The prison.

Wyoming Frontier Prison Museum

Field review by the editors.

Rawlins, Wyoming

"This is where there was a lot of screaming," says Kaitlyn, our smiling teenage guide. She's standing with us in the Wyoming Frontier Prison, in a small, concrete-walled room. A cement pole stretches from the floor to the ceiling.

"If the men misbehaved," Kaitlyn continues, "the guards would drag them in here and chain them to this Punishment Pole. Then they'd whip them with rubber hoses and leather straps. And as they screamed, all the men in A Block would hear them, and they'd know what would happen to them if they misbehaved."

Cell block.

Kaitlyn smiles apologetically. "People always tell me I'm too perky when I talk about the Punishment Pole."

Perky is something you wouldn't expect to find in the Wyoming Frontier Prison, which despite its name is a fortress-like 20th century penitentiary. The guides here have pep; we remember a similarly spunky teen from our tour 15 years earlier. The prison itself, however, has only grown more terrifying since then: concrete is crumbling, paint is peeling off ceilings, toilets are covered in crud (but they were that way even when prisoners were here). The contrast between the bleak surroundings and the guileless, youthful guides -- who weren't even born when this prison closed in 1981 -- make this tour unique in the usually ominous universe of abandoned jailhouse attractions.

Kaitlyn the guide.
Tour guide Kaitlyn shows off Solitary.

"We try real hard not to depress people," says Tina Hill, the prison's director, when we ask about the guides. "We have a lot of people who say, 'Oh, this place is horrible; oh, I don't want to go in there, it's too sad.'" Tina sighs. "Some people don't like it here no matter what we do."

Obviously, some people shouldn't tour abandoned penitentiaries. And some should, because it's creepy and educational.

Wyoming Frontier Prison provides all of the right sensory cues. Towering cell blocks. Clanging metal doors. Odors that you'd rather not investigate. It's also the only prison we know of that allows visitors to sit in a real gas chamber (in the same steel seat as five executed prisoners).

Kaitlyn, who's been giving tours here since she was 15, dispenses broad assessments backed with gritty detail. "This was a really bad place to be a lot of the time," she says as we walk along an open sewage trench. "They would put razors into the soap. They would break the light bulbs and put shards of glass in other people's food."

Replica gallows.
A working replica of the water-triggered gallows hangs a little man for each tour.

Despite the bleak narrative, Kaitlyn insists that the history of the prison doesn't bother her. The most difficult part of her job, she says, was learning to talk and walk backwards at the same time. She's also (perhaps unknowingly) adopted the soothing moves of a flight attendant describing crash preparation -- two arms gesturing in sync at symmetrical cell block features, a smile and a smooth pointing flourish towards the next horror...

We wind our way past the solitary confinement cells where prisoners were kept naked for up to six weeks ("I can shut you in there if you want," Kaitlyn offers), through the cafeteria with the pastoral prisoner-painted murals on the walls, and out into weedy, sun-baked industrial yard where the license plate and uniform factories once stood. It's a vast place; 13,500 inmates were kept here during the prison's 80 years of operation.

Kaitlyn walks us over to the prison's unique "humane gallows." A condemned prisoner would essentially hang himself by standing on a trap door that fell open when his body weight forced enough water out of counterbalanced bucket. "He could hear the water draining out the entire time," Kaitlyn explains, setting the scene. "It gave him time to think about what he did."

Gas chamber.
You win what's behind Door Number One!

"Sometimes," she adds, "if the guards didn't like you, they'd make you fill your own bucket."

We ascend a long flight of stairs to the Death House, where the condemned convicts awaited their executions. In one corner stands the gas chamber, essentially a big steel tank with thick windows and an air pump. "You wouldn't BELIEVE all the little kids who like to go and sit in there," Kaitlyn says with a grin. We're similarly eager to take our turn. Kaitlyn obligingly closes the door slowly, with a long shriek of metal and a clanging thud of the locking lever. The stainless steel death chair isn't comfortable, but we suspect it was easy to clean with a hose.

The last stop on the prison tour is a door -- the only surviving relic from the affectionately-named Old Hole. This was a pitch black punishment cell whose tiny outline remains marked onto the concrete floor of C Block. "In solitary confinement you got a blanket, but here you were just naked with a bucket," Kaitlyn says. "If you were good they'd let you empty it four or five times a week. If you were bad you only got two or three."

The Oregon Boot.

Kaitlyn explains why the Old Hole was retired. "One prisoner that the guards didn't like, they changed his feeding schedule," she says. "Instead of three times a day, they fed him seven or eight, so he thought the days were going by faster. So when he thought his six weeks were up, he kept waiting and waiting and waiting for the warden to come let him out. But when he never did, he went completely insane."

Wyoming Frontier Prison has a small museum next to its gift shop, which acts as a useful air lock between the tour and the outside world. Highlights include a doll-sized working model of the humane gallows, a mounted display of rope samples from every successful hanging, and the hypno-wheel used by the prison psychiatrist.

Wyoming Frontier Prison Museum

Address:
500 W. Walnut St., Rawlins, WY
Directions:
I-80 exit 211. Turn east onto Spruce St and drive 1.5 miles. Turn left onto 5th St., two blocks to Walnut St. The Prison will be straight ahead.
Hours:
Daily summer 8-5, hrs vary off season. (Call to verify)
Phone:
307-324-4422
RA Rates:
Major Fun
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September 23, 2014

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