If you go through Laramie and have time for only one attraction, make it the Wyoming Territorial Prison Historic Site. Stop there even if the thought of touring a prison on your vacation sounds like the item for the bottom of your to-do list. Ruth and I went in thinking we’d stay for only a short time and ended up spending hours because it’s one of those places where you often think you’re done but then find another fascinating aspect of it to explore. For example, I didn’t learn until I got home that behind the prison a Laramie River Nature Trail takes walkers quickly to a scenic overlook of the Laramie River. The prison buildings can be seen from I-80, and the Snowy Range Exit takes you there in seconds.
Now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Wyoming Territorial Prison, one of only 3 territorial jails built during the Wild West days that survives, was built in 1872 and used until 1903. It owes its remarkable condition to the fact that the University of Wyoming used its buildings as experiment stations to improve farming and ranching practices for almost 90 years.
This penitentiary held outlaws for 30 years. Their stories are quite interesting, and the staff is willing to share juicy tales with you if you give them a chance. William Herbert, for example, was a school teacher gone bad. He shot and robbed a man of $480 and received a 10 year sentence. He broke this prison’s rule of silence, didn’t fold his arms in the prison chapel, and fought with a cellmate. His increasingly wild behavior encouraged the Governor to pardon him due to insanity, so Herbert only served 5 years. Another male prisoner ordered a mail order bride from Utah and killed her when he found her working in a brothel. The most famous prisoner to serve time here, for 18 months, was Butch Cassidy. That’s him below looking rather preppie. He was said to be a model prisoner.
Women served time here too. At first they were assigned cells near the men but were eventually given their own quarters. Annie Curley was one of them. She operated what her profile called a “house of entertainment” in Cheyenne but went to prison for a year for not paying her taxes. After early release she returned to work as a Madame but never again failed to pay her taxes on time. One woman volunteer, whom I spoke to in the Processing Room, had read biographies of most of the prisoners and the staff and rather gleefully told me about a warden named Horne who helped some prisoners get go-into-Laramie party clothes on Saturdays. Horne was fired.
Over time this prison held 1,069 prisoners; only 12 of them were female. The men spent their days hoeing potatoes, making bricks, cutting ice (this is, after all, Wyoming), or making brooms. The broom making area is on the self-guided tour, and brooms are sold in the gift shop. The Wyoming Territorial State Historic Site puts up rather elaborate Christmas displays but then closes entirely for a period of time. This is, after all, Wyoming.
ps This attraction has 3 period wagons. My favorite was the one below used to bring potential prisoners to it.