department.