Saturday, February 16, 2013
Montana Territorial Prison Museum
The Montana Territorial Museum, located in Deer Lodge, accepted its first prisoners in 1871, and closed its doors in 1979 when a new prison was built just four miles away. The Powell County Museum and Arts Foundation leased the building in 1980 and turned it into a museum. One end of the museum was turned into another museum, one housing an outstanding collection of old vehicles.
Montana was a lawless country in the 1860s, so the U.S. Congress appropriated money to build a prison in the Montana Territory at the request of the territorial legislature. The federal government funded the prison until Montana became a state in 1889. The new state could not afford to operate the prison, and so contracted it out to private operators, according to the website, Legends of America. Deer Lodge residents Thomas McTague and Frank Conley were awarded the contract, receiving 70 cents per day per prisoner. The prison began accepting women in 1907.
Montana prison warden made convicts earn their keep
Conley, who served as warden until 1921, put the convicts to work at such things as constructing additions to the prison to hold its burgeoning population and establishing a farm to grow food for the inmates. Convicts replaced a wood fence surrounding the prison with a 4-½-foot thick fence made with stones they made themselves. They also built the 1912 cell house, the maximum security building and the prison theater. Later prisoners helped construct state government buildings around Montana and paved 500 miles of state roads.
The prison looks pretty much as it did when the last convicts moved out. The Powell County Museum and Arts Foundation did only minimal restoration before opening it as a museum. As visitors walk through the museum grounds, they will find paint peeling from the ceilings, uneven walkways and dark hallways.
Walking tour covers entire complex
The walking tour includes the dental and medical clinic, housed in the same room, and seeming very primitive compared to today’s clinic. They’ll visit the cell blocks and can see the cell occupied by Pete Eitner who spend 49 years in the prison, and whose cell was “retired” upon his death. He earned the nickname of Turkey Pete because he cared for the prison’s flock until he sold them to a man for 25-cents each! As he slipped away from reality, he imagined he was running the prison and “issued” checks to pay for prison expenses, including the salaries of his guards. His funeral was the only one ever held inside the prison walls.
The museum offers guided tours of the facility during the summer months as well as provides a booklet for those doing self-guided tours. It takes about an hour to tour the complete facility.
The prison is located at 1106 Main Street in Deer Lodge, a small town on Interstate 90 between Missoula and Butte in western Montana. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., with the last admission at 3:10 p.m., from March to December.