Spending time in jail, or even visiting one, is not usually cause for celebration. But it can be if the jail in question now serves as a first-rate museum. It helps, too, if you have a hankering for Old West history. In the heart of the historic gold mining boomtown of Cripple Creek, Colorado, a two-story brick building on Bennett Avenue served as the Teller County Jail for nearly a century. Today it is open to all good history-minded citizens as the Outlaws and Lawmen Jail Museum.
In October 1890 roaming cowpoke Robert Miller “Bob” Womack discovered abundant placer gold in the low-flowing waters of the stream known as Cripple Creek. Folks didn’t believe him at first, so no rush was forthcoming until a sample assayed in Colorado Springs proved Womack right. The Cripple Creek Mining District sprang up in April 1891, and later that year real estate entrepreneurs Horace Bennett and Julius Myers platted a townsite they called Fremont. In 1892 they platted a larger neighboring site, calling it Cripple Creek, and by early 1893 the townsites had merged. The district was so rich in gold that promoters called it the “Greatest Gold Camp on Earth.”
Growth and greed drew not only miners, investors and merchants but also drifters, thieves and other outlaws. Authorities first housed miscreants in a small, temporary jail. In the wake of an 1896 fire they built a somewhat larger brick hoosegow, but in 1901 that gave way to the Teller County Jail, a state-of-the-art lockup, whose two-story main cellblock comprised 14 cells (each 6.5 feet by 9 feet), 10 on the lower tier, four on the upper. Prisoners slept on hammocks until the jailers installed double bunks at the outbreak of World War II. Each cell, despite housing as many as six inmates, had just a single chamber pot, though a separate room in the jail held both a toilet and a shower. Local papers deemed it “one of the most sanitary facilities” in the mining district.
Housing both male and female inmates, the jail remained in full operation until 1992 and was used as a temporary holding facility until closing its doors in 1996. In 2005 city officials began restoring the vacant building and hired a museum consulting team (this writer was proud to be on it). In a two-year process restoration teams refurbished the hardwood floors and oak staircase and repaired the machinery that opens, closes and locks the cell doors. The jail reopened, this time to curious museum-goers, in early 2007.
Today the museum showcases accounts and artifacts from the jailhouse days. The booking room contains the original 1902 furniture, and the height markers remain visible on the wall where arrestees posed for mug shots. Displays relate various mining camp crimes, from high grading (the practice of hiding gold ore on one’s person to remove it from an owner’s mine and try to sell it on the black market) all the way up to murder. The museum highlights a few of the more notorious outlaws and the lawmen determined to track them down. Artifacts include police logs from the 1890s, mug shots and examples of early city ordinances. Another display chronicles the labor wars, including the Cripple Creek miners’ strike of 1894 that prompted intervention by Colorado state militiamen.
The focal point of the museum is the two-tiered cellblock. The cell doors remain open so visitors can walk right in and imagine life on the inside. Many of the cell walls bear inmates’ graffiti and messages (some dated). One cell is strung up with hammocks, as used by early prisoners. Tour guides demonstrate the mechanical lever that enabled guards to open and close the cell doors simultaneously.
Adjacent to the second tier of the cellblock are the tiny kitchen and bathroom, the latter—with its single toilet and a bathtub—reserved for female inmates. An adjoining exhibit relates stories of the few women incarcerated in the jail. One display centers on Blanche Burton, one of the first prostitutes to ply her trade in Cripple Creek and later a madam of the red-light district. During one of her visits as an inmate Burton proclaimed her innocence and chastised jailers for several days running; she was later convicted of a misdemeanor and fined.
Of course, present-day visitors tend to enjoy their stays within these walls much more than Burton did. There is much for a history buff to take in, and you can walk out whenever you choose. Open year-round, the Outlaws and Lawmen Jail Museum is at 136 W. Bennett Ave. in Cripple Creek. Call 719-689-6556 or visit the museum on Facebook.
Originally published in the April 2015 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.